Garzweiler, Germany, 1990-91. © Gregor Schneider / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Visitors to the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester have been having an unsettling time of late. Uneasy and disorientated they have found themselves groping their way through a blacked-out space towards an eerie shard of light. Taking their chances most have entered the room beyond, eventually stumbling their way back into the gloom in search of a way out.
This slice of Freudian strangeness is called Kinderzimmer and is the latest installation from the German artist Gregor Schneider.
It was commissioned by the Whitworth for their exhibition Subversive Spaces: Surrealism and Contemporary Art and provides a suitable finale to a series of visceral encounters with artists grappling with the Surrealist past and the subversive present.
“It’s completely dark and most visitors find that unsettling – I definitely got lost completely,” admits co-curator Anna Dezeuze. “Really you end up guiding yourself by touching the walls.”
Garzweiler, Germany, 1990-91 © Gregor Schneider / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Eventually, perceiving the thin sliver of light the solitary visitor enters an empty cell, like an abandoned bedroom. They then touch their way along until they encounter a window through which they peer at something that looks eerily like the same room - but with a mattress in it.
“You start thinking ‘oh, is this the room I have just been in or could I go into this as well?’” says Dezeuze. “This was the bit that I really got lost in because I decided to try and retrace my footsteps and then I really lost myself and sense of orientation completely.”
The two rooms are actually reconstructed children’s bedrooms recovered from the village of Garzweiler in Schneider’s Rhineland home, erased to make way for opencast mining.
Schneider has a fascination with rooms, spaces and interiors. His Death House series for the Venice Biennale of 2001 featured a series of ghostly rooms and his last major installation on UK shores in 2004 unnerved solitary visitors to a creepy pair of houses in London’s East End. Once inside they found some disturbing scenes - courtesy of a sinister twin set of mute families.
u r 7, Totes Haus u r, 1988-present. German Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2001 © Gregor Schneider / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
For many who visited Die Familie Schneider it was a deeply unsettling experience. Beneath the overt normality lurked a disturbing atmosphere that touched on dark and uncomfortable notions of child abuse, sexual tension, murder and menace.
The installation was a sell-out. Timed visits were booked up weeks in advance by people eager to be weirded out by this skewed vision of the family home.
Schneider is an artist who evidently enjoys pushing boundaries. In 2008 he was vilified for proposing an artwork in which someone would die in a gallery. So what did the curators in Manchester expect when they approached an artist with such a reputation for the unusual and the uncanny?
“We approached him because we thought he was one of the artists who not only could be connected to Surrealism but could also be said to engage very directly with the theme of the show which is space,” says Dezeuze.
“It was a kind of way of retrieving the original shock and defamiliarisation that was inherent to Surrealism but was somehow lost over the years and that nowadays to us seem very tame. So we wanted to use Schneider in a sense to give that aspect of surrealism.”
And it is this sense of defamiliarisation that Schneider uses to tap into some of the themes the Surrealists were interested in. Although he surprised staff with his choice of gallery space.
“We thought he would be attracted to our basement, we showed him all the nooks and crannies of the gallery and he took us by surprise by choosing one of the main spaces of the gallery – and very perversely a space which has a huge bay window – to create a work using utter darkness.”
u r 1 u 14, SCHLAFZIMMER Totes Haus u r, 1988-present. German Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2001 © Gregor Schneider / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
For many visitors, the temptation to try something that might frighten or disorientate fuels the overriding impulse to visit. An added frisson comes from the knowledge that Schneider’s installations on the continent have often required visitors to sign disclaimers before entering them.
Happily The Whitworth Art Gallery is fairly laid back about such things and people are allowed to wander into the unknown and take their chances, spending as long as they like in the disquieting darkness.
On a practical level it can be frustrating for people who have to wait but in terms of exhibition practice presenting an artwork that requires visitors to take the plunge and open themselves up to the unknown is proving to be a liberating experience.
“We have very few occasions in our life to be in complete darkness and it really means that your body is mobilised in a way that you’re not used to, so it’s your body that does the work,” says Dezeuze.
“So that’s really what created this unsettling experience – not only do you have no control but in a sense your body takes over. That sinking feeling in your stomach – or panic (and there are some people who have panicked) is what leads you through.”
“Most people are however a little bit scared,” she adds. “Even those who are comfortable with darkness and have a good sense of orientation eventually succumb and ultimately find it disorienting.”
Visitors have until May 31 2009 to experience the Kinderzimmer installation. Subversive Spaces: Surrealism and Contemporary Art runs until May 4 2009. Admission to both is free.