On 5 June 2001, as I push down the brass handle on the ordinary front door that has been inserted into the facade of the German Pavilion in the Giardini, it suddenly crosses my mind that the house I grew up in had an identical door. The door leads into Haus u r, a convoluted dwelling on Unterheydener Strasse in the town of Rheydt, in which Gregor Schneider has been living and working since 1985. In Venice, it has now been fitted into the Nazi-redesigned temple for art as Totes Haus u r (Dead House u r). My next thought is that Schneider and I were born in the same place, just a year apart (he in 1969, I in 1968).
My passport states my place of birth as ‘Rheydt, now Mönchengladbach’. In 1975, this Rhineland town with a population of 100,000 was downgraded to a mere suburb of the neighbouring city with its population of 150,000. Rheydt gained the status of a town in 1933, at the urging of another person born there: Joseph Goebbels.
In Venice in 2001, I vaguely resolved to return to the town where I was born but lived for just a few months as a baby (my family moved and I grew up in Mainz). Sometime or other I should look up Schneider and his house on Unterheydener Strasse, on the site of his father’s lead-processing business, I think. Looking back, ‘sometime or other’ was a way of dodging a more personal, biographical trip. In truth, ‘sometime or other’ became ‘some other time’. Then, in 2014, this changed to ‘now or never’. Schneider bought the house where Joseph Goebbels was born and made it a subject of his art.
Just after 10 o’clock on a mild Wednesday morning on 7 January 2015, I board the local train from Cologne’s main station to Stommeln, a neighbourhood in nearby Pulheim. Schneider picks me up from the station in the bright winter sunshine. The back seat of his black car is folded down to accommodate a new-looking broom with black bristles. In the tidy, village-like centre of Stommeln, Schneider parks on the marketplace, outside the supermarket. To the right of it are two houses, next to a florist, and an unsigned gateway leads through to a back courtyard.
If I didn’t already know about this project, all I would have seen in the courtyard was a typical turn-of-the-century German residential building with a fresh coat of yellow paint. The house is a very real-looking fake, a Matryoshka-like outer shell built by Schneider over a synagogue. Since 1992, the small building has hosted the annual ‘Stommeln Synagogue Art Project’ with former participants including Carl Andre, Daniel Buren and Rosemarie Trockel (to name just a few). Each year’s participant is tasked with dealing with the synagogue’s historical dimension in the light of Nazi persecution. Schneider has removed every reference to this place, including the gate and all signage. The door to the house is locked, the windows fitted with blinds. The doorbell is marked ‘Schneider’ but if you ring it, no one answers. Unlike more than 1,000 other synagogues, the one in Stommeln was not destroyed in the pogroms of 9 November 1938 because it had already been deconsecrated and belonged to a farmer who used it as a barn. So while the building is a memorial, it is not in active religious use, and Schneider’s project does not deny entry to a congregation. Instead, it explores the kind of camouflage expressed in the phrases spoken by millions of Germans in the postwar decades regarding the Holocaust: ‘we knew nothing about it’. Rather than scornfully perpetuating this denial, Schneider’s intervention highlights it.
We drive on and while I’m thinking that our next stop will be Rheydt, Schneider exits the autobahn in a rural area. We arrive in a place called Immerath. It is totally deserted. A ghost town. Doors and windows boarded up. I guess where we are and Schneider confirms my hunch: this is one of the places whose inhabitants are being displaced to make way for opencast lignite mining. This area is called ‘Garzweiler II’. Here and there, a few cars are parked outside the houses belonging to the last remaining residents. A large church has been deconsecrated and awaits demolition. Collection times are still listed on the yellow post box. Eerily, the hedges around the front gardens are all freshly clipped – gardeners have been given the job of keeping things tidy, paid for by RWE Power AG.
In 1990, while still a student in Dusseldorf, Münster and Hamburg, Schneider was already using the villages emptied by scheduled mining as a source for materials and moods. He took photographs and realized unknown works in abandoned houses. He also removed elements for use elsewhere; the brutality of industrial exploitation is the broad horizon for the cramped claustrophobia of the rooms in Haus u r.
If you’re imagining Schneider as a bizarre character from a David Lynch film, driving around abandoned villages in a black car scaring his passenger to death with an insane stare, then I have to disappoint you. During our perfectly civilized conversation about the kind of cost-benefit situation that makes it economically viable for opencast mining to resettle thousands of people, we arrive in one of the new settlements that have the same name as their predecessors, with a suffix: ‘Holz (neu)’. Schneider can afford to be totally normal – his subjects are weird enough.
