If Gregor Schneider was a film-maker, he’d be John Carpenter or Wes Craven. He is contemporary art’s answer to the Horror movie, an artist who makes sinister and disturbing rooms, corridors, hallways and other interior or enclosed architectural spaces. In 2007, he exhibited “White Torture” in Hamburg – a corridor and linked rooms, all in white, like a hospital, that smelt suffocatingly of wet paint and plastic. It was full of doors, some of which were locked and some of which lead into cells. In London in 2004, he showed ‘The Schneider Family’, in which he took two neighbouring terraced houses and created identical scenes in each, not only in terms of the interior décor, but with actors too. There was a man in the bathroom of each house who appeared to be satisfying himself, and, in another room, a little girl wrapped in a plastic bag. That is typical of Schneider. His work has incredible precision. It uses the discipline and simplicity of minimalism, but it also often has elements that seem to come from cheap TV drama.
Schneider’s best-known work is still his first, Haus Ur, which he exhibited at the German pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2001, winning the Golden Lion. The artist is said to have begun making it in 1985, at the age of 16. It was originally the house that belonged to his father and that Schneider grew up in – an average-looking several-storeyed building, which Schneider had transformed into a giant installation full of sinister rooms, each with a different character.
There was a room of scary banality, with a low ceiling that was just white walls and skirting boards and carpeted floor. There was a room that was lead-lined and sound-proofed. There was a room, like a bedsit with a kitchen and a single bed in it. And there were secret partitions, rubbish-strewn corridors and doors without handles on the inside. Sometimes Schneider packed up the rooms he had made and sent them around the world in exhibitions. He also photographed the rooms and sold these images as works.
Much of the greatest art seems to be produced from personal suffering and to express universal human trauma, like the twisted figures in the paintings of Francis Bacon, the fat and felt of Joseph Beuys or the dark Expressionism of Max Beckmann. Schneider’s Haus Ur seemed to me to be a bona fide example of art that had to have come from terrible experiences. Yet, nothing in what I had read about Schneider gave any indication of what the biographical source for his work might be. So I decided to dedicate one of my Art Safaris to trying to find out about his youth. Schneider invited me to visit him at Haus Ur. He was a great host, friendly and polite. He. He showed me around his house and around town, even taking me and my producer to the local discos one evening. He took me round the lead factory his father owned, and showed me the deserted homes in empty German villages where he collected materials and found inspiration for his art. But it was difficult to get him to answer questions about his childhood. Still, sometimes, silence speaks louder than words.