süßer duft

April 17, 2008 at 1:06 pm | Posted in art, Uncategorized | 11 Comments
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Okay, that was terrifying.

I just got back from the Gregor Schneider exhibit at the Maison Rouge, and let me just say: scariest museum visit ever. Kind of like a cross between a nightmare and a graphic adventure game. Seriously, as exciting and awesome as it was, I’m not sure I can recommend in good conscience that anyone follow in my footsteps. Particularly not if you are remotely claustrophobic, or afraid of the dark, or anything like that.

If you do want to go and have the full experience yourself, don’t read any further, since I’m going to describe it in a fair amount of detail.

First of all, you can only go in one person at a time.

Second, they make you sign a waiver before you go in, absolving the museum of any responsibility should anything happen to you in the exhibit. Happen to me? “I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” said the guard. “You seem pretty healthy.”

He brought me to the end of a hallway and pointed me to unremarkable looking white door. “Wait until I say, then turn the knob and go inside,” he instructed. Okay, I can do that. I waited just a minute or two before he gave me the nod: “Allez-y, mademoiselle!”

The door opened into a dim little hallway, lined in cinderblocks and with visible wiring running along the walls — it felt like backstage at an art exhibit, more than anything. The door slammed ominously shut behind me, but once my eyes adjusted, I felt pretty confident. It’s going to take more than a dark, spookily deserted hallway to shake me up!

I followed the hallway as far as I could, but eventually it dead-ended, so I headed back until I found another unremarkable little door in the wall. You’ve seen doors like this countless times at museums — the same color as the wall around them, unnoticeable except for a little knob sticking out — and they always seem intended to say, “stay out, museum personel only.” But this was the only possible exit other than the way I came in, so I took it.

The next room had a low, metal ceiling and was lit only by an orange fluorescent lamp, and felt kind of like a storage area at a warehouse. The only door led to another cinderblock corridor, and then another door led into a large, brightly lit space, like an exhibition hall, but with nothing in it. Okay, I thought to myself. I admit, this is a little creepy. All alone in this vast, empty space, with no sound or sign of other humans beyong the hum of the fluorscent lights… Okay, Mr. Schneider, you got me… a little. Now let’s get out of this place.

This room had a number of doors, but only one of them seemed to have a knob. I gave it a tug and peered around the corner — aha! The next room was a small, cell-like room, made entirely of aluminum. I’d seen photographs of this one on the museum website, so I knew I was on the right track. (I confess, even though I had some idea that the exhibit was going to be nothing more than a series of empty rooms, there were moments when I wondered if I had opened the wrong door and ended up in store-room area.) All right, nothing much to see here, on to the next door.

The next door, however, is behind a clear plastic curtain, and has a strange handle, like an industrial freezer. Sure enough, it’s cold inside, and nearly completely dark. As always, the door closes behind me with a decisive slam, and I find myself jumping a little. I don’t like this room much, let’s get it over with. Can’t be too far from the end, now.

Another plastic curtain, another freezer-type door — and the room beyond is pitch black. Oh, very funny Mr. Schneider — just when I’m starting to feel a little uneasy, you thrust me into total darkness! From where I stood in the doorway, it was impossible to judge the size of the room, but I felt certain the next door must be no more than a foot or two away. They didn’t really want us fumbling around in complete darkness, did they?

Holding the fridge door open, I leaned out as far as I could, but I felt nothing in front of me. Damn. Okay, I’m resourceful. I’ll use my cell phone as a flashlight! Except it turns out that cell phones make lousy flashlights — I couldn’t see much more than a vague glow relecting off of a couple of surfaces. Seeing no other choice, I bit the bullet and let the door close behind me, checking immediately that I could open it again from this side. Then I started feeling along the wall. I walked a few feet along with wall, then reached the end of it — empty space. No choice but to keep going, I turned around the corner and felt my way back down the wall on the other side; it was like I was in some kind of labyrinth.

It was at this point that I lost confidence that the artist had my best interests at heart. What if there was a step, or a hole in the floor, or a drop off into nothingness? How long would I have to stay in here before someone came and got me? What if I’d taken a wrong turn, and I wasn’t supposed to be in this part of the building at all? Forget this, I thought. I’m heading back to those rooms with light — I might look like a dork going out the way I came in, but who knows how long I might be stuck in this dark maze? So thinking, I felt my way back the way I came, until I saw the very faintly glowing outline of freezer door. I opened it, and felt strangely heartened to be back in the room that had previously spooked me. I opened the next door and found myself back in the aluminum cell. I hurried across it and tried the next knob — it wouldn’t budge. Merde! I’m trapped. I’m going to have to go back to the maze, or else die in here.

