Postmodernism and Contemporary Art. (Fine Art Year Two. December 2009)

 

‘“What will be spooky about Kinderzimmer? You will be walking into an empty box. The visitor will find nothing except his own inner experiences in that space. He will be asked to confront them”’ –Gregor Schneider (Campbell-Johnston 2009).

Through this essay, it is my intention to examine the impact of one aspect of postmodernism on a particular piece of art. I have chosen to consider how the theory of ‘the uncanny’ bears on the 2008 work, Kinderzimmer (Nursery), by the German artist, Gregor Schneider. I will begin by defining what we mean by ‘the uncanny’, follow this with a description of the Kinderzimmer installation, and then analyse the artwork and the artist in relation to the theory and with each other. I also feel that it is worth noting that while this essay is from the perspective of postmodern theory, ‘for a century of scholars, the uncanny has been a particularly modernist issue, because it shares the same concerns as that consummate modernist thinker, Freud’ (Arnzen 1997).

‘Uncanny’ is the English word used to translate the German unheimlich (literally ‘unhomely’) and was discussed by Sigmund Freud in his 1919 essay, Das Unheimliche. Chambers Dictionary (11th edition) defines uncanny as ‘weird, supernatural’ and this is how it most widely used. Freud recognised that there was no exact equivalent to unheimlich in English (for example) when he said that ‘some languages in use to-day can only render the German expression ‘an unheimlich house’ by “a haunted house”’ (Freud 1919:364). Furthermore, Jeffrey Sconce points out that ‘in the popular imagination, the uncanny has become a synonym for the paranormal’ (Kelley and Sconce 2004). Freud’s use of the literature of fantasy -and in particular E.T.A. Hoffmann ‘s The Sandman- to illustrate his thinking means that the uncanny has been associated with fantasy, the supernatural and tales drawn from those genres right from the point at which it moved from being simply an identifiable experience and became a concept for examination.

The uncanny is a more complex concept than the upset caused by an apparently paranormal experience or even simply being afraid, for although it is ‘undoubtedly related to what is frightening -to what arouses dread and horror’ (Freud 1919: 339) it is important to remember that Freud was not actually discussing ‘the uncanny’, he was using the term unheimlich. The German word is the opposite of heimlich (which is closer to its English equivalent, homely), with heimlich meaning belonging to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, intimate, friendly (my emphasis). However, in his thorough review of the meaning of the term, Freud also finds that heimlich actually shares some meaning with its opposite, in that heimlich can refer to that which is secret, hidden, occult (a word meaning hidden that is also applied to the paranormal, magic), even dangerous.

While Freud’s essay acknowledges the uncanniness of purported supernatural occurrences (for example, the double, the apparent greater significance of coincidences, the apparent or actual animation of the inanimate), he is really dealing with this experience as a psychiatrist, the uncanny as negative experiences arising from everyday situations through the resurgence of repressed feelings, impulses and memories. Essentially, the uncanny experience is when the familiar becomes strange and thereby leads to discomfort, anxiety, even fear. However, it must always be remembered that ‘the uncanny’ has connotations that are lacking in the English, principally the association with the home and family and their safety and stability (or otherwise); because of this, one might use the German instead of the English in certain cases, to provide greater clarity and to avoid the elements of the fantastic that the latter implies, at least with an audience familiar with Freud’s essay.

Kinderzimmer was part of the Subversive Spaces: Surrealism and Contemporary Art exhibition during the first half of 2009, where it was set up in the South Gallery of the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester. It has since been moved, so its exact configuration may now differ due to its being in a new space, although the essentials should be the same wherever it is located. The installation took up the whole of the South Gallery, which was sealed off, with only one entrance and one exit, leaving the piece in total darkness. Somewhere in this darkness, possibly the centre -it is hard to tell- is another room: this is the kinderzimmer of the title. Viewed through a lit window, this room is cell-like, almost empty but for a small sleeping mat on the floor -a child’s bed, bare and empty. If one feels around the exterior wall of this room within a room, a door can be found, allowing entrance to an identical room, with a window showing only darkness and with a bare floor: there is no sleeping mat in here.

The child’s room is modelled after one in the German town of Garzweller, which was abandoned to make way for an enormous open-cast mining project. Hidden around a corner in the larger room, to hide its illumination, a video projection plays. It shows shots of Garzweller; boarded up doors and windows, empty streets. They look like still photographs, but sometimes a breeze swings a telephone wire, sets a bush twitching or a bird appears in the background sky, crossing the frame.

