The Book of Gregor Schneider: Will It Be His Most Lasting Artwork?
By Krystina Mierins and Carrie Paterson, edited by Christopher Michno
The historically working class East End of London, now seeded with pockets of gentrification, has for about a century and a half experienced successive waves of immigrants taking their place among the working poor. These gritty neighborhoods packed tightly with row houses and afflicted with suffocating social conditions, formed the backdrop for Gregor Schneider’s 2004 installation, Die Familie Schneider. The autumn of 2014 marked the ten-year anniversary of his semi-autobiographical work, which still resonates in a haunting, eponymous book. This essay traces the meaning and ramifications for Schneider’s art installation practice through a retrospective look at his works, which encompass both the situated “original” (“ur”) project and its portable, textual double, itself an exercise in twinning.
Prior to Die Familie Schneider, Gregor Schneider garnered international acclaim for Totes Haus ur [Dead House ur], a traveling work recreating his childhood home with mysterious, puzzle-like elements and sealed rooms. Totes Haus ur is based on the artist’s permanent and ongoing piece, Haus ur, which he has been working on in his hometown of Rheydt, Germany since 1985. In 2001, invited by curator Udo Kittelman to participate in the Venice Biennale, Schneider’s installation of Totes Haus ur in the German Pavilion received the Golden Lion award.
Kittelman writes of Totes Haus ur that with the work, “Gregor Schneider has created a primarily self-reflexive living space for himself, whereby its shape is being constantly influenced by internal and external circumstances” (16). The work can be read as both symbolic of the psychological process of creating the self, and, as a constantly revised draft of Schneider’s own history, also functions as a “psychogram” that maps his cognitive and social function in relation to space. The work becomes interesting when the viewer enters; as the artist stated prior to his Venice exhibition, as reported by Kittelman, “Even the smallest grooves in the layer of plaster can spur emotions in a visitor, whereby the impact is perceived as being separate from the cause. It can happen, therefore, that a visitor says, I’m not feeling well today, although that feeling has been brought on by the room, something he cannot know. I observe this, but I never go at it directly” (24).
In Die Familie Schneider the artist is again working with architectural space, family structures and implicating what is foreboding in our sense of abode; for his installation in London’s East End, he transformed two 19th-century row houses at 14 and 16 Walden Street into intricate puzzles of family dysfunction, spatial dead ends. The setting is important: the dwellings in the neighborhood had long been home to workers who contributed to the daily influx of people and goods into London. The installation site underscores the sense of physical and emotional accumulation. In the 1960s and ’70s, preparing for a clean slate, the local government condemned many of the area’s buildings as slums and knocked them down. But the row houses at 14 and 16 Walden Street still stood—one might call them “survivors” of that bygone era—presenting a threat to the neighborhood in what they could still recall of the broken dreams of safety and security, a better life, inherent in the idea of “home.”
Even more unsettling, the site is weighted with infamous brutality. Reviewer Camelia Gupta points out, “The Whitechapel location makes associations with Jack the Ripper impossible to resist. There’s an inescapable feeling that I’ve just missed some horrific event, or that violence has been perpetrated here.” Whitechapel was also historically a Jewish immigrant area. Gupta filters this into her other associations of the piece, which leaves “a normal face to the world in a metaphor disturbingly easy to connect to narratives of child abuse, serial murder and genocide.” She continues, “Unwelcome names come to mind: Fred and Rosemary West, Anne Frank, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady.”
Ralph Rugoff, writing in The Financial Times about one of Schneider’s earliest manifestations of his Totes Haus ur house project in Rheydt—a discomfiting walk-through video, contemporaneous to The Blair Witch Project (1999)—similarly finds creepy associations to that location.
- Nacht-Video calls to mind footage from a police search, and raises the spectre of a world where even the most private areas of our lives are increasingly vulnerable to video surveillance. But Schneider’s overall project also plays into ongoing discussions over the significance of architecture in a reunited Germany, where massive rebuilding projects have stirred contentious debate over the connection between national identity and building design. With its Chinese box-like layering of rooms within rooms, ur-Haus seemingly invokes an architectural cover-up, an attempt to conceal the past under a veneer of normality. And in as much as houses are a traditional symbol of the psyche, it strongly hints that a history of deception and concealment still haunts German identity.
