Gregor Schneider

Following the footsteps of erasement and preservation
– An eerie but local journey with Gregor Schneider

Photos: Susanne Schnabel

Mönchengladbach-Rheydt. This locality is of special relevance to Gregor Schneider. Not only was he born in Rheyd, but he also lives and works here as a sculptor, photographer and film maker. When creating the rooms of the Haus u r*, a family home, his work was essentially born. Since the age of sixteen, he has been building the same rooms into existing rooms, duplicating rooms and objects, or makes them vanish. The construction and fitting of twenty-four of these rooms into the German Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2001 resulted in him becoming the winner of the Golden Lion award. Since then, they have been exhibited in new, ongoing contexts worldwide.

* Title emerged from the abbreviation of Unterheydener Straße

Haus u r, Unterheydener Straße in Mönchengladbach-Rheydt, examples of rooms: Kaffeezimmer ur 10, ur 1, ur 3 A

A ten-minute drive from the Rheydt city center is the Garzweiler brown coal mine which gained notoriety due to the current climate debate. With his Sterbende Dörfer (dying villages) Gregor Schneider’s art has been giving exposure to this area since the eighties.

At a distance of one hundred metres as the crow flies from Haus u r is the birthplace of Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Gregor Schneider bought it in 2014 to research and document it. In addition to his works Sterberaum and Cube Venice, this caused great controversy, even death threats. In order to find answers to questions like “What is an original room?”, “What happens with rooms?” or “How can a room point to events that took place in it?” he is prepared to take unpredictable and personal risks. Within his artistic actions he follows his intuition absolutely excessively.

Exactly the opposite applies to the organisation and structure of his studio. This also applies to the preparation of my present visit, as I notice immediately.

“I suggest that we start by looking around here and then together head to Garzweiler, Goebbels Haus, Haus u r and my large storage depot “. My excitement is growing.

The studio is as spacious as an architect’s office. Work tables with drawings and models take up one half of the room, while shelf systems labelled library-style the other. During a walk-about I get introduced to the overall structure of the Schneider-Welt (Schneider’s World).

Views of the studio

“For a start it is important to mention that not only all communication, development and execution of new exhibitions is controlled from here, but also the archiving and storage of all past exhibitions. In addition to my photographs and films, which are in storage here, my sculptures and also the rooms – depending on their size – are stored in the adjoining store or the large storage depot. The authenticity of rooms – consisting of floor, walls and ceilings – is of great importance to me. That is the reason you will ultimately only see originals built by me in any exhibitions. It annoys me that museums are of the opinion that, after the death of an artist – as was the case of Absalon or Schwitters – they can simply reconstruct spatial artworks, instead of collecting and preserving these while the artists are still alive. In addition to researching, exhibiting and facilitating art, collecting it is, after all, an essential undertaking of museums.

But rooms too must be treated like sculptures and paintings. If a painting is lost, nobody thinks of painting it again exactly like the artist. Architecture is covered by the regulations applying to the protection of monuments. The concern with rooms is not protected by anything. In order to preserve original spatial artworks, I must personally attend to the moveable storage and the logistics. There are usually two of us here who deal with this“, Schneider explains, while we are taking a look at the store room attached to the studio.

Transport crates on palettes are marked with the respective project titles. I discover crates labelled “Bad 2014“ and remember the bathrooms – twenty one of them, one after the other, – which the visitor to Schauspiel Köln walks through and which caused me to be completely confused at the time. I have rarely been so glad to get back outside.

One part of the depot has been fitted out as a photo studio. An opportunity for a shooting….

Store next to the studio

After taking a look into the adjoining workshops, we leave the venue and start the planned journey.

We drive to Garzweiler. While many of the former villages of the brown coal area have already vanished, empty small towns continue to be visible, awaiting their extinction. The atmosphere is unnerving.

“It was important to me to come here, because here I did not only expose the destruction of a cultural region and its effects on the climate, but, for the first time investigated rooms for a vanished reality. Without this involvement Haus u r would have been unthinkable. I removed objects from several of the houses and fitted them into Haus u r. The pipes required to lower the level of the ground water inspired me, I used them in later exhibitions, then deconstructed and stored them as usual. I will show you in the store.“

Examples from Verschwundene Dörfer

Off we go to the next destination. When the enormous roll-up door opens, I get an idea of the size. Still, the extent of the hall more than surprises me. One could store two airplanes in here. Not only transport crates, but containers are stored here. By the labels or individual, visible elements I can recognise projects like totes Haus u r in the German Pavilion on Venice (2001), Steindamm in the Hamburg Kunsthalle (2003), Die Familie Schneider in London (2004), Weiße Folter in K21 in Dusseldorf (2007) or It’s All Rheydt in Calcutta (2011). I can see the Garzweiler waste water pipes under a tarpaulin, which were used under the title Kunstmuseum in the Kunstmuseum Bochum in 2014. If not before, at least now the logistical effort becomes obvious that is connected with the collection of Schneider’s own opus created over thirty years.

Store

Our next destination takes us to the Goebbels Haus. What will it feel like stepping into the place where one of the worst criminals of the Nazi-era was born? Before we enter, Schneider explains his motivation for his controversial project.

