Installation at the Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, Germany
Horror, agitation, indignation. An unusually irrational storm of condemnatory lightning from the enlightened pages of German belles lettres and some of the exhibitors rattled through the trees of the media. What had happened? Gregor Schneider had tried to tie the institution of the museum to the questions of the meaning of everyday life. The experience of real death and the questions banished from the attention of the living were no longer to be left to the pious nooks and cold corners of the hospital. His project: the museum as dying zone. Death as an event in the midst of images. “Macabre” it was immediately called, “contemptible” and “tasteless,” demonized as crude provocation.
Yet what this artist wants is to expose the banishment of death and its amorphousness in our culture. Nowadays the mysterious aura and sought-for seclusion for this moment take place all too often in an anonymous and icy closet in which the final processes of life are supposed to run their course undisturbed. That is his complaint: too often, people today die lonely and alone. And such an end is not worthy of them. While the sensitive arrangements of so-called “departure rooms” do exist in some hospitals, they constitute only a few positive countersigns.
Even for Gregor Schneider himself dying is a thoroughly private and intimate process. “I would like . . . to die in a room chosen by me,” he said in an interview, “a private area of the museum, surrounded by art.” (1) He then takes this impulse one step further. As a sculptor Schneider builds spaces, spaces in museums for the various life situations faced by people today. Among these spaces, he see also a dying room, bright, flooded with light. A dying cell in the museum, apart from the flow of visitors, quiet -- yet perhaps still accessible for many. A space with art that radiates dignity.
It is a rare structural parallel when, in our own day, we find Gregor Schneider in his work taking a look at the boundaries of life -- and attempting to deal with them. He is constantly asking about a hope to which a person may be capable of reaching in the darkest times. More and more Schneider is look to the face of death, in its terrifying reality, and constructing rooms for questioning light and darkness. Here he operates dialectically, as Rubens does in his images of impulse and consolation. In his 2008 installation “END,” it is, for example, about a descent and ascent. These are movements such as those at the base of some of Joseph Beuys’s “Actions.” (2) They are also at the base of the Christian concept of the Incarnation: “descended into the realm of death … ascended into heaven” (Ephesians 4:9).
In “END” Schneider constructs, beside the Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach, a black sculpture that can be entered from outside (fig. 3). It has a fourteen-meter high square opening that reminds one of Malewitsch. Like a funnel, it narrows quickly. Daylight vanishes. On this unfamiliar path the visitor must feel his way through the dark. He must at times crawl along the ground and climb down ladders. Finally, through the door of a dimly illuminated connecting passage, he finds himself in a dark cellar. In the complete darkness he sees a cone of light. Under that a figure with red stockings sticks out of a garbage bag; a bit further is another garbage bag, another mannequin. The room works like a zone of mythological ambiguities. Then the cracks of light invite one to a careful entry into a first room with things in it, the brightly illuminated “Schlafzimmer” (dining room) (1988) and the “Abstellkammer” (box-room) (1988). Then again outside in dreary darkness: again blue plastic, again a figure on its back, this time a man, under his trousers an obvious erection. There then appears clear light at a door: the second room with things in it, with “Flur” (corridor) (2001), “Kaffeezimmer” (tea-room) (1993) and “Atelier” (studio) (1990-2008).
In the physically and psychically dark narrow spaces of the whole atmosphere, the bright rooms work like liberating spaces of energy. They bring up ideas of sleep and relaxation, conversation and encounter, safekeeping or repression -- and creative insights. To the extent that the visitors give themselves over to these unusual changing baths, they lose their accustomed orientations and have their subjective experience of time expanded. Confronted with themselves, they begin to react with anxiety or fall into a deep zone of reflection. For some it turns into a senselessly weird horror chamber; others are awakened to a sharpened perception that may be coming together from the memory of old answers, enigmatic images, or symbolic comprehensions.
At the end, a perfectly normal elevator indicates the way out. But it is a long time coming, and when eventually entered, moves slowly (fig. 4). It is designed for disabled people. When the door finally opens, the visitor stands above in the illuminated museum, in the “Kleeblatt” (clover-leaf) of Hollein’s architecture, with a view free into four rooms and suites; he encounters transparent pictures by Polke, hermetic works by Beuys, panels by Richter framed in gray. For him the halls are now atmospherically laden, the pictures in the open quarry of contemplation, his own eyes hungry enough to start looking all over again. True enough, the exhibition “END” presents no dying room, no more than does the Antwerp altar painting. Yet both works can give an idea of what art and museum can do. They are more than just realistic picture bunkers or event sheds, but have the potential to lead the visitor to existential transformations, perhaps even to ritual, rite de passage. Such perspectives would then perhaps coincide with the ideal perspective of Schneider, with the real hope of a luminous and wide room, in order “to die” in it “beautifully and fulfilled,” as he puts it: “Perhaps we can all manage to do that if we would liberate death from the taboo zone and turn it into a positive experience like the birth of a child.” (3)
1)“Ich soll mich umbringen“. Helga Meister im Gespräch mit Gregor Schneider, in: Westdeutsche Zeitung vom 22. April 2008, S. 12.
2) Etwa in der Fluxus-Demonstration MANRESA (1966), bei der es um die zentralen Bewegungen von Heruntersteigen und Heraufsteigen geht, cf. vom Verfasser: Joseph Beuys: MANRESA. Eine Aktion als geistliche Übung zu Ignatius von Loyola, Frankfurt (M) (Insel) 1992.
3) Wie Anmerkung 1.