If this first impression of Haus ur was created or heightened by the medium of video, it seems doubly important to consider the necessity of documentation on the effects and concept of Schneider’s project. In the documentation, Schneider has the ability to expand his architectural conceits to include the response of the witness, indeed to create testimony. What is the quality of this witnessing, and how loaded is it with Schneider’s own disturbing psychology? This is the artist who admits he has fantasized about locking his audience inside one of his spaces. Would those viewers, as the observed rather than observer, create for themselves associations between Schneider’s seeming reluctance to name his subject and Schneider himself as a split personality? Is he an artist or a sadist? What is he obscuring behind his facades? Is he a critical thinker with an evil twin?
In Warped Space, Anthony Vidler discusses “the landscapes of fear and the topographies of despair created as a result of modern technological and capitalist development (2)” as related to the changing conceptions of spatial awareness resulting from the advent of photography and now video. These media implicate a twenty-first century distortion of architecture and its social meaning. Schneider’s use of photography to memorialize his projects reinforces the distortion of social mores, not only in domestic architectural spaces but also within the social and political structures reflected in those spaces. How Schneider’s strategy is a reflection of late capitalism and Europe’s great economic engine—the unified Germany—is more complex.
An antecedent to Schneider’s commission, Rachel Whiteread’s House (also supported by the Artangel Foundation), is instructive. For this 1993 project, Whiteread appropriated a slated-for-demolition, crumbling and unwanted row house located on a East End site in London at 193 Grove Road. In contrast to Schneider’s row houses and earlier Totes Haus ur, one experienced the interior of Whiteread’s project as bared exterior. To make House, Whiteread cast the interior spaces of the Victorian in liquid concrete.
The mold, in this case, the dwelling itself, was then stripped away. The cast rooms resembled a series of stacked blocks, but close examination revealed architectural details, such as doorknobs, light switches, and window frames incised into the monotone monolith that became a monument to former inhabitants; one could touch the absence of a light switch, fingers meeting the ghosts of the past. Contentiously located in an area of the city that had been altered in what would become an epidemic of gentrification, the work had a brief ten-week lifespan. As if to underscore the temporal nature of the work, today there is no indication at the site that House ever existed. The photo documentation that remains is absent of the haptic effects the project conveyed.
Perhaps learning from what became ephemeral of Whiteread’s 1993 House, in addition to presenting Schneider’s project (similarly, for a ten week run), the Artangel Foundation published a hardback book for Schneider’s Die Familie Schneider in 2006. The book documents the interiors of each house and features essays by Andrew O’Hagan and Colm Tóibín. The publication of Die Familie Schneider offers readers access to Schneider’s project in a way that is fundamentally different than the corporeal experience of entering the sculptural installation environment with its performative elements. Not only Gupta, but several reviewers at the time pinpointed the sinister aspects of Die Familie Schneider—scenarios that insinuated the possibility of violence or the specter of neglect, abuse or imprisonment, or suggested morbid secrets lurking behind the edifice of normal family life. According to viewers, including the book’s essayists O’Hagan and Tóibín, Schneider’s highly orchestrated experience was destabilizing and induced anxiety. Schneider’s book also conjures subjective feelings of dread, repression and disquiet, although via structural and literary means.
The book cover of Die Familie Schneider features a closely cropped image of the door to 14 Walden Street as if the reader stands at the threshold. The frontispiece is immediately followed by a series of photographs—one per page—the first of which shows a view of the two houses, while the rest on facing pages offer comparative views of each space within the houses. As if to suggest a linear but reflexive narrative, the back cover of the book features the door to 16 Walden Street.
Visitors to the installation of Schneider’s work experienced the houses in a highly prescriptive manner. Two people with scheduled appointments were given keys for the innocuous looking row houses and were instructed to spend approximately eight minutes in each house before emerging to exchange keys to see the second dwelling. Neither was allowed to return to the first house. Gupta wrote,
- You must book in advance; only on arrival at the Artangel office are you told the address. You are handed keys to the houses, given directions and sent on your way. I feel oddly abandoned by this. I let myself in, wondering who I am to be letting myself into someone else’s house. Shutting the door, I’m thus already a little nervous. The narrow corridors are claustrophobic. I hesitate in the doorway but my awareness that I only have 20 minutes to see both houses (one of several conditions of viewing) forces me on.
