Gregor Schneider’s END (2008)
Artists experience the world, their own history and development, each in their own way. They take their paths differently, yet often the questions they pose run a parallel course. Gregor Schneider is no exception here. Since the 1980s, the beginning of his artistic activity, he has been concerned with two things: the construction of spaces and the complex relationship between the subject and space. He begins with imprints of the body, and in his very personal body art engages with himself: he covers his body in flour, encases himself layer for layer with insulation, or buries himself in the earth. Enclosed and housed in this fashion, and identifies himself with the space surrounding him. Later he builds soundproof cells, spaces of horrible solitude and isolation. In this way, he roots his art in the expressive. The self, sensation, and space: everything runs together. At the end of this phase of creation, his “house building” stands almost as a systematic summation. He builds his house, a house for his soul, Haus ur. This is the house that opened to the visitor upon entering the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennial in 2001. For the first time, a house within a house stands within this temple of German nationalist pathos: a German everyman’s house.
The visitors react unsettled: those who enter down the stairs are shocked and perplexed, even more so those who emerge from the cellar. The spaces into which the stairwell leads are bare, artificially lit. While there are windows, they are closed. Cold electric light illuminates them from outside and inside. Fans gently move the curtains. Doors lead to a mere wall or open the way towards a cold, aseptic world. It is indeed clean, horribly clean: here, a room with a mattress on the floor, on it lies a blanket folded with military precision, then a kitchen follows. A small photograph grabs our attention: it shows four dolls on a sofa, in the middle a baby wearing a woman’s wig. Finally a bit of dirt: a curtain with a stain. A coffee stain? It could also be a round stain of blood. The path leads on through interlacing levels, narrow passageways. Again, clinical purity. Then again, traces of life. On the floor, there is a mess of tools and relics like those from an artist’s studio, including dirty rags and a bricklayer’s tub, within it the plastic lower arm of a male mannequin. Bare walls. A sack of rubbish hangs from the ceiling. In the next room, suddenly a hatch opens, a stairway leads up to it. Those who force themselves upward can look into a duct that runs through the entire house, down into the cellar.
Arriving at the bottom by way of the staircase, the visitor is received by true chaos. Raw materials are spread across the floor. A child’s bicycle is leant up against a wall of boards. Then a cellar, a web of corridors with doors that can be opened with a squeak. A sort of mildewy stalactite cave serves as a musty smelling standard party room, complete with disco ball. Then somewhere in the cellar—with 22 rooms it is easy to lose our sense of orientation—a final space, narrow, in the corner a puddle of milky water. A magic descent below: trepidation arises in us, claustrophobia, horror. The site seems to turn against the visitor, upending the game and fighting back against the intruder. A room that fights back? That itself becomes a person? Or is it ultimately the visitor itself who is refusing such worlds? Horrified, he leaves this haunted house. Caught? Loaded against his will with diffuse feelings, as if after watching a film that has been intensely experienced, he absconds from the scene.
The Ur-site of this art, Haus ur, is an empty apartment house in the artist’s home town, Rheydt im Rheinland, where Gregor Schneider has been building his spaces since the mid-1980s in Haus ur. (‘U’ stands for Unterheydener Straße 12; ‘r’ stands for second house on the right, or simply Ort, place or locality). Here, Gregor Schnieder builds, moves, turns, doubles, and rebuilds rooms in a high atmospheric density. Functional rooms like a kitchen or bedroom, but also rooms of fantasy, where the ceilings slowly move up and down. One room turns on its own axis, and is located at the same time literally in a different room. There are rooms that dissolve in their materiality: above all due to the intermediate spaces, the holes or ducts, that result from the rebuilding and expansion. Schneider assigns them great importance, for they are located close to the pure materiality from which rooms emerge, black and red bricks, plaster, as well as the insulation materials glass wool and lead. Lead in particular has caught his interest, for he is familiar with this element from his early childhood, due to this parents’ lead dross furnace. He treasures its malleability and meltability, its quality as insulation, and perhaps also the remainders of esoteric-magical meaning that adhere to it. In its dynamism, this construction site world is just as important to him as are the complete spaces. Some spaces here already bear their vague definition within them: impact and atmosphere. The house thus differentiates slowly into proper rooms on the one hand and material-dominated cavities. The artist builds a house that reflects his soul and his innermost? At least in this way he succeeds in creating images that evoke a flood of associations. His artistic work is directed at the mutual impact between space and personal sensation.
