Gregor Schneider had already known both houses for many years. For one of his early exhibitions there, he had barely perceptibly reduced the size of two rooms by constructing new walls just inside the existing walls. Elsewhere he had cut out a rectangular section of wall and replaced it with a piece in the same size from his Haus u r, which he then plastered over and painted. There was nothing to be seen of what had happened; it was only when one heard of what had been done that one’s thoughts started to toy with the invisible presence of the Other in the Here. On a later occasion the infiltration of these two houses with rooms from Haus u r was continued. In this case it took the form of small monitors with film footage shot in that silent, evocative house in Mönchengladbach, the seed corn of his artistic work. Later still, Schneider transformed the interior of the otherwise unused garden house. For the first few days of the exhibition an “old house slut” is said to have lain face-down on the floor, completely motionless. At around the same time a photograph was taken in the dwelling house. The shot is of an empty room and out through the window to the garden and the other house. Close to the right-hand wall in the room a man dressed in black is lying on the floor, outstretched on his back. The figure is powerfully foreshortened, his head is turned to one side. Renaissance images come to mind: Mantegna’s Christo in scurto or maybe Baldung’s Bewitched Groom.
The houses are none other than Haus Lange and Haus Esters in Krefeld in the Rhineland, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and constructed between 1927 and 1930. These villas mark a transition in his œuvre, with their intuitively calculated harmony and their pragmatism as dwelling houses yet nevertheless compelling examples of modernist New Building. For many decades now contemporary art has been shown there. Leading artists have not only presented work there, they have also variously responded in concrete terms to them with individual works and large-scale installations.
The photograph of the room with the figure on the floor was the initial, distant indication of the connection between a room of that kind and a human body in a strangely extended yet calm, rigid position. If at all, death was only one of several possible readings. Sterberaum (“dying room”), presented to the public for the first time in 2011, is a largely faithful reconstruction of the interior of this room, which was originally used by the master of the house. The window profiles are correct, the oak parquet, the wood used for the door, the travertine marble window sills, the fixtures for hanging the collector’s pictures, the contemporary spotlights under the ceilings and other details. Schneider creates a copy of the room in Haus Esters, thereby rendering it independent of its original location and available for his own ends. It becomes a mobile exhibition space—for whatever purpose—but also a built room in its own right. However, there is a perhaps minimal, thought provoking difference between the original and the replica: Sterberaum is a little smaller than the room in the house by Mies van der Rohe. Theoretically it could be placed inside the original, it could be slotted into its place of origin, doubling the status quo, which would disappear behind the copy of itself, a kind of self-camouflage. This infinitesimal change casts a shimmer of doubt on an as it were iconic instance of modern architecture and exhibition history and in a sense distances it from us. Yet it would be wrong to describe this as institutional critique. It seems that Schneider’s process of replicating and concealing is intended as an affirmation of the characteristics of the original room that he has so carefully researched. Importance attaches to something different, namely the teasing apart of original and replica. Since the original was not available, he did more than merely create an accurate substitute room—possibly as a place to die in. For the subtle non-identity of the Mies-room and Sterberaum, by virtue of the slight difference in scale, turns the latter into a kind of model, not only with respect to the original but also in view of the purpose indicated in its title. In 2008, when Schneider expressed his desire, as an artist, to create a room in which a person could die with dignity, his plan was regarded by many as a presumptuous, sensationalist art strategy and treated as a scandal. Others welcomed his idea as backing for their own striving for a humane form of death in present-day society. But is the work at all suitable for either one of these two functions? Is it not rather the case that the model-like nature of the room already points to the fact that here a personal and artistic intention has been transposed into a general, abstract form?
However, the fact that this is a replica of a room in Haus Esters is not what makes Sterberaum a self-sufficient work of art. Even if Mies van der Rohe’s room is merely an example of a harmonious, aesthetically satisfying dwelling and one ought not to place undue weight on this material origin of Schneider’s work, there are other permutations and contradictions between the two that cause the viewer to reconsider Sterberaum. Visitors are allowed—are meant—to enter the museum room. Walking into it is natural behavior in a space of this kind. It is not possible to walk into Sterberaum, only to look into it from outside through the two windows. Nor is the slightly open door, visible in the background, intended for the visitor to pass through. In the two villas by Mies van der Rohe the views through the large windows into the surrounding greenery—that is to say, the relationship of inside and outside—is crucial to the effect achieved by the architecture. In the case of Sterberaum there are no such views; the only view is from outside into an interior. Haus Esters needs daylight in order to come fully into its own. Only then does the subtle dialectic of interior and exterior makes its full impact, and light and shade can play their part in the spatial concept. Not so in Sterberaum, which is dominated by the ever-unchanging, relatively weak dose of artificial light emitted into the empty space by the ceiling spotlights. The museum room is a real architectural space with its own physical presence, with its material connection to the overall experience of the house. In the case of Sterberaum only the interior is “real” matter. The external space is finished with black cladding, which has the sole purpose of concealing its exterior from view. Enclosing the replica room there is a very different category of room, almost a kind of un-room or non-room. It has no architectural value, but serves merely to concentrate the viewer’s attention on the (actual) Sterberaum. It is simply dark, as dark and as devoid of reflections as possible. Visitors approach through a light-sluice that slowly cuts them off from the rest of the museum, until it is as though they find themselves in a Nowhere in the midst of the work. It is these two rooms—the White Cube of the replica of a modernist villa and exhibition space and the Black Cube of a neutral visitor space—that constitute Sterberaum.
If not before, at the latest the reference to “dying” in the title allows one’s experience of the work somehow to be infiltrated by a temporal dimension that corresponds to the spatial situation. The notion of “dying” (matched only by its counterpart, birth) indicates an extreme threshold between before and after, between a self-evident Here and a diffuse There. Yet it refers not only to a sharp division, but also to a process of transition, that we only seem able to grasp in mythological or mystical terms. Temporal awareness of dying and death merges into a spatial awareness of and in Sterberaum. Since the room is the only thing that one can readily localize and recognize, it seems that real time is concentrated in it, the Now in its physical immediacy. So what is this lightless viewers’ space? A place of non-time? Merely a “standpoint” that isolates the spectator and turns him or her into a non-participant, since he does not share any temporal dimension with the object he is observing that would allow him to take active responsibility or even to engage with it mentally? One could try (as an experiment) thinking of time in the viewers’ space as lying in the future. The confrontation of the two rooms would then actually imply impossible perspectival shifts. It would be as though the viewer at some time in the future, in fact at a time after a/his/her death, and from the point of view of some sort of afterlife, were to contemplate (imagined) dying in that room. At this point this line of thought of necessity enters the realms of speculation or, to put it more precisely, metaphysics. So—again as an experiment—the opposite perspective: in this case the viewers’ space is identified with Now time, with an I-Here, and the silent, eventless Sterberaum could be read as something pointing to a past—when a death occurred—or, perhaps more likely, to a future—when a death could occur. However one allocates times to these two rooms, they veer apart.
In Western art depictions of death and dying traditionally concentrated on the body (of Christ), on the suffering and changes that death brings with it. Artists portrayed the decaying body with ever greater realism—witness Grünewald’s figure of the Crucified Christ. In a religious context the disintegrating physis of an exemplary individual became not only a sign of death as such but also a symbol of the expectation of Redemption. Even when religion no longer dominated daily life the fixation on an image of a body in its death throes continued to determine images of dying and death. The advent of film made it possible to focus on the moment of oncoming death, to convey the time-span of that transition. Once again set patterns of behavior and stereotypical symbols quickly established themselves in connection with this broadly speaking ungraspable moment. By contrast, Sterberaum offers a logical response to the impossibility of representing death. It, as it were, divests itself of the thing that it is about. It sidesteps the compulsion to depict something that—since the demise of binding iconographies and despite the evocative powers of all our new media—cannot be portrayed. It does not invent its own new story or metaphor in order to talk indirectly about death. This work delegates its subject matter to the viewer’s experience of a room that is presented as a possible place of dying. This situation has a certain similarity, albeit in a purified form, to a visit to a historical figure’s home (now preserved as a museum) and in particular to the room in which he or she died. However unspectacular, even banal, that room may be, the visitor’s awareness of its significance sees him or her involuntarily searching for indications of the special importance of this place or perhaps succumbing to a reflection on death. Sterberaum is not only devoid of telling details, it also prevents the place being connected with any particular person. There is no room here for anecdote. This place is addressed to anyone and everyone, anyone might be its object. This presumes a trust in the connection between the theme of the work and the room, although it is not supported by concrete facts or visible analogies. On the face of things there is something entirely arbitrary about Schneider’s decision to make the connection between this room and this architecture and dying and death. His feeling that this idea could nevertheless work was founded partly on the visible, palpable peace, harmony, and ultimately beauty of Mies van der Rohe’s design, which could provide a fitting ambience for a person’s last resting place. At the same time it also relies on the presentation of this piece of architecture in a neutral yet meaningful setting, namely the museum, or, in more general terms, the White Cube.
Death is a topic that already emerged early on in Schneider’s work. There was his fascination with the site in a forest where someone was murdered (Tote Kunststudentin [Dead Art Student] 1989). He dug holes as though to bury himself. Some years later, in a slim catalogue pamphlet the numbers of his works are accompanied with almost narrative extra titles, all of which is presented under the ominous heading töten [“killing”]. An early work in a deserted house is named Total isolierter toter Raum [Completely Insulated Dead Room] (1989–91). And the seed of all his later work, the repeatedly reconstructed Haus u r in Rheydt, is also described as Totes Haus [“dead house”]. Death appears here to be a preoccupation of his (youthful) imagination, a game with the end of life. At the same time, there is also a discernible intention here to create something with one’s own work that cannot in fact be grasped. Dead, one might say, in the sense of no longer lived in, functionless, no longer reconstructible, or more broadly: not accessible. This meaning of “dead” also connects with Sterberaum. In this room the process of dying is purely theoretical, a possibility that is not in any sense dependent on the work or on the artist’s intentions, but rather on external circumstances. The work itself can do little in this respect. The subject it is raising, like all of Schneider’s works, is the notion of a place of pure abstraction, a fundamental inaccessibility that nevertheless exists, that is present. That dying and death should also be the focus of a work of this kind is only logical: for ultimately that is the most inaccessible place and most unimaginable time of all. Sterberaum, beyond any real death situations, is the ultimate “dead room” in the sense that Schneider would use this expression. There are other extreme, diverse formulations of “last rooms” in his work, ranging from the two cubes into which something or someone might have been hermetically sealed although the contents will never come to light (Total isolierte Kisten [Completely Insulated Boxes], 1986) to the verist dreadfulness of Das letzte Loch [The Last Hole] (1995).
Compared to these Sterberaum is strangely normal and recognizably derived from a room that is entirely independent of the artist’s own work. Schneider’s concept is all but stripped bare here. As it were completely unprotected by artistic interventions or guises it attests to the reality of an in fact unspectacular (albeit pleasingly designed) room and relies on the use of the word “dying” in the title to be sufficiently evocative. This is an extreme form of double abstraction: on one hand our so to speak necessary capitulation in the face of the notion of dying, and on the other hand the depiction of a final, ultimate space in Schneider’s search for utter inaccessibility.
Translated from the German by Fiona Elliott