Gregor Schneider

Read our feature on the German artist whose ‘unheimlich’ interventions in the domestic environment have seen him take the rubble of Goebbels’s birthplace to Poland, hide a synagogue in the suburbs and tunnel into the hidden spaces of a museum, from the April 2015 issue

By Ory Dessau

Haus u r, Rheydt, Germany, 2014. Courtesy the artist / VG-Bild Kunst, Bonn Rheydt, 2014  (installation view, unsubscribe, 2014,  Zacheta – National Gallery of Art, Warsaw). Courtesy the artist / VG-Bild Kunst, Bonn Weisse Folter (installation view, Kunstsammlung  Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, 2007), 2005–2007, 1225 × 200 × 230 cm. Courtesy the artist / VG-Bild Kunst, Bonn

In the beginning there was Haus u r – an abandoned residential house in Gregor Schneider’s hometown of Rheydt, which he occupied from 1985 until 2001, all the while continuously reconstructing its inner structure as a discontinuous, unregulated typology of rooms built inside the house’s preexisting rooms (with windows in front of windows, walls in front of walls, floors on top of floors, etc). Repeating the architectural elements and materials that were already there, Haus u r was realised as an indistinguishable duplicate of the original, one that assimilated it. Under these circumstances, each room was doubly defined as both an overdelineated, isolating container and an external boundary indicating the inaccessible and unseen spaces and objects beyond it – in the remaining gaps between the primary rooms and those they were penetrated by – without exposing them.

As an ongoing process lasting for more than a decade, Haus u r rejected architecture’s pretension to offer permanence and distinction in favour of a fundamental indeterminacy. Rooms such as the Kaffeezimmer (Coffee Room, 1993), Total Isoliertes Gästezimmer (Completely Insulated Guestroom, 1995), Liebeslaube (Love Nest, 1995) or Keller (Cellar) were repeatedly implemented within configurations of conscious/unconscious, seen/unseen and higher/lower. Their structural net of concealed gaps, holes, recesses and abysses, through which a person could have disappeared; the effects of sensory deprivation, disorientation and seclusion they produce; the walls behind which figures and personal photographs of ancestors were hidden; the covert rotation mechanism under the floor of the Kaffeezimmer by means of which it unnoticeably revolved around itself; and the all-over dissemination of blind windows and false doors guaranteed the house’s ambiguity as an unfixed intersection of a petit-bourgeois dwelling, hostel, squat, Duchampian bachelor machine, haunted house, spatialised subjectivity, family genealogy, memorial site, tomb, trap, dungeon, sadistic institute, behaviourist experiment and phantasmatic scenario. The fundamental inner split of Haus u r, whereby each room is also the room into which it was inserted, and the space – the difference – between them; whereby self-affirmation is self-negation, and vice versa; whereby presence is absence, and absence is presence, and so forth – this inner split situates the event of Haus u r, the outcome of its ontological inconsistency, beyond perceptibility, where opposites are indistinct.

At the 2001 Venice Biennale, after 16 years of psychophysical investment, Schneider further repeated the underlying repetition of Haus u r when he dismantled its rooms and reconstructed them in the German Pavilion in the Giardini, under the title Totes Haus u r (Dead House u r) (which won Germany the Golden Lion for best national participation). With that came the shift from the living realm of the private to the dead realm of the public: that which up until then had been visited only by a few guests under Schneider’s guidance and commentary became a massive attraction for the many; that which up until then was discrete, introverted, contingent and organic became exemplary, propositional, calibrated and purged. The title Totes Haus u r addressed the implications of objectifying Haus u r, objectifying 16 years of a total way of being, as that of killing and revivifying, of lethality and redemption. After Venice, Totes Haus u r began travelling the world by ways of physical dislocation or technological reproduction (uprooted in its entirety, in single rooms and segments, or in photographs), and its body became distributed and dispersed in an extensive event of self-displacement and amputation.

Gregor Schneider Rheydt, from April 2015 Feature

Rheydt, 2014 (installation view, unsubscribe, 2014, Zacheta – National Gallery of Art, Warsaw). Courtesy the artist / VG-Bild Kunst, Bonn

In 2014, Haus u r symbolically returned to Rheydt and reappeared in the guise of the birthplace and childhood home of Joseph Goebbels – the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany – which stands a short distance away. Deciding to present Goebbels’s house as the clone of his own house, Schneider had acquired the property (along with its contents at the time of purchase) a while before from the family that was then living there. Immediately thereafter, in order to incorporate the house he had just bought into his own universe, he started to destroy it, dismantling and completely removing its inner structure and all architectural elements, up to the point where it became an empty cube. In November 2014 the ruins of Goebbels’s house were stacked in a truck that drove all the way from Rheydt to Warsaw, where it was parked in front of Zachęta – National Gallery of Art during the opening days of Schneider’s unsubscribe exhibition. Inside Zachęta, Schneider scattered unexceptional items and materials from the house – among other things, a pile of wooden studs and plates, sand and dolls on top of an empty newspaper basket, books, shelves, a full jar of jam and a USB stick – staging an arena of unrevealing evidence that emphasised its inability to testify about the historical rupture with which it was provided. In an adjacent dark space Schneider displayed four projections, depicting him drinking soup and sleeping in a bed inside the Goebbels house, the Goebbels house when empty and the process of its dismantling. Comparable to his Amateur Videos (1998–2001), in which he shot himself going through the concealed spaces – the escape routes – of Haus u r, this video footage validated the connection between the two houses; it grounded their interchangeability

Goebbels’s house is the follower of Haus u r – it repeats it – and its precedence is repeated by it. They turn each other into a sort of a Nazi monument, a property of historical incommensurability. In this context, the inherent imperceptibility of Haus u r becomes a form of negative representation, referring to that which transgresses verbal and visual signification in terms of what it is not.