Such aspects are not necessarily new for art, if one thinks of the painting of Francis Bacon or the videos of Bruce Nauman. And yet there is a difference: Schneider is not concerned with virtual spaces, but with real ones. He does not present installations that are concerned with political or social issues, as is the case with Beuys. Here, everything is more concrete, intimate, personal: close to the artist and yet close to art. Each space leads the sensitive visitor to a certain psychological state, but naturally without being a psychological illustration. Seen in psychological terms, his works always runs along “outsides” that at the same time opens “insides”: Flur (Corridor), Windfang (Vestibule), Treppenhaus (Stairway), Schlafzimmer (Bedroom), Küche (Kitchen), Abstellkammer (Closet), Klo (Bathroom), Kaffeezimmer (Coffee Room), Atelier (Studio)... They represent sites of intimate desires or aggressions, in Total isoliertes Gästezimmer (Totally Isolated Guestroom), Drehende Gästezimmer (Spinning Guestroom), Spiegelkabinett (Cabinet of Mirrors). They are forms of existence that refuse direct perception, obsessions, fictions or fantasies that remain concealed, as in Loch Im Kern (Hole, at the Core), Liebeslaube (Lovers’ Alcove), Puff, Das große Wichsen (The Big Jack-Off), or however Schneider terms these art rooms that differentiate ever more.
Schneider has worked for years with the spatial counterparts of his inner states. His artistic creation is basically like working on his own ego, a kind of self-therapy. What drives him is the search for identity in a time when many models for identity have been lost. His work is not fully subsumed by the creation of complete spaces. Like moods themselves, their spatial counterparts change. Since moods are constantly in flow, change and follow new paths, these apparently finished spaces are constantly being worked on, and new ones are constantly being discovered. This house never comes to rest as a subject. It does not live from architectural pleasure, but rather from the drive towards enlightening self-development and growth that understands itself. This house that Schneider continues to build is always one and the same, is always in the process of vital becoming. In so doing, Schneider searches for the respectively fitting space to further expand the house, to form, to paint personal desires and wounds, alongside his own yearning and dreaming. This is his conceptual approach, his artistic principle. In so doing, some spaces outlive themselves and become something of the past. In this sense, they are as if dead, and can be released from the house and sent on journeys of their own. Building such spaces generally has something to do with processes of separation. This is why the work in Venice is not called Haus ur, but Totes Haus ur. “Exhibition always means killing the works,” Schneider says at a press talk at the Venice Biennial. “My work is life itself.”
Over the course of the following years, Schneider buries himself deeper and deeper in the archaeology of his consciousness and unconsciousness, until he begins to forge ahead to the zones of the “primeval ground” and the “primal fear of human existence.” Now all is reduced to the fear of death. These zones are already present in Haus ur, down in the cellar, in Das Ende, Das letzte Loch (The End, the Last Hole, 2001). But in the framework of his comprehensive work-in-progress, he begins exclusively to concern himself with utopias and constructs of hopes of death and eternity. In so doing, he also moves beyond the biblical traditions. In one work after the next, he takes up his search for traces along the longings, present in all cultures, for immortality or life after death, as shown in N. Schmidt (2001–03) in Bremerhaven, or Kryo-Tank PhoenixI (2006) at Kunst-Station Sankt Peter in Cologne, or Kryo-Tank Phoenix II (2006) in the catacombs of Fondazione Morra Greco in Naples. In these works, he moves within the broad spectrum of religion, science, and art, all of which are in search of answers to the question of life after death, each in its own way.
The idea to bring death as an event into the museum is the preliminary climax of Schneider’s engagement with questions of the end in the summer of 2008. Here, the idea is that of a very specific museum space in which an individual could come to die. A space of dignity, as an alternative to a hospital room. Horror, outrage, and indignation were the public reactions to his unusual initiative. A strangely irrational storm of condemnation pattered through the media, emerging from the enlightened circles of many Feuilletons, critical comments by successful exhibition makers, or self-anointed guards of the aesthetic. But Gregor Schneider had just wanted to link the institution of the museum more closely to questions of meaning in everyday life. No more and no less. The experience of real death and questions driven by life were no longer to be left to the nooks of piety, the lonely home, or the cold corners of a hospital. His project: the museum as a zone for dying. Death as an event in the midst of images. It was called macabre, tasteless and lacking in respect. Condemned as mere provocation. But the artist is simply focusing on something that is socially quite close at hand: he wants to expose the suppression of death in our culture and its formlessness. Death today takes place all too often in an anonymous and icy space of storage, where the last processes of life should take place smoothly. “Today’s individuals die too often lonely and alone,” Schröder laments. And this lacks in human dignity.