Back in the black room, I continued my slow progress along the maze-like walls. Then, just when I was getting to what I judged was approximately where I’d been before, I heard a noise — it sounded like the freezer doors behind me. “Il y a quelqu’un?” I called out, but I received no answer. Oh, great. Was there someone else in here with me, contrary to the rules? Was there some kind of malfunction in the freezer machinery? Had I spent so much time in here that a rescue squad had come to get me? I headed back along the wall toward the noise, and came face to face with a young man holding a tiny pen light. “Oh,” I said, surprised, and still not sure if he was with the museum or just another art lover. He glanced at me quickly, mumbled something about a door, and flashed his tiny, insignificant light around as if it would do any good. At last he followed my lead back along the maze walls (I was getting pretty good at this part, now), moving a little faster thanks to his light. And at last, this time, we found a door, which led into what I think was a small, bright room, but frankly at that point all I cared about was getting to the next door and getting out. Which I did, immeasurable grateful to see guards and museum goers ambling around the gallery as if everything was fine.

One last note — there are a couple other exhibits at the Maison Rouge right now, and they’re pretty good, but I definitely recommend checking them out before the Schneider. Once you get out of there, you’re going to want to get as much fresh air as possible.



  1. That does sound scary. Definitely not for me I’d say.

  2. I think this sounds TOTALLY FAB!! Gonna get me some of that. Thanks for a great write-up.

  3. Oh, but now that you’ve read it, it won’t seem as spooky! Still, it was pretty terrific, you should do it.

  4. Reminds me of seeing this in New York. An old friend who I ran into on the train said it was like a haunted house, so I was expecting (and kinda hoping) it would be more like the installation you described, but it wasn’t quite as spooky. Also had to sign a release.

  5. Hmm… I have to admit, that piece looks a little heavy-handed, what with the chinese food and American Flags and all. This was a much more austere experience — and all the more affecting because of it.

  6. This DOES sound terrifying. I half suspect you’re being filmed throughout, and that this will be part 2…

  7. Oh, *man* I hope I wasn’t being filmed. The world doesn’t need any further record of my experience in there than this blog post.

  8. crazy. crazy crazy crazy.
    and more importantly: what is the point?

  9. What was the point? You know, Lauren, I’m generally hesitant to try to explain any piece of art in absolute terms, as if there’s “one right” way to interpret it… I’d rather leave things a little open ended and let people draw their own conclusions, because for any given piece, everyone’s going to bring their own impressions to it. That said, I think there were many interesting concepts at play in this piece/set of pieces.
    Most obviously, I think the “point” as you say, was to upset the norms and expectations of the museum-going experience. I, for example, have an almost ritualistic approach to most exhibits I see: I walk through three times, once going quickly, to get an overall sense of the scale of the show and make note of any works I want to save time/energy for, then once moving slowly, examining each work on its own, reading all the material available. Then I usually sit down for a while and collect my thoughts, make a few notes, and pick out my favorite pieces. Then I’ll walk through one last time to see if there’s anything I missed, and revisit some pieces in the light of others. At this show, none of that was possible — there was nothing to read, no where to sit, no specific “works” to examine and consider. Instead of being a static, observational experience, it was dynamic, demanding participation in order to make any sense at all. It was also a lot more visceral than intellectual, which is always something I approve of in art.
    The demand that you move through the exhibit alone was also an interesting, disruptive technique, that wound up collapsing the usual sense of public vs private spaces — normally, in museums, you can either discuss what you’re seeing with whoever your with, or at least eavesdrop on other conversations, watch people’s expressions and body language to get tips about how you should be reacting. In this exhibit, you’re completely dependent on your own impressions, which for me turned out to be a bit unnerving. When you see something alone, how can you ever be sure of what you’ve really seen?
    Beyond that, I know the artist had some points to make about “passive torture” — about how simply being alone in a room, deprived of normal sensory experience can be in itself maddening. I wouldn’t have made the connection myself, but the booklet they hand out mentions that a couple of the spaces were modeled after rooms at Guantanamo Bay. To me, the artist’s use of space to create that feeling of tension and claustrophobia had a lot more impact than if he had simply told us to peer into a cell and posted a note saying, “this is what guantanamo bay is like.”
    There are a few other “points” I could make, if you’re interested, but I think I’m running the risk of over-explicating.

  10. I would probably be running in the other direction. That’s scary!!

  11. lulz

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