These instructions offer the first clue as to the extent to which Schneider’s work is informed by psychoanalysis, where a patient, under guidance, can reflect upon memories of childhood and traumas—sometimes simultaneously—to resolve inner conflicts. The restrictive timeframe of a psychoanalytic appointment imbues the session with both the safety of a promised escape from the memories and, on the other hand, an anxiety to “pull out” in time before the session ends.
The majority of the book’s photographs are in black and white, suggesting “memory” in this historical, documentary approach. Each pair of photographs, framed from a similar vantage point with slight variations, produces an approximate and uncanny bilateral symmetry that unfolds before the viewer on each successive pair of pages. The dual function of these images is to compose a narrative laden with social meaning while simultaneously presenting a perceptual aporia, where the viewer must try to intuit the impossible and find the miniscule differences between the houses. Thus, the book mimics the parameters the artist established for experiencing the installation firsthand. Curiously, an emphasis is effected for several of the scenes in the house by publishing select pages in color. This device is one of the keys to understanding Schneider’s total project, which transforms from being a temporary installation into one, as a book, that is suggests more permanency.
When readers “enter” the kitchen, they encounter the book’s first color images, which depict a woman washing dishes that are already impeccably clean. Experiencing the installation/s, visitors encountered women (different in each house, but similar in appearance—in fact, identical twins) who ignored their visitors and obsessively immersed themselves in this never-ending task, emphasizing a life of banality. Gupta writes, “I wondered … whether I was ‘allowed’ to interact with the inhabitants of the houses but felt too oppressed. In an embarrassingly quavery and hesitant voice, I hail the woman in the kitchen. She ignores me. I’m not sure whether I want her to respond, as that would indicate that I belong in this world.”
In the book, black and white photographs following the color images of this scene show (both of) her pausing to look directly at the camera. The two look-alikes gazing back as if sitting for their portraits misdirect us, giving the illusive impression that interaction was possible. The color images, however, reveal that the “subjects” are actually the light coming through the windows in front of the sinks where each woman stands. Like two eyes, the luminous windows on facing pages punch out of the book in a confrontational stare, bestowing an aliveness to both the book and the houses that further zombifies the dead-eyed sitters. The color photographs reveal how Schneider creates “seeing walls,” which typify the architectonic psychology of his work. He has confessed, in an interview with Ulrich Loock, that he is similarly affected that he is similarly affected by his homes’ anthropomorphized qualities and sometimes feels the windows in his houses are looking at him (cited in Loers 84).
One could argue that visitors to this installation, as with Schneider’s earlier Totes Haus ur video surveillance, are subject to a Foucauldian observation system. Although the actors appeared to be the object of the audience’s gaze, performing for the viewer within the framework of Schneider’s art, Schneider designed the entire experience to focus on the actions of the visitors. Suddenly reduced to a childlike role of observer required to behave, the surveilled audience may now be understood within the Freudian concept of scopophilia and regression. In the case of Die Familie Schneider, the parental figure of authority is the architecture, an expression of Foucault’s panopticon, which operates without the need for human actors in its reorganizing of society through power structures. It is no wonder that since 2007, inspired by Guantánamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray, Schneider’s architectural interests have turned to creating prison camp atmospheres like he did on Sydney’s Bondi Beach (21 Beach Cells) and Accadia Beach north of Tel Aviv, as he is quoted in the Sydney catalog, to “destroy a person’s psyche without leaving any demonstrable traces” (4).
Leaving the artist’s intention aside for the moment, we might ask, How does the book form of Die Familie Schneider function in relation to Foucault’s panopticon? The key to answering this question is made clear on the book’s cover, in the title of Schneider’s haunting “family album.” The house numbers are less postal addresses than they are direct address of his future prisoners—they are numbers on a cell. As Ory Dessau writes of 21 Beach Cells, “Oppressive practices take place not only in the prisons, but also in the heart of urban life, in the heart of the urban camp, where they are much more difficult to detect” (113). Schneider’s biography, which he never explicitly reveals, nonetheless gives context and a timeline in this journey back to the time and psychological structures of childhood.
Schneider worked as an assistant grave digger in his youth (Moriente 167) before his father died when the artist was sixteen. Bracketing the experience of the book and installation is the front cover of the book with “14” Walden Street, and the back cover, with the number “16.” How did Schneider’s father die? Could it be that Schneider’s own traumas from that time, or at least his ideas about working closely with death, are coded in the installation and the book? It is impossible to know directly without talking to the artist himself, who may or may not be a truthful or a reliable witness. It is a given that the adolescent years are difficult for any person, but perhaps something more specific in Schneider’s case is part of that period.
O’Hagan and Tóibín’s essays, positioned at the end of the Die Familie Schneider book, both open with memories of a particular childhood home. Were all audiences brought back to their youth? One wonders. Tóibín’s essay compares his memories of two working class row houses that belonged to his family members. His words memorialize the homes and the palimpsest of generations whose lives they contained. Indeed, this type of literary interpretation, of the houses as texts and family histories, reinforces Foucauldian aspects; the continuous existence of the house does not necessarily reflect a logical continuity of occupants, but rather that the syntactical rules of the architecture remain a self-referential discourse. On the occasion of Schneider’s 2011 Punto Muerto [Dead End] installation in Madrid, David Moriente referred to his work as an “exceptional archaeological arrangement that requires visitors to constantly revise their perceptual approaches” (168). This layering of space shifts the emphasis of the projects away from a history-logical approach and instead parallels Schneider’s structures with the viewers’ observations and the works’ performative aspects. Schneider’s works engage participants in acts of active reading that also implicate their own psycho-logics.
A portion of these logics, of course, are subconscious. In O’Hagan’s essay, he describes a feared tenement he believed was haunted and connects this recollection to his own timorous experience moving through the dwellings on Walden Street. His description evokes the sounds and smells he encountered in Die Familie Schneider, offering the reader a vicarious sense of each house as well as a testament to the immediacy of O’Hagan’s memories while he was in the homes. Upon entering number 14, “One felt that the world had suddenly been sucked into a void at one’s back with the closing of the door” (156). Continuing Schneider’s long-term interest in cocooning and insulating himself (Wescott 183), as in Totes Haus ur, Schneider had constructed fake walls for Die Familie Schneider, which created the sense that spaces were smaller than they should be (Isn’t this the adult’s experience when returning to a childhood home?), and blocked windows at several points in the homes to disconnect the visitor from the exterior.
The only exposed windows, according to the book’s documentation, seem to have been in the kitchen. After leaving the mundane scene there, passing through the sitting room with lace doilies and shopping items that needed to be put away, the viewer and reader continue upstairs to the more claustrophobic windowless rooms. The book’s sequence of images queues the private realm of the bathroom to be encountered next. A color photograph of this space reveals a man who appears to be masturbating in the shower with his back to the door. For visitors, the discomfort of the house was intensified by the awkward experience of witnessing a private act. Thus far in the installation, the spaces had been familiar and almost normal in their layout and accoutrements, but in the bathroom, the exercise of bodily functions made the space both banal and potentially violating. As unintended voyeurs, visitors unwittingly took part in this performance. As O’Hagan and Tóibín noted in their essays, there was a return to childhood for the viewer in these moments, but the childlike desire to look was mediated by adult experience and knowledge that looking too long could be perceived as perverse enjoyment.
The book provides readers a welcome distance from this uncomfortable scene. We are able to take time examining the images, becoming analytical in our curiosity. And it is again here that, emphasized by the hyper-real, emulated reality of the color photographs, we are pulled out of the phenomenological and become readers of a text.
To continue David Moriente’s archeology metaphor introduced as the viewer’s experience of Schneider’s Punto Muerto, the reader flips the pages of Die Familie Schneider, excavating further down through the layers of paper, to uncover a bedroom with white walls, a white wardrobe, white bedding, and a thick white carpet. Disturbingly, a body is propped up in the corner with legs outstretched and, over the head, a black garbage bag. The size of the figure indicates it is likely a child. As if to emphasize the length of the visitor’s investigation of the scene, there are three double-page color spreads, which capture the body reflected in the mirror—a doubling of the already doubled houses that is reiterated on subsequent pages like a stutter. As readers, we are caught in the tautology of the mirrored surfaces in photographs, a mise en abîme, in contrast to the viewer, who would have been caught in a different loop. Logically following the connection between viewer and child, this figure with a shrouded face would become a cipher, an existential and threatening conundrum, the anonymous body a blank surface upon which the identity of the viewer could have been projected.