For Gregor Schneider too, death is a quite private and intimate process. “I would like to die in a space of my own choosing,” he says in a conversation, “a private space of a museum, surrounded by art.” By building such a dying room in a museum, his impulse to create meaningful real spaces surpasses his previous concept up until this point. As a sculptor, Schneider builds spaces, spaces in museums for the various life situations of people from our day. For him, this includes a dying space, bright, flooded with light. A dying cell in a museum, beyond the streams of visitors, quiet, and yet perhaps accessible to some. A space with art and the friends of art that exudes dignity.
The relationship between art and dying is nothing foreign to art history. Many images of crucifixions and allegories from the books of the ars moriendi to the images of martyrdom, the dance of death, and images of consolation, speak hauntingly of this last moment of life, often so drastically as if seeking to communicate the actual experience directly. These are images that remind us of our death, and at the same time warn us to approach our own death sensibly: attentiveness, preparedness to reversion, and a search for meaning and comfort. Of course, most of these old images have been ripped from their ecclesiastical surroundings and incorporated in aesthetic collections as part of the fervor for art that began in the Enlightenment and culminated in Romanticism. This state of affairs is not necessarily to be mourned, for it does indicate that Western society knows philosophical, literary, and aesthetic paths to finding meaning beyond religion. Melancholia is one motif, the Dance of Death, Knight, Death, and the Devil, and Death and the Maiden are others. They are iconographic images that are concerned with death and that support or shape our engagement with suffering and pain, dying, death, and mourning. In this way, the popular subjects of Christian art have multiplied in countless creations or replicas, the pictures of public cathedrals and private house altars. Job, Man of Sorrows, Pietà, or The Assumption of Mary. Man saw his fears before his eyes and sought out peace and comfort with artistic motifs.
It seems like a strange structural parallel when in our time Gregor Schneider asks questions about the limits of life—and the suppressed engagement with it. He repeatedly asks about a hope of which man is indeed capable in dark times. This is why the artist also dauntlessly takes death into his sights. He exposes its horrifying reality, and constructs spaces of questioning, light ones and dark ones. In so doing, he works in the dialectical relations of reality and its understanding, death and consolation, as Rubens once did in his pictures of consolation in the framework of a renewed Christian or classical iconography.
Schneider presents what is up until now his densest and most differentiated images and ideas on the subject of death and dying in the large installation END (2008). At issue is already anticipated in the continued drilling at the cellar of his house, where there are no more stairs, were there are only holes openings downward: Nach unten! Weiter nach unten! (Downward! Further Downward!). Schneider lets ladders down, knocks out ducts and tunnels leading every which way, erects scaffolding up and down that can be climbed along to penetrate into the dark spaces of the forgotten and the closed, down into the archaeologies and psychologies of knowledge and the unconscious. Here, there lies a tension that is ages old, yet still strange. It lives, using the terms of Biblical theology, between descending and ascending, or as Joseph Beuys put it artistically, between “rising” and “coming down. These are movements that Beuys allows to resonate in many of his works. Between these poles, dialectical forces as correspond to the biblical belief in a God who frees man and accompanies his life, or as the Christian credo formulated it: “Descended into hell . . . ascended into heaven.” But such concretions are foreign to Schneider’s rooms. His work knows no pious illustration, but confronts hard existentialism.
In END, Schneider creates a black sculpture that can be entered into on the side of Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach. Its square opening, 14 meters high, is reminiscent of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, but also of Gregor Schneider’s Cube Venice (2005) in its different variations. These two related works show basic forms of modernism. They have departed from any notion of art as depiction or illustration. At the same time, they represent—abstract as they are—a new start in the world of art: initiating and awakening sensations and emotional worlds in pure abstraction. They are abstract forms that stretch into the beyond of imaginable deeds of the existential and the numinous. As the Kaaba in Mecca on the one hand stands as a spatial idea for the radically Muslim, iconoclastic notion of God, Schneider’s Cube on the other hand, although physically empty space, is open for artistic interpretations, including those that expand across space.
For this artist, who is familiar with the philosophical and artistic discourse about space, empty space represents a geometrical space that stands in unison with existence and the life of man. No answers resonate in this space, but questions: questions of consciousness and sensation. With it, he feels in his way toward the human longing for meaning. Equally so, Malevich’s Black Square touches the realm beyond concrete answers, myths, or personal associations. Only in passing though the zero point proclaimed by the form of the black square, “zero point as liberated nothingness,” as Malevich puts its, do metaphysical or even mystical speculations sensible gain a right to exist.