Kinderzimmer is clearly in the tradition of Gregor Schneider’s other work, which consists mainly of remodelling interiors and constructing rooms within galleries, museums and house. Famously, he began dismantling and reconfiguring the interior of a house in 1985 when he was sixteen and continued to do so. This was his childhood home in Mönchengladbach-Rheydt (Rhineland, Germany) and, as a work, is titled Haus Ur. The original internal structure of the house is now lost beneath the modifications, Schneider saying that some of it will only be recoverable when the house is finally demolished. From the outside, it looks perfectly normal.

In 2001, Schneider won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, exhibiting Totes Haus Ur in the German Pavilion. Constructed in parts with components from the German house, this was described as ‘a house of horrors. The place was a maze of fake partitions, lead-lined rooms, makeshift sleeping quarters and a kitchen encrusted with mould’ (Lack 2009).

His work is often political and controversial. He has exhibited an enormous black cube, based on the Kaaba, the most sacred place in the Islamic faith (rejected in Venice, 2005, but finally realised in Hamburg, 2007); an installation of cell-like structures on Bondi Beach, which references the American military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Weisse Folter (White or Clean Torture), an installation also influenced by Guantanamo Bay and the treatment of political prisoners worldwide, based on the architecture and techniques designed to psychologically torture (let’s not quibble over this) detainees.

Notoriously, Schneider has also made it known that he hopes one day to construct a room in a museum or a gallery in which a member of the public would volunteer to die.

We can see from these examples that the artist is almost exclusively using structures -habitable structures, occupiable spaces- as his medium. We can also see that his intention seems to be to cause discomfort in the viewer (explorer?). While the discomfort depends on one’s views on contemporary Islam and its adherents in the case of the Kaaba-inspired cube, in other works the cause of the discomfort is more general: the distortion of a generic, familiar space (the house, the gallery, the museum); the way in which the built environment can impact on the psyche and how this can be done deliberately to cause harm; confrontation with the reality of the dying and of death.

These are clearly unheimlich, and therefore uncanny. As a German, Schneider automatically knows that the uncanny is unheimlich: there is no difference between the two terms. Or rather, when dealing with the uncanny, Schneider is less hampered by the paranormal connotations of the English. There are no ghosts in his houses: they are unheimlich, not haunted.

It is tempting for critics to argue that Schneider’s work arises from trauma. It may be significant that Haus Ur, begun when the artist was sixteen years old, coincides with the death of Schneider’s father (Lack 2009). For many, this would be an easy conclusion to draw but over-emphasis on this factor acts as blinkers in relation to the wider issues and complexities of Schneider’s work. However, it would be very appropriate if the artist was choosing to work from a foundation of his own trauma. Despite the other implications of the essay, Freud was essentially dealing with the uncanny in relation to psychiatry and psychoanalysis; in the Freudian tradition, the uncanny is very definitely tied to the home, the family, intimacy, and the repression and resurgence of trauma within these situations.

In Kinderzimmer, we immediately perceive the references to the home and the family. The inching through the dark, the looking through the window, the entry into the child’s room, these immediately speak of intimacy. On the one hand, it is possible to recognise the stealthy vigilance and concern of the parent or older sibling. On the other, we recognise how close that secret safety check can be to the behaviour of the burglar, the murderer, the sexual predator, just as heimlich and unheimlich can meet and share meaning.

During the time in which Schneider was constructing Kinderzimmer and then during its exhibition in Manchester, it would have been difficult to avoid making connections with the case of Josef Fritzl. Fritzl is an Austrian man, accused and found guilty of kidnapping and imprisoning his daughter, then having her bear his children while they remained locked in a specially constructed ‘bunker’ in the basement of his house for a period of twenty-four years. As this crime came to light during April 2008 and was an international story, it is difficult to imagine the artist not being aware of it and also conscious as to the reaction of his audience when experiencing Kinderzimmer.

The remodelled house and the secret basement are staples of our culture. The fictional Bates Motel, an uncanny place by any measure, is mentioned in relation to Schneider’s work, as is the real life 25 Cromwell Street, the internally modified house of the serial killer, Fred West. While the serial killer as constructor of a secret interior has become a cliché of the genre (for example, the house of Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, the lair of Avery Marx in the 1999 Acclaim video game, Shadow Man), it is a cliché that sprang fully formed from the real world. In 1893, Herman Webster Mudgett (also known under the alias Doctor Henry Howard Holmes) opened his ‘hotel’, which was in fact a rambling construction of meandering passages, windowless rooms, soundproof chambers, and stairs to nowhere (Larson 2004): does this not remind one of Haus Ur and Totes Haus Ur? In our popular culture, the serial killer becomes an uncanny being, somehow able to avoid detection for abominable crimes. In many cases, the crimes are not recognised until the perpetrator is caught, turning their property into a gruesome and uncanny historical document: we look at the work of Gregor Schneider and we shudder at some of the company he metaphorically keeps and wonder exactly what the influences are.