Suddenly, the possibility of death would no longer have been limited to the figure in the corner and would be a specter in the room with the viewer as well. As readers, we are caught between our own projections and the multiplicity of interpretations offered by a text that opens and closes on us like a trap. We resolve to turn the page and keep going; there is only madness here.
Next, a foray up to the attic, which follows the images of the bedroom, is loaded with symbols of a domestic space imbued with terror. From horror and suspense movies to Jane Eyre, the garret represents another ‘dead end’. Gupta writes of “sexual graffiti” visible only through the keyhole. Is the graffiti repulsive, or merely childish? Gupta seems to settle on the former, as she reports feeling suddenly threatened. But a baby gate in front of the door provokes more questions: Is this blockade there to obstruct visitors, or is an unfortunate child enclosed on the other side of the door? The questions are impossible to answer; the door is locked. In Schneider’s book, a close-up of the attic door is followed by a vertiginous view back down the helical tight staircase.
The photographs in the book next usher the reader quickly down multiple flights of stairs into the basement, the subterranean area where the most horrific secrets are hidden. Here, readers encounter a small room with floral wallpaper, and then a doorway to a bleak room with twine twisted and hanging on the wall and an overturned chair. Is it the site of a suicide or perhaps a hanging? Outside this dark, insulated space is a stack of paper towels and cupcakes, like one would find at a child’s birthday party. This improbable juxtaposition raises still more questions. The gaiety, which marks the celebration of a birth, is overshadowed by the distinct feeling the room could function as a torture chamber.
The following pages lead to a seeming secret passage. Behind a bookshelf that has been pulled away from the wall, a low ceilinged hallway brings both visitors and viewers alike to the only area of the houses that were markedly different. In 14 Walden Street, the end of the passageway was blocked off by a storeroom door, which was chained and padlocked in place. In 16 Walden Street, the storeroom was open, and a tiny chamber at the end of the corridor contained a stained crib mattress. Most disturbing, but unavailable to the reader, was the sound of a crying baby; innocence suffocated by the depths of the monstrous house. The next image on the facing page is missing, represented only by a snuffed out frame of black.
The final three pairs of images in the book reveal damage to walls and floorboards, each pair of which are slightly different from each other but with similar shapes, and so the reader is presented with a final double image, like a Rorschach test, that simultaneously decodes personal experience and observations and writes these as memories into the subconscious. What is that shape on the wall? A horse head? Australia?
The images become mnemonics for knowledge that ultimately resides outside the houses and the text. In book form, the reader has a certain luxury to consider the mechanics of memory. The relative uncertainty of the visitor to the installation, however, might cause them to question whether the shape from the first house is the same as the second, or whether a current memory is being projected onto the past.
Artworks that appropriate and destabilize domestic architecture resonate with viewers due to the ubiquitous nature of familiar building types. Distorted doublings reveal that which has been hidden, and these disturbances to the expected order provoke a re-consideration of house, home, and the domestic realm. Another example can be found in the work of artist Kevin Yates, who witnessed the devastation in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and from that experience created a series of miniature architectural sculptures. These models of homes were doubled one on top of the other, implying the reflection of floodwaters. Following Katrina, the receding water confirmed the systemic racism that resulted in a manmade disaster more harmful than the hurricane itself. Yates’ sculptures capture that moment of crisis as it was embodied in the drowned dreams and homes of former occupants.
Yates’ houses bring an element to the discussion of Die Familie Schneider that reiterates the crisis and controversy of Whiteread’s House, which was strongly opposed by people living in the neighborhood as well as subject to what Anthony Vidler characterizes as “virulent attacks” by the London County Council (Warped Space 144).
As symbols of repressed social crisis, both Yates’ and Whiteread’s sculptures discussed here underline that while houses have a temporary existence, the socio-psychological structures they represent are archetypal. In Schneider’s more personal work, where are the political elements?
