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Gregor Schneider: Toter Raum (=Dead Space), Tokio 2010
Written by Natsumi YUKI   
Published: April 04 2011

We frequently see the deaths of people who have died from terrorist attacks, conflict and accidents in far-away lands in our daily life. What sort of images do we have concerning “death”? Death is the inevitable fate for any life. Will I suffer from sickness or from pain till the moment my life gives out? Probably, I am not the only one who dreads such an idea. As it is something no one in this world has ever experienced, death will always be enigmatic. Our ancestors tried to approach “death” in various fields such as science, medicine, religion and spiritualism. The world of art is not an exception.

fig. 1  View from exhibition "Toter Raum, Tokio 2010"
Courtesy of Wako Works of Art

fig. 2  closed view of fig. 1
Courtesy of Wako Works of Art

fig. 3   View from exhibition "Toter Raum, Tokio 2010"
Courtesy of Wako Works of Art

fig. 4   View from exhibition in Room 1 including "Haus ur"
Courtesy of Wako Works of Art

fig. 5   View from exhibition in Room 1 including "Haus ur"
Courtesy of Wako Works of Art

“Toter Raum, Tokio 2010” by the German artist Gregor Schneider was held at Wako Works of Art in Hatsudai, Tokyo. There are works that covered “death” amongst the late contemporary art works that I have seen. For instance, Joel-Peter Witkin is a work of photographed dead bodies. It is as if he likened subjects to classical religious paintings. It would remind viewers of sacredness or eternity rather than just “death” itself. The work of Xiao Yu, in which a fetus and a sea gull were glued together, created controversy at an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art held in Switzerland in 2005.*1 The artist tried to escape from the idea of “death” by creating a new life from the dead bodies of different species. If we shift out attention to Japan, we can find Shusaku Arakawa's “Resist Death”. Works of art with the theme of death may not be very original. However, we can find many works that were created with the theme of overcoming ”death” in contemporary art. The truth is that these kinds of transcending works of art are, for better or worse, very eye-catching. In the modern age, in which God ceased to exist, it isn't hard to imagine why people have become interested in transcendence of death. On the other hand, Schneider's “Toter Raum” is, to borrow the phrase from the artist, a room for people who are going to die. His attention is on neither the corpse, which is the result of death, nor on the passage of death, but on the space where it occurs. To cite Schneider's words:

“This artistic space bears the necessary dignity, and makes dying and death visible with full dignity in a public space. That is my desire. And I am not interested in photographing the actual events.”*2

I think Schneider created this work as a device for “death with dignity.” There is no purpose there to transcend “death”. But rather, it seems that it consciously tries to receive and welcome “death”. According to Toshikatsu Omori's “Essays on Gregor Schneider”*3, “Haus u r” (House Of Horror), recognized as Schneider's most representative work, turns Schneider's own body into a space by modifying the interior of an existing building*4. Let us then take a look at the “Toter Raum”, exhibited in Japan this time.

There are two exhibition rooms. Photographs of “Haus u r” and late objets d'art are exhibited in “Room 1”, and “Toter Raum” is exhibited in “Room 2”. I see a huge pink cube in front of me as soon as I go in. It is a dazzlingly bright color. Its dotted texture is made with some granular materials fixed on the surface. There is a round hole of about one meter diameter in the front lower right. The size of the hole is just big enough for an adult to squeeze through. This is the entrance. The hole is totally black. No wonder: the inside of the pink cube is painted black. As I get inside, I smell the acrid odor of wood and paint. There are no lights on the inside other than the light coming in from the entrance hole. As I go forward further, the darkness becomes more profound. I grope my way through and I arrive at a dead-end. The inside doesn't appear to be very large. However, the narrowness of the space presses in on me, along with the weight of darkness even though they both don't physically exist.

As noted above, in Schneider's work, he transforms his own body to the inside of the “room.” The “Toter Raum” is no exception to this. I feel an awkwardness that I feel when there is a stranger beside me, even though the artist is not here. I felt very uneasy and I decided to leave.*5 If I had stayed there longer, I could have explored the inside further as my eyes became accustomed to the darkness. This seems to me like a simulated experience of the feelings we will have towards “death”. There is another hole on the opposite side and you can go inside it as well. It does not have much depth. It appears to be a simple cube when seen from the outside, but the inside seems very complicated due to the effects of the darkness.

My impression of this “Toter Raum” was white, calm and tranquil. However, the “Toter Raum” made for this solo exhibition in Japan evokes a closed and introverted image. This might represent the generally acknowledged characteristics of the Japanese people. The size of the entrance reminded me of a “nijiriguchi” (the small entrance to a tearoom) in Japanese tearooms. It is said that these “nijiriguchi”, first adopted by tea ceremony master Rikyu, also have the purpose of separating the spiritual space of the tearoom from the outside world. Furthermore, we have buildings that make us go through darkness, such as the Kaidan-meguri at Zenkoji temple or the Tainai-meguri at Shimizu temple. “Toter Raum” was very small when compared to these. Nonetheless, they all have a similar concept of “death” which also has a close connection to religion. This is not a similarity we can ignore. I wonder whether this artist knew about this aspect of Japanese architecture or not.

One purpose of many works of art is to visualize the invisible. I think Schneider's attempt to visualize “death”, which can never be understood while one is alive, is an artist's natural aspiration. On the other hand, there are criticisms against Schneider's works, claiming they are overly provocative or that they are “a betrayal against art”.*6 Honestly, I wouldn't want to die in this “Toter Raum” but there must be other opinions as well. I wonder what the best work of art will be that I can die for.
(Translated by Yoshikazu Noda)


(*1) “Mahjong : Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection” 13 June 2005 - 16 October 2005, Kunst Museum, Bern.

(*2) Gregor Schneider “Das Sterben als Kunstwerk”, Wako Works Of Art (2010), page 29. (“Das Sterben als Kunstwerk” = “Dying as a Work Of Art”)

(*3) “Bijutsu Techo” August 2005

(*4) “Haus ur” is a work Schneider has been creating since he was 16. His parents owned an apartment building in Rheidt in suburban Köln in Germany. He repeatedly modified the building like putting up another wall or window inside a wall. According to Omori, physical changes of the inside are considered to be the metabolism because his (Schneider's) body and the space of the architecture are assimilated. Furthermore, Schneider stated that “Rooms are my second skin” in an interview published in “Das Sterben als Kunstwerk” on page 18.

(*5) According to a gallery's representative, the cube has another raised space. Unfortunately, I didn't go up to that space this time as I was not feeling very athletic.

(*6) He mentioned some episodes in the interview in his photograph book “Das Sterben als Kunstwerk” (page 18, and 25 to 28).

Referred exhibition

Gregor Schneider: Toter Raum, Tokio 2010
Period: October 12 - November 27, 2010
Venue: Wako Works of Art

Last Updated on April 07 2011

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