Right on Queue

Hannah Dübgen on Gregor Schneider's First “Opera”


Left: The queue outside Berlin's Magazin. Right: One of the actors hired by Gregor Schneider to create and guide the queue.

Ninety minutes can be long or short, forgettable or memorable. Is it what happens within the time frame, or the thoughts and reflections projected onto it afterward? I hardly expected Gregor Schneider to provoke this question when I made my way last Thursday, in summer-struck Berlin, to the State Opera to attend 7:00–8:30 PM; 05.31.2007, a one-time-only performance by the artist. These are the closing days of Schneider’s heavily debated “Cube” exhibition in Hamburg, and the German art world was curious about the artist’s first theatrical work, commissioned by the Berlin State Opera and Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Francesca von Habsburg’s Vienna-based foundation. At the press desk, I was told that after the performance, explanatory materials would be made available. This should have raised a red flag.

Across the street is the Magazin, a huge, austere-looking building used by the State Opera to store the sets of its current productions and to present experimental works like Schneider’s. Fifty people were in line outside when I arrived, nearly an hour early. This was not your usual opera crowd: Art students and young Berlin gallerists waited alongside the likes of Kunst-Werke curator Susanne Pfeffer and Ute Meta Bauer, the former artistic director of the Berlin Biennale. The queue stretched farther down the block, yet with ten minutes until the scheduled start, the Magazin’s doors remained closed. Excitement turned to disappointment as 7 PM came and went. Was this an unexpected delay? Or part of the performance? At ten past, a juggler appeared, stopped in front of the waiting line, and started juggling silver balls to the accompaniment of tinny circus music played on a boom box. The waiting crowd, finally transformed into an audience, was relieved: It had started at last! The juggler’s act lasted ten minutes, but when he passed a hat for tips, some wondered: Is this really part of the performance?

The doors eventually opened and people were let in one by one. “Let in” meant, in this case, being allowed just across the threshold, where another queue led across the room. One could admire the Magazin’s impressive interior, but that didn’t help those who had had enough of waiting or had hoped to find the kind of architectural manipulation for which Schneider is known. With summer light still shining through the windows, the atmosphere was by no means disturbing. Instead, the Magazin looked as it always does: a spacious inner courtyard ringed with black iron doors, behind which the stage props are stored. Impatience prevailed. Someone grumpily asked, “What the hell are we waiting for?”

Those at the head of the new line were right in front of a big, movable wall that seemed very close to the rear of the building . . . yet most remained confident that the performance would eventually start behind this wall, rewarding viewers with a labyrinth of claustrophobic rooms. When it was my turn, a little door was opened just for me. I stepped through it, turned a corner—and found myself on the street again! This was the performance, or, rather, the end of it: There was nothing more to discover. Well. Some did not want to believe it: Was that all? What time was it? For some, the event was over by 8:10 PM. “At least, we’ve seen the Magazin,” offered one nonplussed guest, but his wife angrily answered: “We even paid for a babysitter to see that shit!” Those who found it funny were a small minority.

Schneider states in the press release that he wanted to “avoid the artifical theatricality that happens in the opera house” by creating a “situationist” setting in which “the spectator is confronted with himself.” The performance was hardly an aesthetic experience, yet it provoked fascinating responses. Some took matters into their own hands, deciding to warn those still waiting to get in. But interestingly enough, when disappointed visitors made their way back to the waiting line, telling the queue to go home because there was nothing happening inside, those in line wondered, quite rightly, “Is this part of the work? Is it a test of how easily we get confused? We’d better wait . . .” Perhaps it was then that one possible meaning of the performance elucidated itself: Hope is the last thing we give up.