New York

Gregor Schneider

“517 W. 24th,” Gregor Schneider’s first solo show in New York, was noteworthy not least because self-contained installations are unusual in his oeuvre. The German artist’s lifework is the Haus u r (ur-house), 1985–, an outwardly unassuming building in his hometown of Rheydt. For over fifteen years, he has been reconfiguring the interior of what was once his family’s home on Unterheydener Strasse, creating a morbidly unstable fun house of false walls and sealed chambers. He also makes videos and photographs in the house and duplicates its rooms in other locales—in 2001 his re-creation of sections from the Haus u r at the German pavilion of the Venice Biennale won the Golden Lion. In comparison with this obsessive, kaleidoscopic endeavor, “517 W. 24th” seemed temporally, spatially, and conceptually modest. Schneider simply conjured a thoroughly convincing architectural trompe l’oeil in the middle of a busy art-district block, annexing part of the gallery at 515 West Twenty-fourth Street in order to insert—to create from scratch—an ill-lit, oil-stained cul-de-sac or garage where before there had only been white-box exhibition space.

Actually, Schneider did not so much fool the eye as dupe the mind and body. Between the entrance to the gallery and the entrance to its neighbor, a rolling metal gate of the kind ubiquitous in the former taxi-garage district of West Chelsea stood half-raised across a bleak hole-in-the-wall. In this place—where one might park a truck or turn a trick—a single street lamp pooled its glow on a stained concrete roadbed and a curb complete with municipal storm drain and manhole cover. True, an (indoor) corner heat pipe subtly contradicted the curb’s (outdoor) connotations, while anyone familiar with the Gladstone Gallery’s usual floor plan might have noticed that “517” was somewhat smaller than the area it had commandeered from 515. Despite these telltale inconsistencies, however, the dismal industrial nook appeared eerily, forbiddingly familiar, like a good place to lose a wallet or dump a body. The walls were damp and sooty. Dead leaves and candy wrappers crunched underfoot. Patrons ducked beneath the metal gate and stood uncertainly in the half-light, wondering if they were trespassing, trying to shake the feeling that they’d been there before, scanning for art.

So what to make of this faultlessly persuasive and blatantly gimcrack illusion? How to parse an undeniably physical reality that both mimes and vitiates realism? Or, more specifically, how to interpret earnest directions from personnel behind the desk in the gallery proper, who informed viewers who’d wandered as usual into 515 that the “exhibition is entered from outside”? Surely that moment of nonplussedness, of visual and notional void in the empty, truncated yet still-spacious white rooms, was central to the experience of grimy deflation and odd awe that waited next door—in a space that was, in fact, still “inside” the gallery.

One way to elaborate (rather than answer) such questions would be to think a bit more about the prefix ur- and the Freudian adjectives heimlich and unheimlich. Of course, the term denoting fundamental or primitive originality operationalizes into both English and German the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, which lay northwest of what is now Basra in southern Iraq. Thus “Ur,” like Chelsea or Unterheydener Strasse (or Basra, for that matter, but that’s another story), is a real place as much as it is a totalizing, always partial, unreal idea. It’s tempting to argue that the quality of “ur-ness” is both “homelike” and “uncanny,” an apparently linguistic, tacitly geographic, polycultural point of origin that—precisely because of its primal connotations—stimulates a desire to attack, recast, expunge. Schneider’s work is about the terrifying intimacy of ur-. Suppose we say that his ur-garage is an unwholesome doppelgänger for or devouring negation of the clean, safe rooms where art is housed. But perhaps it is the other way around: The literally real and yet wholly conceptual space named “517” is the id of 515, split off and exposed.

Frances Richard