It seems always to be that Schneider tries to make the uncanny experiential. His installations do not have any overtly ghastly trappings: no ghosts, no blood, no skulls, no bats. As I have already mentioned, it might be that his native linguistic familiarity with unheimlich means he can engage with it without the paranormal baggage of ‘uncanny’. Schneider himself ‘would argue (possibly disingenuously) that any associations we make concerning his art are constructed from our own ghoulish imaginations’ (Lack 2009), that any horror we experience is generated by our own imaginations. While this is clearly the case, the work is already charged with ready-made triggers for these associations. In fact, some might think that ‘Schneider’s manipulations are too obvious to inspire real dread’. However, even this commentator admits that ‘in Freudian terms, Kinderzimmer (Nursery) is all very unheimlich’ (Cumming 2009).

Kinderzimmer may lack the paranormal trappings of the uncanny, but everything else is there: darkness, isolation, silence, doubling, expectation. When one goes to see the work of an artist as distinctive as Gregor Schneider, one already has expectations. These are further encouraged by the attendant at the entrance reassuring you that you will be okay, that nothing will hurt you, that you only have to cry out and they will come and rescue you. Unfortunately, with Kinderzimmer, because one can immediately see how the expected effect is to be achieved and because it is essentially just a dark room (rather than an elaborate, extensive complex), ‘we retain a feeling of dissatisfaction, a kind of grudge against the attempted deceit’ (Freud 1919: 374). The distance between the lit window looking into the child’s room and the door allowing ingress to the replica are too distant from each other to fool the senses, but it is apparent what was meant to be achieved.

In addition, we do not fully experience ‘the uncanny effect of silence, darkness and solitude’ (Freud 1919: 369) because Kinderzimmer is not soundproofed. We are not alone because we can hear the other visitors in the rest of the gallery and we are not in silence because Tony Oursler’s 1995 work, The Most Beautiful Thing I Have Never Seen, can be heard inside Kinderzimmer and throughout the whole of the Subversive Spaces exhibition. In another situation this might aid the experience of feelings of the uncanny, but in this case it is merely intrusive, destroying the intimacy of the heimlich that is required for the unheimlich to manifest.

However, the success or otherwise of Kinderzimmer does not diminish the recognition of the influence of the theory of the uncanny. Sadly, it makes this influence all too plain. The Freudian tradition is well known within our culture, it is no longer specialist information and we are all able to decode things, however roughly, in Freudian terms. We are familiar with the trappings of the uncanny, even unheimlich, and these can affect us even when we are aware and understand them. For example, two of the best ghost stories in the English language (Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House) can be read as being devoid of supernatural elements: this house is not haunted, it is unheimlich; the visitors have brought the phantoms to the house, not the other way round.

It is because we all know what is meant to be frightening, what can induce uncanny feeling, that Gregor Schneider is able to play upon this knowledge and these expectations. We like to feel that the home and the family are safe, stable, comforting. This is why we see deserted houses as creepy, haunted. This is why the architecture of Fritzl, West and Mudgett takes on the taint of the crimes of their architect. Everything is familiar but has been made strange by the associations we make and the half-formed conclusions we draw, and we cannot help but to dredge up things from our personal and cultural consciousness that we might not want to look at.

Whether it has been a result of his own trauma, Kinderzimmer and the wider work of Gregor Schneider are firmly in the tradition of the uncanny. It could even be said that they are wholly in the uncanny psychoanalytical tradition, with the artist also working as healer: ‘“My work is not about making you fearful. It is about helping you reflect upon and overcome your fear”’ (Campbell-Johnston 2009).

Bibliography.

Arnzen, Michael (1997) The Return of the Uncanny. Paradoxa. Vol. 3, No. 3-4.

Campbell-Johnston, Rachel (2009) Gregor Schneider, the inner space man. The Times. January 27.

Cumming, Laura (2009) The art of dreams –and déjà vu. The Guardian. February 15.

Freud, Sigmund (1919) The Uncanny. Leeds Met Historical and Critical Studies Level 2 Module Handbook.

Jackson, Rosemary (1981) Fantasy: The literature of subversion. Routledge.

Kelley, Mike and Sconce, Jeffrey (2004) I’ve got this Strange feeling [Internet], Tate Online. Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/tateetc/issue1/article8.htm [Accessed 7 December 2009].

Lack, Jessica (2009) Artist of the week 28: Gregor Schneider. The Guardian. February 11.

Larson, Erik (2004) The Devil in the White City. Bantam Books.

 

 

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