Gregor Schneider’s spaces make you feel like you’re being swallowed up by your own fears, your own memories. At the 2001 Venice Biennale, he transplanted the inner world of his parents’ house to the Giardini: inside the Nazi-era German Pavilion, visitors entered a nightmare of West German stuffiness— cramped, stifling, psychotic—extensions and replicas of the original rooms. It earned Schneider the Golden Lion award. People queued for six hours. “They could have visited the same house in Rheydt, back in the Rhineland,” Schneider told me recently. Today, he lives across from Haus u r (as the original project is called), which he has been working on since 1985, when he was just sixteen. Still fully in its grip, the artist has warehoused the countless copies of those rooms (Schneider calls them “repetitions”) he has created since then.
Duplication is the core principle of his work, after all. In 2004, he carried it to its extreme: Die Familie Schneider (The Schneider Family) consisted of two semidetached houses— at 14 and 16 Walden Street in London’s East End—which the artist took great pains to match, inside and out, to a hair’s breadth. These perfectly English spaces were entirely indistinguishable, from the carpet to the fireplace, down to every single stain on the wall. Visitors (only two per appointment) had to pick up the keys in an office and were allowed to spend ten minutes in each house.
Visiting the first one was spooky enough, the oppressive atmosphere of its hallway, kitchen, living room, children’s room, bathroom—all dimly lit and mustily furnished—making it hard to breathe. The proportions seemed off somehow, and you got the strange sense that there was someone breathing right behind you. And, in fact, you weren’t alone: in the kitchen, a woman was silently washing dishes, and in the bathroom, a man stood under the shower, hunched and facing the wall as he jacked off. The whole experience was as chilling as it was fascinating, you couldn’t wait to leave, yet something made you want to stay and immerse yourself in this psychological drama pitched somewhere between a ghost story and a conjugal thriller.
But what was truly uncanny was the second house: the same yellowish light, the same crampedness, the same sticky residue covering everything. And the same people—Schneider had hired pairs of twins to perform identical acts in each house. Experiencing exactly the same thing twice not only doubled the creeping claustrophobia, the slow delirium, it also killed off any conviction of an individual experience. “The impression that a unique event could actually repeat itself was perceived as horrifying,” Schneider says. “This exposes deficiencies in our perceptual apparatus; our inability to see any differences,” which, of course, were minimal. You started to question your own perceptions. “Observing yourself observing spaces,” suggests the artist.
This feeling is also found in the films and photographs of the work. Schneider transfers his spatial research to another medium in order to better understand the effects these spaces have on us. The images are not just documentations, but compressions, expansions. “The photographs show the conceptual side of the work. They convey a certain distance. It’s impossible to tell that they depict rooms within rooms. They seem transported into an elsewhere; they do not compete with the real experience,” Schneider states. Some images are from a central perspective; others appear more like snapshots. And, of course, there are two of each subject. This enables side-by-side comparison, but they could also depict just one walk through one house.
Yet, however much they capture the rooms’ ghostly atmosphere, the photographs do not reflect their physical sensation. Like zombies locked into repetitive motions, the mute residents have been associated with the alienation, isolation, and loneliness of characters in a Samuel Beckett play—but they would have been just as at home in 1970s horror movies. The nuclear family as a nucleus of horror, the home as both tomb and prison: if Schneider’s aesthetics didn’t tend toward gloomy German romanticism, his proximity to Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, or Robert Gober would be even more obvious. The photographs in Die Familie Schneider are like any pictures in a family album: nothing’s what it seems.