Earlier last year Schneider expanded his self-initiated connection to the history of Nazi Germany when he launched Hauptstrasse 85a (85a Main St) in Synagogue Stommeln in Pulheim, a small town outside Cologne. Synagogue Stommeln is one of the very few synagogues that was not destroyed by the Nazis. The German farmer who bought it from the local Jewish community in 1937 convinced the Nazi authorities it was no longer a Jewish place, and there was no reason to burn it down. During the 1980s the synagogue was restored, and since 1991 it has functioned as an alternative art space whose programme includes unique projects by artists such as Maria Nordman, Rosemarie Trockel and Daniel Buren, among many others.

Schneider’s project in Stommeln pursues the history of the place, yet avoids memorialisation. His gesture there can be described as sealing the synagogue building and concealing it under the complete, new covering of a spotless, untouched suburban family house. As curator Ulrich Loock writes in the press text, Schneider’s Stommeln project ‘not only consists in making the synagogue disappear, but at the same time in blending in with its surroundings to such an extent that it is not conspicuous or recognizable as an artwork. Along with the synagogue, the artwork itself is thus also being made to vanish.’ Schneider evokes the Jewish past of the place by erasing it once more. After its erasure during the Second World War, and after its erasure was made untraceable after the war, Schneider erases the erasure of the erasure.

Gregor Schneider Weisse Folter, from April 2015 Feature

Weisse Folter (installation view, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, 2007), 2005–2007, 1225 × 200 × 230 cm. Courtesy the artist / VG-Bild Kunst, Bonn

Schneider’s family house in Stommeln is like a 1:1 model of a house: new, untouched and lifeless. Unlike Haus u r and Totes Haus u r, which denoted human presence through traces of disappearance, Hauptstraße 85a articulated human absence by the lack of any signs of former life. In this sense it recalled Schneider’s Weisse Folter (White Torture) (2007), the dehumanised total installation he produced during the eccentric worldwide odyssey of Totes Haus u r. As with other works by Schneider, Weisse Folter is a duplicate without origin, whose origin is inaccessible. It was based on images of Detention Camp 5 in Guantánamo Bay naval base, and was organised as a mazelike sequence of shiny grey soundproofed hallways, lined with deep-red doors and small spotless white cells with a built-in bed, a one-piece stainless steel cast of sink/toilet and an opaque vertical window slit; after escaping these sequences of hallways and cells, one was caught in an unregulated movement of sharp transitions between different climaxes and sensorial stimulations – a constellation of a metal room filled with hot air, a dark room filled with cold air and a triangular white room, which suggested (as the title declared) practices of stealth interrogation and clean torture designed to break the subject’s protective shields while leaving no visible marks. Experienced as a breached facility in which the visitor is an unauthorised intruder and a violable bodily sovereignty, Weisse Folter was a blind authoritarian architecture of a public institution, where isolated personae were suspended from their place in society and from everyday concepts of time and place.

Political theorist Suzy K. Freake considers Weisse Folter an embodiment of the concept of ‘statelessness’, which Hannah Arendt first outlined in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. The term ‘stateless’ describes the various groups of uprooted persons who had lost the protection and representation of their nation-state within interstitial spaces of legality. Weisse Folter, Freake claims, takes statelessness from the field of subjugation and weakness to the field of resistance. By recreating Guantánamo Bay halls, rendering them available to public experience, and consequentially ‘foregrounding the stateless persons residing there’, it seemingly undermines the power of the nation-state seeking to reproduce the obscurity of the camp; and by emulating the state’s practices of ‘clean’ torture, it deconstructs the law’s monopoly on violence.

If Weisse Folter turned its visitors into dehumanised detainees who experienced its spaces while keeping their surfaces pristine, who suffered simulated clean torture with no traces, and were denied representation due to isolation, then Kunstmuseum, the installation Schneider launched in August 2014 in Kunstmuseum Bochum, performed progress from anonymity, detainment and permeability towards integrity and personhood. Kunstmuseum was a dark walkthrough metal pipe tunnel, accessible via only one entrance from outside the museum building and, like all of Schneider’s major installations, by only one visitor at a time. As one walked through the dark tunnel, one’s ability to act freely was neutralised, one’s sense of sovereign bodily separateness was lost. It enforced a regression to precoordination, until it discharged the visitor into an illuminated industrial space with two metal doors. While gradually regaining their self-identity, the discharged visitor was able to open the unlocked door, behind which a corridor led to an abandoned room, titled Archiv (Archive), consisting of ring binders on shelves, a desk with a computer, a locker, a ventilator and a kitchenette. Inside Archiv, the visitor, who was up until now an animal, infant or slave, slowly conceived the function of the archive, of stored knowledge and descriptive language, as if for the first time. Next was a white hallway with two white doors, behind one of which was another abandoned setting of a room, titled Büro (office), where the visitor, still under the oppressive impact of the tunnel, confronted the role of the missing manager as a preliminary manifestation of division of labour, relations of production and social alienation. Then was another white hallway, this time with three doors, behind one of which awaited catharsis as the visitor left the installation and returned to the world – the oppressive setting of history.

This article was first published in the April 2015 issue.