Behind Rheydt’s main railway station, he owns a warehouse and office building, renting units to architects and other firms to cover the costs of his own spaces (another issue in his art: what to do with the tonnes of material he uses and the resulting costs of storage and maintenance?). On the ground floor there are industrial storage racks, forklift trucks and packaged works, while the upper floor houses an office and archive. A long table supports architectural models, including one of Berlin’s Volksbühne theatre, where Schneider recently made several works. It looks as if King Kong has made a huge dent in the triangular lawn on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz outside the theatre, with splashes from the impact spattered across the facade. The funding of the project, to be realized in 2014, had already been approved when it was vetoed by the local parks authority, on incomprehensible grounds.
Schneider is all too familiar with such flimsily justified obstructions. The co-curator of the 2005 Venice Biennale, Rosa Martinez, commissioned him to realize a black cube on Saint Mark’s Square corresponding in its dimensions (though not in its materials or details) with the Kaaba in Mecca. The project, Cube Venice (2005), was quashed by the Venetian municipal authorities with the backing of Rome, presumably amid fears of inciting trouble, even terrorist attacks. Unlike everyone else involved, however, Schneider had taken the trouble to carefully research whether such a construction would insult Muslims. He was told by clerics in both Germany and Saudi Arabia that it would not as there is no ban on depicting the Kaaba. Then, in the autumn of 2005, with the furore surrounding the caricatures of Mohammed in the Danish newspaper _Jyllands_-Posten, a version of Cube planned for installation outside the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin in 2006 was cancelled, clearly also due to pressure from political authorities.
In 2007, it became evident that this fear of controversy was exaggerated. As part of the exhibition Black Square: Hommage à Malevich, Schneider was invited by the director of Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hubertus Gaßner, to build the cube on the space between the museum’s two buildings. Lo and behold, the feared scandal didn’t materialize. Muslims did not feel provoked, and no one else got upset either. A surface for all manner of projections, from Malevich to ‘interfaith dialogue’, Cube functioned as a blank screen.
Since then, Schneider has continued to demonstrate a talent for provoking the most hysterical of reactions. In 2008, he made the following statement: ‘I would like to show a person dying a natural death or who has just died a natural death. My aim in this is to show the beauty of death.’ Personally I am no big fan of using art as a platform for showing moments that probably merit the protection of self-determined privacy (it is no coincidence that the word show appears twice in the statement). But the fact that this declaration drew not only typically tabloid-worthy responses (one paper described Schneider as the ‘artist of death’) but also death threats, showed just how little commentators understood of his actual concept. Schneider’s Toter Raum (Dead Room, 2005–7) is a faithful replica, including fishbone parquet floors and windows, of a section of Mies van der Rohe’s Haus Lange and Haus Esters in Krefeld, where Schneider had his first museum show in 1994. For the artist, this place is associated with the wish to die with dignity in the beauty of such architecture. Instead of offering gawkers a chance to revel in the suffering of others, the work is more a thoughtful consideration of the environment in which one spends one’s last days. How seriously the proposition of actually exhibiting a (consenting) dying person in the museum is to be taken, remains unclear. If there is a provocation here, it consists precisely in this vagueness. As with Cube, Schneider cautiously probes an ethical limit to the freedom of art (the exploitation of a dying person; hurting religious feelings). Then, without even overstepping this line, provokes the emotions and reactions as if he had actually done so.
In Duisburg in the summer of 2014, it was enough that the work he had planned for the Lehmbruck Museum was titled totlast (Dead Weight, 2014) and that it would have included the installation of narrow tunnels only allowing visitors to walk through one at a time. Following objections from the city’s planning authority, Schneider increased the proposed width of the tunnels from 160 to 220 centimetres. In spite of this, the mayor withdrew permission for the project five weeks before it was due to open, even though it had been announced months previously. The reason given was that four years after the Love Parade disaster, when 21 people died and hundreds were injured, Duisburg was ‘not yet ready for an artwork in which situations of confusion and panic are immanent’. This pre-emptive censorship may have been motivated by all manner of things (including repression of the partial blame born by the city authorities themselves for the disaster of 2010) but certainly not by honest debate. As in the case of Cube, the work had to be vindicated by its realization elsewhere. A modified version installed in Bochum in 2014 under the title Kunstmuseum showed that visitors accessing the museum through a new ‘rear entrance’, exposing them to a new situation including staged spaces, did not panic at all. Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s, actions by artists from Otto Mühl to Throbbing Gristle triggered moral panic, today it is panic in the face of potential controversy, a fear of unwanted discussion, which ironically sparks just such a discussion.
From Schneider’s office, we walk through Rheydt’s pedestrianized zone. The bakeries still survive, alongside desperate attempts at boutiques for leather accessories or gifts. The marketplace in front of the town hall, where Goebbels once addressed das Volk, has been repaved with money from an EU subsidy. We head for an Italian restaurant for lunch, where we’re the only guests. Schneider takes a long time to finish his dark red tomato soup; he has a lot to say. I pick at my pasta. The mushrooms have a chemical flavour. I discretely move them to one side and listen. He talks about his early years. His art teacher at school encouraged him to put on an exhibition. The title was Pubertäre Verstimmung (Adolescent Bad Mood). That was in 1985 in Mönchengladbach. Around 1982, the grumpy adolescent was painting large, bald-headed naked girls; in 1985 he rolled in wet flour or adorned his head with string, Q-tips and plastic sheeting, inspired by Rudolf Schwarzkogler and Edvard Munch. For the young Schneider, screaming was the highest form of expression, pain and release. Screaming, he would jump from tree to tree or bury himself in the ground. The photographs documenting all this are as grim and grey as they are funny and sensuous.
How much further would he be able to take this kind of highly symbolic, real action? In Jürgen Schilling’s book on Action art published in 1978 (Aktionskunst. Identität von Kunst und Leben?), Schneider came across a short section on the Canadian artist John Fare. Using robotic machines, the book claimed, Fare performed various amputations on himself in front of live audiences. He was already missing several fingers and toes, both testicles and his right eye. The planned climax of these secretive events was his own decapitation.
John Fare never existed. His legend originated in an article by one N.B. Shein that appeared in in 1968 in the Californian hippie journal Insect Trust Gazette. In 1972 Shein’s article was plagiarized by the art magazine Studio International who further embellished the story. For Schneider, Fare is a kind of compass. An early work clearly influenced by the Fare myth is COMPLETELY INSULATED BOXES (1986), a set of minimalist cubes so thoroughly soundproofed that the screams of someone trapped inside would not be audible from the outside. The only comparison I can think of for this relationship is the role played by the pathological serial killer Ed Gein in Alfred Hitchcock’s preparations for Psycho (1960). The cruellest extremes are sought out in order to both reveal its residual forms in oneself and transform it artistically. Schneider doesn’t reject the comparison, but he adds a (perfectly legitimate) additional point of reference: Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau (1923–36), that also involved the artistic transformation of a house, owned by the artist’s family, in Hanover.
We’re onto our second espresso by the time I ask Schneider whether there is any kind of historical guilt in the family that informs his labour of artistic transformation. He says there isn’t. I ask if the lead-processing works owned by his family for several generations ever made things that were important to the war effort. Again, no: it was for civilian use, lead for house construction or weights, in wind turbines for example. His father ran the business, a hardworking man with a certain emotional distance towards his sons. But he didn’t prevent the youngest from becoming an artist. When their father died, the two elder brothers took over the business. Little mention is made of their mother, clearly a reserved figure.
We drive to Schneider’s second depot. On the way, I ask him to make a small detour to Mühlenstrasse, to the house where my family and I – briefly – lived. We stop, look around, take a few pictures, and then drive on. The depot is huge, an industrial warehouse, the ceiling 20-metres high. It contains all of Schneider’s works that no collector, custodian or gallerist is willing or able to house. Like the materials from u r 45 Steindamm (2003), the work he inserted seamlessly into the rotunda of the old Hamburg Kunsthalle building. Another architectural forgery, the work resembled a filthy subway or a 24-hour underground car-park, offering a perfect comment on the ejection of junkies and homeless people from the main railway station across the street, a measure pushed through at the time by Hamburg’s rightwing populist ‘Law and Order Offensive Party’. The materials for this now reside in two stacked containers. Schneider tells me he’s thinking about getting away from the perpetual accumulation, storage and shipping of large quantities of material, and shifting to an approach defined in conceptual terms, perhaps something like that used by Absalon for his minimalist living cells, the Cellules (1991–93).