“The increasingly emerging connections were nothing short of unnerving. Of course, I was aware that Goebbels came from Rheydt. The fact that I had studied him in greater depth was connected to my contribution in the German Pavilion in Venice in 2001. It was known that Goebbels too had curated a German contribution there on two occasions. When getting to grips with this place I continued to investigate and discovered extracts of his publicly accessible dairy. The entries made by him in view of the military defeat and his own imminent death show the special bond to his birth place.

Still during the war, he had learnt that a white flag had been raised in front of his birth place in Rheydt. This event alone had caused him, in agreement with Hitler, to initiate partisan assassinations which would provide for the murder of Heinrich Vogelsang, the new mayor of Rheydt, and a summary court martial of the local clergy. In his diary he also describes in detail that the mayor of Aachen had also been murdered by partisan assassination. I then found the address of the place of birth in the city archives. Until 2006 it was maintained there, that the house had been destroyed during the war. By chance I came across a listing of the house up for sale in 2014 that had allegedly been destroyed. It was very close to the Haus u r and it was strikingly similar. With a combination of personal compulsion and the duty to work through repressed history, I felt simply compelled to purchase the house. I had the feeling the house had found me and not the other way round. “

I enter the house feeling uneasy. No explanation is needed to see that the interior was pared down to the original substance of the house. The room where Goebbels was born shows nothing but the blank brick wall, the trabeation of the ceiling and even the vaulted ceilings which makes the floor appear like a ploughed field.

Birth place of Joseph Goebbels, Odenkirchener Straße 202 in Mönchengladbach-Rheydt

“It was simply an unbearably unfree situation. The house exists, and nobody talks about it. Something that is not spoken about can become very loud. And as it turned out afterwards, the existence of the house was a well-kept secret not only for the inhabitants and neighbours. The idea was to use art – by converting the building material – to convert into a new symbol, a place, which, through its history, had had negative connotations. However, at the beginning it was important to me to systematically investigate and document the house. I scanned the whole house in in 3 D. During that period, I tried to live here. The Nazi sprit was still present in the house in form of books on phrenology and racial science. The presence of that spirit in these walls was unbearable.“

Art-actions Essen und Schlafen, Odenkirchener Straße 202, Rheydt 2014

“I tackled Peter Longerich’s thesis [Goebbels‘ biographer], according to which Goebbels‘ narcistic personality disorder is supposed to have developed during the first three years of his life. I asked myself the question to which spatial influence he might have been exposed during that time. Based on the fact that traces of use and of living are imprinted in any material, I then looked for traces and literally dug down to the original substance of the room he was born in. My objective was to transpose all traces and then to pulverise the entire house in order to transform the place. However, the project as a whole could not be carried out due to structural problems. Under the title unsubscribe I exhibited the gutted house and its transformed relics in the National Gallery in Warsaw, left the rubble parked outside and later also parked the rubble outside of Volksbühne Berlin.“

Left: Truck with rubble of the house Odenkirchener Straße 202 in front of the Zacheta National Gallery in Warsaw, right: Transformed relics of the inhabitants of the house at Odenkirchener Straße 202

The last stop of our tour is the legendary Haus u r, in which nothing is as it used to be. Because of the multiple alterations of the rooms, entering them without the artist acting as guide is not possible. So as not to fall into any holes, I obediently follow his instructions: “Please keep your back along the wall. – Don’t continue walking there. That goes to the basement. The staircase is no longer there. – Watch out! It is full of rubble here. Please turn round carefully… “

Haus u r

It is only the stairwell that takes us to the first floor that appears to be normal. Looking at the window in the mezzanine I ask myself, however, whether I am looking at an opening to the outside or maybe only a source of light that fakes daylight. When arriving upstairs, we enter a room where Schneider opens a trap door set into a wall. A kind of passage becomes visible which leads to a previously invisible room. Once standing in it I realise that I crawled through the wall of a cupboard with a built-in wash basin and a kitchenette. Fitted with a bed, bath tub, stool, ladder, baggage rack and heater this is the room Liebeslaube (built in 1995), which I had only seen in pictures. It feels quite special to be able to touch and absorb everything.

… Passage to Liebeslaube

… without words

I finally conclude: Nothing, really, changes the general atmosphere of the unsettling and the surreal. Just as in the Goebbels Haus or the Sterbende Dörfer it is the tangible erasement of any traces of use and living, the isolation and conversion of substance or its constructed duplication which causes this atmosphere.

Again and again, traces of individuality are erased and questions of originality and invisible realities asked. Gregor Schneider stages something surreal alien, something that is indefinably different, something between erasement and preservation which confuses positioning in space and time and questions realities previously believed to be secure . . .

More information

… on Gregor Schneider: https://www.gregor-schneider.de

Future and current exhibitions:

08.10.2019 – 28.06.2020: The dark side, Musja, Roma, Italy, Curator: Danilo Eccher (Cat)

28.11.2019 – 30.08.202: Tell me about yesterday tomorrow, NS-Dokumentationszentrum, München, Germany, Curator: Nicolaus Schafhausen (Cat)

soon: Time Present, Photography from the Deutsche Bank Collection, PalaisPopulaire, Berlin, Germany

29.08.2020 – 06.12.2020: Tote Räume, West Museumkwartier, Den Haag, Netherlands, Curator: Marie-José Sondeijker (Solo) (Cat)

03.09.2020 – 06.09.2020: Kreuzweg, Logroño’s International Architecture and Design Festival, Logroño, Spain

(Solo) – Solo exhibition

(Cat) – Catalogue