At the installation END placed in front of Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach, a huge square 14 meters by 14 meters in size forms the entrance to the series of rooms that constitute the installation. The black might not seem heavy, but dark and mysterious. This square entrance narrows to a tight funnel that can be passed through. He breaks off to the left at a right angle, and leads the visitor to complete darkness. Light here battles against the dark, and in the end is absorbed by the darkness. Now the beholder, with eyes accustomed to light, stands for a few moments in total darkness. Only slowly does he perceive the weak glimmer of an emergency light, with the help of which he can gradually feel his way along the wall, until grated scaffolding blocks his direct path. If he grabs for the scaffolds, they lead with some difficulty through an opening towards a construction ladder that takes him downward. He must continue on this unusual path through the twilight, now forcing himself along the landings. Below he stands before a door that leads to a weakly lighted connecting passageway. If he goes decisively through a further door, he enters a dark cellar.
In the utter darkness, the visitor sees a cone of light. Beneath it are two legs of a mannequin that lies motionless on the floor, dressed with red pants and red sport shoes: Mädchen mit roten Schuhen (Girl with Red Shoes, 200x). Somewhat further on, again another bright cone of light: beneath it a silver-colored plastic blanket from which two legs stick out and under a gray pair of pants his erect member rises: Mann mit Ständer (Man with Erection, 200y). Then, the light slits of a door encourage us to cautiously enter a first room ensemble: the brightly lit Schlafzimmer (Bedroom, 1988) and Abstellkammer (Closet, 1988). Another line of light leads to another door. When opened, it leads to a second room ensemble, with Flur (Hall, 2001), Kaffeezimmer (Coffee Room, 1993) und Atelier (Studio, 1990-2008). In comparison to the previously dominating physical and psychological narrow constriction, these bright rooms seem like liberating energy spaces. They associate sleep and relaxation, conversation and encounter, storage or repression, and are above are fruitful for creative inspiration.
If the visitor can let himself surrender to this unusual back and forth, he loses his customary orientation. His subjective temporal feeling begins to slow, time seems to stretch. Confronted with himself, he can be overcome by an oppressive fear, or a deep reflectiveness. What for one becomes a bluntly ghastly cabinet of horrors, brings the next to a sharpened perception that might be fed by the remembrance of older answers, puzzling images, or symbolic conceptions. The spaces of this installation—Tief Unten (Down Deep)—exude energies beyond all feelings of disturbing estrangement. They operate in philosophical or artistic conception as centers of thought, atmospheres of feeling, or possibilities of self-identification. They can provide those who enter into them an orientation, maybe even a personal perspective reaching into their own story, a seriousness and a personal certainty. These personal views might not be graspable as traditional “good news,” but certainly as a newly felt inner security and identity.
At the end of END, the visitor finds himself quite unexpectedly in front of a very ordinary elevator. Again, a door leads toward a passage to a new space, but this time not along the horizontal. The door leads upward. It takes its own good time until it finally opens, illuminated. It moves slowly upwards, for security reasons, because it is intended for the handicapped. When the door finally opens, the visitor finds himself standing in a broad and light space that opens towards long stretches of rooms on four sides. The visitor is now standing at a central point in the museum, in the “cloverleaf” of Hollein’s design, which allows us to look into four open directions, occupied and filled with high transparent pictures by Polke, Beuys’ hermetically sealed glass cases, in the endless gray of Richter panels… Those who enter and pass through these halls find themselves atmospherically charged with virtually ascendant images in the open quarry of personal worldviews. For some, their own eyes might make them eager enough to start all over from the very beginning with the variously inspired viewing of this museum.
But we should note that END does not provide any actual dying rooms. All the same, END does evoke a notion of what art and the museum are capable of doing. Museums are in fact more than realistic bunkers hoarding pictures or settings for society events. They have the potential to lead visitors to existential transformations, perhaps even enabling consolation and understanding. Such perspectives would then coincide with Schneider’s ideal perspective of a museum, with the real hope of a broad light space where he can “die beautifully and fulfilled,” as he puts it. “Maybe that is something we can all achieve if we free death from the taboo zone, and make it a positive experience, like the birth of a child.”
(Transl. Brian Currid)
1 ‘Ich soll mich umbringen’: Helga Meister im Gespräch mit Gregor Schneider,” Westdeutsche Zeitung, April 22, 2008.
2 See the Fluxus demonstration MANRESA (1966), where at issue were central movements of ascending and descending, see Menneke, Joseph Beuys: MANRESA. Eine Aktion als geistliche Übung zu Ignatius von Loyola (Frankfurt a.M.: Insel, 1992).
3 See “‘Ich soll mich umbringen.’”