We go back onto Odenkirchener Strasse, coming out opposite a tanning salon. A little further down the street stands a house with a pistachio-green façade (to the right is another florist). This is Goebbels’s house. We go inside. It has been totally gutted. All that remains of the floor of the upstairs room where Goebbels was probably born is the supporting beams. We stand on the loose earth floor as night falls outside. Schneider had known about the house for years and when it came up for sale he bought it, from a family by the name of Schmitz. The father was an old Nazi who knew of the house’s previous inhabitant and was fascinated by phrenology, the pseudo-science postulating correlations between head shape and character. After the father’s death, the son, a drinker and a taxi driver, lived there with his mother until she, too, died. In the garden shed, Schneider found a craniometer, a device for measuring the human skull. He thought of demolishing the building entirely, but it wasn’t possible for structural reasons on account of a neighbouring house. He decided to gut it instead.
At the Zacheta Gallery in Warsaw, Schneider recently exhibited a number of found objects: besides the craniometer, they included phrenological literature (Die menschlichen Formengesetze als Schlüssel zur Rassenkunde, The Laws of Human Forms as a Key to the Study of Race, 1935), a detective novel called Die Pflicht zu schweigen (The duty to remain silent), and a CD by the kitschy violinist André Rieu (FUNDSTÜCKE, Finds, 2014). He swears that he found all this in the Goebbels house. They were accompanied by videos showing the artist himself sitting eating soup in the kitchen of the property before it was gutted (ESSEN, Eating) or lying down in the bedroom (SCHLAFEN, Sleeping, both 2014). The work is completed by a pile of rubble and pieces of wood (GEBURTSHAUS GOEBBELS, Goebbels’ birthplace, 2014). All of this in Warsaw, a city where the Nazis wreaked havoc, razing it to the ground and sending its Jews to the death camps. But that is precisely the point – this shipping of rubble from Germany to Poland is not a frivolous downplaying of historic guilt, but a visualization of it. A truck with more of this rubble stood outside the Zacheta Gallery during the opening in November last year – before driving to Berlin where it parked right outside the Volksbühne (UNSUBSCRIBE, 2014). A totally normal truck, there was a sign with the driver’s name in the window (‘Thorsten’). A platform allowed people to look down on the rubble from above. What you saw, unsurprisingly, was that the wooden beams and fragments of plaster themselves reveal nothing about the Nazi propaganda minister. Instead, one must join Schneider in wondering about the right way to deal with these residues and artefacts – beyond repression and fetishization.
When we arrive at the house on Unterheydener Strasse, night has fallen. It’s just around the corner from the Goebbels house, less than a stone’s throw away. We enter Haus u r. It feels deserted. From the corridor, we turn left and it’s hard to imagine the unease felt by unprepared visitors in the early 1990s. Now, one calmly accepts the need to squeeze through between two walls, one clad with insulating foam, to reach a bare room with a mattress on the floor. Funnily, when I open a door without asking to find a load of clutter and rubbish, Schneider reacts like anyone else whose guest mistakenly opens the broom cupboard while searching for the bathroom – whoops, wrong door. Time running out, we leave, and Schneider switches off the electricity to make sure there isn’t a light on or a radiator still running somewhere.
We hurry to the station. A train arrives immediately. Schneider has to go to the airport, I need to catch a connecting train in Dortmund, so we say our goodbyes. Alone, for the first time since the morning of this intense day, I check my smartphone. The news of what happened in Paris on this 7 January 2015 has already sparked heated discussion on Facebook.
On 15 January 2015 Schneider sends me an email. Attached are photographs of me standing outside the house where my family lived: an inconspicuous three-storey postwar building with a brick facade. In the subject line: ‘No one opened the door for you! Childhood memories! You didn’t even ring the bell!’ True, I thought, it’s just a house to which I am linked by something abstract. Not even memories, I was a baby. But my brother is eight years older than me. I forward the pictures to him, and he replies immediately: ‘Hi Jörg, THANKS. It’s exactly as I remember it. Roller-skating and bloodied knees. Reading Prince Valiant comics in bed in the evening. In the next-door church I met altar boys before I became one myself.’ He also sends a picture of the cover of Prince Valiant: The Menace of the Hun, by ‘Hal Foster’. Normal life in West Germany in the 1960s. Conservative Catholicism, blue-blooded comic-book heroes, scabby knees. For my brother, the picture of a sorry brick facade suffices to bring memories of all this back to life.
Unlike my brother, or me, Gregor Schneider doesn’t wait for someone to send him pictures. He himself goes in search of buildings and spaces. He builds and ruins and documents them, plunging himself and us into spirals of memory that twist their way into the present.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell