The first impression of Die Familie Schneider is that Gregor Schneider may have stumbled over the line into the theatrical. Although his previous works were ever bit as much stages as they were sculptures, the actor was always the viewer alone (sometimes to a frightening degree). Die Familie Schneider, on the other hand, is populated with professional actors whose presence nudges the project perilously close to a carnival house of horrors or, worse, 'living theatre.'
Anyone familiar with Schneider's oeuvre, however, knows that what he's seeking in his art is not a set piece or a stock motif ('the grotesque,' 'the Gothic,' or ever 'the uncanny') but something deeper. This something exists on a level that's hard to isolate but, in Die Familie Schneider, quite easy to feel, crawling just beneath one's skin. And whatever it is, Schneider is ready to go to great lengths to conjure it, from replicating entire rooms (down the the hairline fractures in the ceiling plaster) to hiring an actor to sit motionless inside a plastic garbage bag in a stifling bedroom for hours at a time.
In his youth Schneider was fond of experiments: capturing traces of impending disaster by filming objects just before they fell, or photographing the site of a murder to detect some residue of the violent act. The palpable dread that suffuses Die Familie Schneider is a mix of the two: a looming dread (of whatever may lurk behind the closet door) and a linger dread (of the horrors that may have taken place in the moldy basement).
According to recent English history, this extraordinary fear of a very ordinary domestic space is not unfounded. In 1994 police began excavating a different house, this one at 25 Cromwell Street it Gloucester, where they eventually dug up the remains of ten girls and young women who had been tortured to death by Fred West and his wife Rosemary. Police found several shallow graves under the floor of the children's basement playroom (which Fred had recently renovated). The police had the house demolished as soon as they finished collecting evidence. Apparently whatever residue there was - be it psychic, spiritual, or unnameable - was too persistent simply to cover up with a new basement floor and a fresh patio.
Schneider has devoted his life to synthesizing a similar residue. In his monumental Totes Haus ur (1986-1997) he undertook a long-term project to fabricate it with ordinary building materials, and in Die Familie Schneider he has pulled off some of his best tricks - adding walls, doubling rooms, limiting light sources, channeling air currents and odors, and conjuring new spaces seemingly from nowhere.
And then there are the paid actors - who, it should be noted, never acknowledge the viewer, making them (for all intents) just another material in this grandly unnerving composition. With them, though, Schneider has hit upon a new state of discomfort, previously explored by Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, and more recently Santiago Sierra: namely, the horror triggered by the unexpected proximity of another human body
by Craig Garrett
[originally published in Flash Art no. 239 (Nov/Dec 2004)]