Sunday, 10 October 2004

Die Familie Schneider

It is autumn, the port is out and the sun is setting. Meanwhile, the new Gregor Schneider exhibition has emerged. Yesterday I saw the two houses. Construction workers with their yellow coats and hard-hats pledge ignorance to what actually occurs inside those anonymous facades. You enter alone, one set of keys designated to you, the other to your accomplice (in my case my girlfriend), and given ten minutes in each house. Unlocking the key to the door as though the house was your own, a predictably drab interior with a Victorian staircase and low-lighting is the first thing that strikes you. In the kitchen a women with her back to you washes up, her unflinching movements not even disrupted when you peer into the fridge or tip your finger in the water. The fridge empty but for a jar of gherkins, synthetic cheese and some chocolate. Same in the lounge. I sat on the sofa for some minutes before descending into the basement. Actually, there are rooms on the way to the basement that are locked despite muffled noises seeping through the woodwork. They won’t budge. The basement itself is divided between two rooms. One is completely vacant except for a small box of discarded cakes on the floor beside the semi-carpeted walls. The other room, like Bachelard’s depiction of the basement as the Jungian archetype of disquiet is the space in which “subterranean forces” converge. An overturned chair, discarded black bags, and a clothes line. Upstairs the masturbator in the bathroom hears you approaching and starts jousting. His back is to you, slightly arched so as to obtain the best angle. The skin is fleshy and spilling over into a middle aged spread. Next door a dowdy bedroom, soiled bed and an inert figure with a black bag over his/her head, the foot twitching, mumbles of discomfort coming from under the bag. Suddenly you’re in the fresh air again, relived to see the construction workers again but conscious that you’re never not being monitored. Keys handed over you enter the second house and repeat the whole experience once more, only this time in an inverted fashion. The same details, nuances, angles at which cigarette stubs are left, etc, etc...all replicated in pathological detail. The slight discrepancies between details only highlight the uncanny aesthetic therein.

Schneider has spoken of his fondness for "places charged with a strong past event, but from which the event itself is absent". There are so many unanswerable questions about Die Familie Schneider that it seems absurd to write about it. Questioning the absence would be defacing the experience. The nullifying repression which constantly teeters on absolute rage is unnerving. Things move, and suddenly. Not the images themselves, but the feelings of the memories that seize your mind as you leave the space. It is easy enough to occupy a space in which emptiness and an absence of virility are the pre-dominant features. Schneider’s house has the same atmosphere has both derelict asylums and insipid supermarkets. It is a cavity in which danger lurks. Some consolation is afforded in knowing it is a set-piece and that you can overhear the chatter of walkie-talkies commanding the actors to their stage (bath, bedroom and sink). But it is a facile consolation and the over-arching grandiosity of Schneider’s vision outweighs any sense of it being contrived. The initial sense of power that the voyeurism implies soon loses its charm. At no point does the keyhole in which you are peering ever feel exclusive. There is always someone looking back at you even though their eye is absent.

Later I returned to Cane Hill, the abandoned mental asylum in South London, which makes Die Familie Schneider seem like Starbucks. Cane Hill is darkening by the minute. Soon there will only be shadow without a form. Its walls are literally caving in, and Schneider’s aesthetic for "places charged with a strong past event, but from which the event itself is absent" is felt to an unbearable and suffocating degree. It is a dangerous place. Not only in the structural sense – with each step you take the floor literally gives way plunging you into a moist void – but rather in the sense that it alludes to an impossible past that, like Die Familie Schneider, is tactile whilst simultaneously being utterly remote. Things do roam. Yet, their presence is only ever hinted at. Encountering the old dentist chair still reclined in an inviting manner, a syringe rolls across the hallway leading to a defunct wheelchair, its brown leather torn and weathered.


Endless corridors. They do not cease. Sometimes you’ll notice a change in colour, the regal red leading to the still intact chapel, other times the hallways seem to merge. The same catering space is met once more, only here the windows are on the other side of the wall. The skeletal debris of various animals, the best trail you can find. And again – there is never a moment in which you feel alone. Always some ominous glance is just out of view. Even when you encounter an expanse where tress out-number discarded hospital beds, so enforcing the assurance that this is a ‘natural’ ruin and so justified as being part of the heritage trial (the relief of swapping keys in the brisk cold), then the reassurance soon collapses when you realize that it is in fact only a hallway where the roof has been destroyed. You are, in fact, still inside. It is not that you have made it outside but that the outside has made its way in.