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This old obsession

Gregor Schneider's haunting, life-size exhibition 'Dead House ur' -- a concept that has unfolded throughout the German artist's life -- is at once domestic and disorienting.

November 30, 2003|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

As a teenager, Gregor Schneider began building: a wall in front of a wall, a room within a room, slowly reshaping the house he lived in. Over the next 18 years, he created crawl spaces and dead-ends in the small two-story building. He isolated rooms with lead, fiberglass and soundproof insulation and eventually assembled a maze that -- with each new wall -- closed in on him. In one room, the ceiling gradually rose and fell. Another room rotated on its own axis, imperceptibly. Visitors leaving would find the door they entered through now opened onto a gaping hole. Even the sunlight shining through the windows was an illusion.

This fall, the 34-year-old German artist brought his obsession to Los Angeles, creating "Dead House ur," a life-size exhibition, which opened to the public last month. The house in the museum took two years of planning, two months of building and 20 tons of material. The house, on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary until next fall, is one of the largest, most complex pieces of art ever to be built at the museum, comparable in size only to the Richard Serra sculpture exhibition in 1998.

Move-in Day: Schneider's building material arrives from Germany via cargo ship the second week of August. Trucks haul the five 40-foot containers the last 22 miles from Los Angeles Harbor to the downtown museum.

With one of the metal containers backed up to the loading dock, a MOCA employee breaks the lock and swings the double doors open. Inside are wood beams, plaster, nails, bits of stairs, doors and windows. Piece by piece, the house is arriving.After two days of unpacking, the crew of 11 assembles the structural core of the house -- a staircase. At the back of the museum, surrounded by rolls of fiberglass and bags of cement, the two-story structure stands like a solitary sculpture, stairs leading nowhere.

Schneider is lanky, blond and blue-eyed. Even after a day of carrying bricks and bags of concrete, he smells of washing powder, a reassuring scent of normality.

"For a year, I will have a house in Los Angeles," he says, "unbelievable." He breaks the word in two, with a hard emphasis on the first syllable: UN-believable. "Crazy" (as in, "This is crazy, no?") and unbelievable are, fittingly, favorite words. Around Schneider it's hard to know what to believe.

He grew up in Rheydt, a former mining town near Cologne where his family, for many generations, owned a lead factory. On the edge of the property stood an abandoned two-story building that once housed apartments that Schneider's parents allowed him to use as a studio. He made amateurish videos from the reconfigured house and exhibited them in German galleries and museums. (The "ur" of the title has a double meaning: It means "origin" in German and is shorthand for its street address.)

Eventually, he moved in completely, and the house itself became his work. It became an obsession. Schneider tore out rooms for exhibitions around the world -- meticulously reconstructed in galleries and museums.

"Whether this is my psychological problem or art," he says, "it doesn't matter." Paul Schimmel, chief curator at MOCA, first saw an exhibition of Schneider's work five years ago. At the time, the artist was still living in his house, inside his art.

"It is a piece that really eliminates the distinction between art and life," Schimmel says. Other museums had displayed rooms, but Schimmel wanted MOCA to be the first in North America to show Schneider's entire house. To build it, the artist brought two German assistants, and had a crew of eight technicians from MOCA.

"It's domesticity taken to a level of complexity that I don't think anyone's experienced within the museum before," Schimmel says. "It completely and utterly transports people to another place."

Before Schneider arrived with his plans and drawings, the Americans had a few misconceptions. Lead technician Barry Grady thought, for example, that the house would be installed upside down.

"That may have been a figurative term that was used, like topsy-turvy," he says. "I kept envisioning a house upside down with the furniture somehow attached to the ceiling."

Once Schneider was on-site, he explained his vision to the crew. "And then -- just when you thought you had a grasp on something -- he would put a twist on it," Grady says. But in stages, the crew began to get it.

"When you're in front of a painting, you still recognize it as a painting. Rooms are different," Schneider says. "You don't see a room completely. All the time, there is something behind you."

Smells of home: In the otherwise empty museum space -- a former warehouse -- the only sounds are the occasional echo of a drill or hammer. By September, the crew has built the skeleton of a house. Stacked upon one another, the rooms resemble gigantic wooden blocks. Now work can begin on the interior -- the only part of the finished installation visitors will see.

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