O’Hagan suggests that people like to anthropomorphize houses. This usually entails assigning welcoming characteristics to them. But the reverse of O’Hagan’s statement is also true—that the structure of the mind is similar to that of a home. Schneider’s 14 and 16 Walden Street in their uncanny similarities use conscious and subconscious elements to bring this reading of the architectural doppelgänger to the fore. In Freud’s formulation, “the uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something familiar and old-established in the mind”—one could suggest, foundational—“and which has become alienated from [the mind] only through the process of repression” (241). Schneider, more than the other artists discussed in this essay, has designed an experience that provokes a regression in the viewer to a more vulnerable state by exploiting and dramatizing our collective, subconscious fear of fissures in the present and familiar, which open onto our nightmares.
Since visitors to Die Familie Schneider were not permitted to return to the first house, comparisons relied on memory and encouraged projection. Beyond the bizarre déjà vu, this repetition of haunting elements amplified a kind of domestic misery that remains insulated from the outside. As reiterated by architectural historian Anthony Vidler, the Freudian uncanny is “linked to the death drive, the fear of castration, to the impossible desire to return to the womb[,] … a dominant constituent of modern nostalgia, with a corresponding spatiality that touches all aspects of social life” (x). This includes the spatiality inherited from the late nineteenth-century modernist vision, the rise of consumer culture, the great wars. To be a visitor in Die Familie Schneider is to be the second or third generation inheritor of those histories. The anxieties underlying the failure of utopian modernist pretentions—with spaces that would be transparent, open, rational, class-neutral—are articulated here.
Die Familie Schneider in book form does not function as an innocuous document, but rather a troubling experience in its own right. It is impossible to recreate the immersion in the house, but a shadow of the experience is retained in the doubled photographic record. This is true for photographic documentation of past projects as in his 2014 exhibition “German Angst” at Dominik Mersch Gallery in Sydney. At this point in his career, is Schneider bolder about having an open discussion about the themes in his work? A reviewer of the show, Kate Britton, was struck by the photographs of Schneider’s creepy basements with one bare bulb and an unexplainable hole dug in the middle of the floor; she learned from the gallerist that “basements like this [are] all over Germany, locked up and untouched since the ‘40s, ignored but not forgotten by people going about their lives in the houses above, much like Germany’s own history.”In Schneider’s work, audiences contend with themes of national psychology as reflected by either the physical intimations or the unconscious cues of an accepted architecturally-coded language and the artist’s rupture and reiteration of this system. We should no longer focus just on Schneider’s personal angst, nor that of his viewers’, especially in what may be his most portable and lasting work, Die Familie Schneider.
When read in retrospect by a visitor to Schneider’s project, the published iteration of Die Familie Schneider offers a potential dialog not just between art, architecture and memory, but rather about the first untruths of modern life, having to do with spatial and perceptual manipulation through various media—mirrors, photographs, surveillance video. These fluid perceptual signifiers can hide or downplay the class structures that nevertheless exist and operate in the subconscious of society, and they can also create such structures of suppression.
A situationist detour or an experience like Schneider’s immersive architectural theater takes us down a different path, to the other side of modernism’s one-way mirror. We become the wraiths in his installations, haunting them with the ghosts of our own fears. And there we confront: the lies we tell ourselves to keep living after a trauma of unspeakable proportions and the undoing of nations; the simmering surface of neighborhoods of the working poor; and the human endeavor, shockingly capable of rebuilding over the bodies of our dead.
Die Familie Schneider is an offering of one family’s story for all of ours, a kind of sealed confessional, and yet the book, almost in a more extreme fashion than the shuttered homes themselves, you will inevitably shut. Nonetheless, putting it away on the bookshelf cannot keep the double reflective gloss of its haunting pages from staying with you, and it can always be called out again as a reference. The houses in the East End of London as in Germany and elsewhere—they will be raised. But to move beyond modernism’s great betrayals, we trust that books will not be burnt, and that in libraries, everywhere, a distributed language code of our history rises from the ashes.
A reprise of Die Familie Schneider is being shown at the Konrad Fischer Galerie in Berlin from November 14, 2014 – January 10, 2015. The works featured include photographs of the installation and the nursery room (Kinderzimmer), with two video projections showing simultaneous walk-throughs of 14 and 16 Walden Street from 2004.
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_______. Warped Space. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2000.
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