PRINT Summer 2000


Of course, thanks to the house, a great many of our memories are housed, and if the house is a bit elaborate, if it has a cellar and a garret, nooks and corridors, our memories have refuges that are all the more clearly delineated. All our lives we come back to them in our daydreams.
—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Few things intrigued me more as a kid than the hidden closets and secret passageways found in old houses. The very thought of clandestine nooks and crannies offering a path to who knows where filled me with excitement. When I recently paid a visit to Gregor Schneider’s Dead House ur in the small German town of Rheydt, an hour away from Cologne, that distant sensation—part curiosity, part fear of being trapped in a claustrophobic space—came back in full force. But this place is a bit too much: The building is more labyrinth than house, and the prospect of getting stuck in a particularly narrow passage is truly frightening. The artist’s remarks (e.g., “What is within the house must stay there”; “I’d love to stop someone from getting away some time”) don’t exactly put me at ease. Nor does the sinister atmosphere: Unheimlich comes to mind.

The facade—it looks like any anonymous building in any German town—doesn’t give away the house’s secrets. I arrive by car with my friend Udo. We find Unterheydener Strasse and ring at the door of No. 12. Gregor Schneider, an amiable artist in his early thirties, answers and lets us in, serves us coffee in his rather messy office/breakfast room, and shows us a few works on video. It’s all business as usual—just another studio visit. Then the tour begins, and nothing else is normal. We leave the room not through the door but through a secret aperture that is revealed by pushing back part of the wall behind me. On the other side, we get a surprising view of the room we’ve just left: It is a motor-driven contraption set on wheels and may very well have been circulating slowly, like a high-rise cocktail lounge, while we were having coffee. Standing in the larger space, you can see the external walls of the building. Or rather, that is what you are made to believe, but when you open a window, you get no view of the street or the garden. Behind the window is a second window. There seems to be no outside. Everything leads back into the house.

The tour continues and things get stranger. We squeeze through crawl spaces, scurry down holes in the floor, follow dark corridors that suddenly open onto tidy, brightly lit rooms. Schneider himself comments on his creation in a dry, matter-of-fact tone. At certain critical points along the way, he makes clear that we could keep going but ominously adds that it’s not recommended. Pointing at a narrow cleft in the floor, he intones, “Here it gets a bit too dirty.” Udo and I take his word for it.

“For our house is our corner of the world,” Bachelard writes. “As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word.” What is Schneider’s Dead House ur? Nothing the artist tells us about the place seems completely unequivocal. Who owns it? Does he actually live here? Is Hannelore Reuen, whose name is on the entrance, a real person? We ask, but we get no straight answers, though a few things do appear certain: More than fifteen years ago, Schneider, a teenager at the time, began taking the building on Unterheydener Strasse apart from within. (The structure, apparently owned by his family, was once thought to be uninhabitable because of its proximity to an industrial complex.) By now, the original dimensions and configuration of the various rooms are all but impossible to reconstruct. The list of “improvements” the artist has made over the last decade and a half reads like a strange form of experimental literature, working through every conceivable repetition and duplication of basic architectural units: “wall in front of wall, ceiling under ceiling, section of wall in front of wall, room in room, lead in floor, light around room, light around room, wall in front of wall, wall in front of wall . . .” At this point, not even the artist can recount all the steps involved.

“I COME FROM THE EXPRESSIONIST CORNER,” Schneider tells us over coffee. Precociously drawn to the arts, he had already gravitated in his early teens to painting, creating images of young, undernourished girls and screaming faces. He also dabbled in body art, covering his torso with flour or burying himself in the soil. Extreme practices of automutilation and self-inflicted pain fascinated him; he was especially taken with the story of Toronto practitioner John Fare, who in the late ’60s hacked off parts of his body one by one and finally beheaded himself in an amputation machine. “I saw the human scream as the ultimate in expression,” Schneider told Ulrich Loock in an extensive interview produced in conjunction with the artist’s 1997 exhibition at the Bern Kunsthalle. “Then [I] flipped into the opposite mode.” He began to build soundproof cells, rooms of total isolation, covered with layer upon layer of insulating materials. One of them—the ultimate in claustrophobic nightmares—has a door with no handle on the inside and a merely decorative, nonfunctional knob on the outside. Once the door is shut, the person inside is gone forever.

Esse est percipi, said Bishop Berkeley, but Schneider would beg to differ. He is interested above all in forms of existence that escape perception—substances, spaces, objects, and qualities that remain hidden. When one wall is built in front of another, a space is created between the two. Schneider fills such gaps with red or black bricks. Disappearing between the walls, these solid materials can’t be seen, but they’re there. The invisible works are just as significant as the visible ones to Schneider, and the very distinction between the two might be of minor importance to him. Listening to the artist talk about his interventions and constructions—workman-like descriptions of dimensions, materials, and tools—one glimpses a vision of the world that doesn’t translate well into common sense. By no means mystical, it nonetheless involves a profound experience of space. “I was registered as having a perceptual disorder and being mentally ill, but I only told them what I was doing at the time. I didn’t lie. I told them that I build rooms,” Schneider explained to Loock, responding to the curator’s interest in the genesis of the artist’s activities.

Schneider’s investigations probably could have taken place somewhere else, but as it is, most of his works relate directly to the house at 12 Unterheydener Strasse, which makes for a curiously extreme case in today’s increasingly global world of international exhibitions and biennials. Where some artists turn nomadic lifestyles into signature gestures, Schneider seems to bring his space with him wherever he goes. His straightforward black-and-white photographs and videos of empty rooms have been shown all over Europe and the US, most recently in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie International. At times entire sections of the house have been transported to museums and galleries and meticulously reconstructed, as was the case in Schneider’s recent show in Vienna at the Secession. Almost everything one encounters of the artist’s work refers back to the ur-site. Walking through the house I experience a strange feeling of déjà vu: I have seen these rooms before; I’ve even been in some of them. The “guestroom” is just as colorless and inhospitable as the black-and-white images indicate. Nothing can be heard, nothing moves. Time seems to have come to a stop. This really is a dead room.

If the white rooms on the upper floors radiate a kind of refined and clinical violence, the subterranean space that Schneider sometimes refers to as the disco or the brothel conjures up something more disconcerting. In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard speculates, “As for the cellar, we shall no doubt find uses for it. It will be rationalized and its conveniences enumerated. But it is first and foremost the dark entity of the house, the one that partakes of subterranean forces. When we dream there, we are in harmony with the irrationality of the depths.” The dreams the Dead House ur cellar offers up are particularly unsettling, and the irrational forces in question strike a resoundingly brutal tone. In some of Schneider’s images, one glimpses details of dolls hanging from the ceiling or shattered against the floor. These terrifying paraphernalia would seem completely out of place against the antiseptic whiteness of the upper-floor rooms, but in the moist dungeons they confirm one’s suspicion of ineffable goings-on, performed perhaps by the mysterious tenant, Hannelore Reuen. Remembering Schneider’s remark that the house should really be seen only once and that “what is within the house must stay there,” we find no reason to linger.

The artist has also managed to escape the house, building an impressive CV of international shows, but in project after project he seems bound to return. Exhibitions, he told Loock in his interview, are the death of work; as soon as they’re done, one can start all over again. One day Schneider may create work that has nothing whatsoever to do with Dead House ur. But for fifteen years, each new beginning has meant a return to the interiors of 12 Unterheydener Strasse. In this private universe, where time seems to have come to a standstill, his investigations into space can proceed without external disturbance. “Whether I am insulating myself from the world, or whether it’s a breakthrough—I don’t really know.”

Daniel Birnbaum is a contributing editor of Artforum.