Thursday, December 23, 2004

Truly, Truly Frightening

I have just been to see an art installation called 'die Familie Schneider'. It consists of two identical terraced houses, next door to each other, in dingy Whitechapel, in the East End of London.

Suffice to say I have not been so terrified since I snuck in to see the Exorcist, at the age of 16, on a school trip to the big city. In fact, die Familie Schneider is more frightening than the Exorcist, because I am now a hard-bitten, grown-up, cynical journalist: yet I still left this place shuddering with horror. Two hours later I feel like crying. And I don't quite know why.

The installation is deceptively simple. You walk in to the first house (alone, after being given the keys by the curators, Artangel). When the front door shut behind you, the first thing that hits is the silence. Then you see that you are confronted by a stifling, claustrophobic corridor, ending in a staircase. Of course it's just a hallway in a normal, rundown Victorian house - but it somehow feels different.

Step in to the kitchen at the end of the hallway, and you see a little dark-haired woman robotically cleaning her saucepans. Talk to the woman and she will not respond, she just keeps washing up, and staring into space. She doesn't seem to notice that her kitchen is pervaded with a weird, sickly-sweet smell.

To the right of the kitchen is a front room. But there is something odd about that, too. Piles of tins and biscits sit on the floor. A painting is propped on the grubby carpet with its face to the wall. This may all seem like small beer, but the eerie silence and the weird smell and the robotic woman make it all increasingly sinister. By now you are beginning to feel like a sick voyeur - peering into some dark domestic nightmare.

Upstairs it gets worse. A real live man wanks in the bathroom. You stand there, powerfully embarrassed, until you can't take it any more. In the next windowless bedroom a fan heater is switched on: the heat is oppressive. Taking in the odd, tacky decor of the room, you prepare to leave - with a feeling of relief - but then you notice the small body beyond the bed. The head of the body is covered in a bin bag. Yet you can hear the breathing. The body is alive.

Girding yourself - by now you are seriously upset - you descend to the dark basement. Here there is one bare room with a swinging light. Nasty. Beyond it is another darker room with bulging bin bags, one of them seeping a viscous liquid. At the back of this scary cellar-space is a swinging bookshelf unit: behind it a dank passageway leads to a filthy little chamber containing a child's stained mattress. You stare at the little alcove, sensing its air of nameless menace. What the hell happened here?

After ten minutes (your allotted time) you leave the one house, and enter the other. Shockingly and bizarrely - this house is exactly the same. The artist has employed twins to enact his weird scenes - so the woman in the kitchen looks the same, the wanking man is just the same, the binbagged body in the bedroom is exactly the same. Even the cigarette butts in the ashtrays are arranged in an identical way.

You'd think this deja vu element would reduce the dread. Yet it doesn't. Because you know what you are going to see, the creepy effect is heightened. I found myself actively wanting to hurry the experience; my heart was pounding.

Instead I took a big gulp of stifling air, and went down to the second basement. Of course it was all horribly identical, except for one thing. The filthy chamber at the end of the passageway was locked, and faraway I could hear a child screaming.

At that point I have to confess I couldn't take it any more, and I ran out. Panting in the sour London air I considered the weird mind that could make such a terrible space. I was unable to reach a conclusion: the artist, Gregor Schneider, is either a psychopath or a genius. Or both.

No comments: