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Old haunts rethought, reinstalled

October 31, 2003|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Halloween's here, and the Museum of Contemporary Art is up to its old tricks: turning art into an entertaining spectacle that's accessible to every Tom, Dick and Jane, but not nearly as captivating as the enterprises it mimics. The newest installation at the Geffen Contemporary is a fairly sterile version of the haunted houses that spring up in neighborhoods all over the country at this time of year.

Childhood and our memories of it are great subjects for art. But Gregor Schneider's "Dead House ur" is too ambivalent about its own place in the world to transport viewers anywhere very interesting. Its location, in a prestigious museum of contemporary art, doesn't help.

To enter Schneider's elaborate, labor-intensive installation, you exit the museum's main entrance and walk halfway around the building. A small sign points the way and a pair of uniformed guards at a newly built doorway confirm that you're in the right place. When they require you to sign a personal injury waiver before entering, you think you're in for something special, perhaps a bit dangerous.

Only five visitors are allowed in at once. Lining up in the parking lot adds to the intrigue. The setting has the presence of a low-budget spinoff of a Disneyland attraction or a downtown club whose clocks are 12 hours off.

When the door closes behind you, it takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Other senses compensate, registering the musty smell and eerie quiet -- not an organic silence, but a strange, muffled sensation that suggests a soundproofed studio or secret hide-out.

With exacting detail, Schneider has fabricated a narrow alley whose nooks and crannies wend their way past a rusty furnace, a rough wooden fence, stairs that lead nowhere, locked doors and several phone-booth-sized cul-de-sacs. The pavement is littered with garbage bags, and the walls are covered with enough grunginess to suggest that no one's paid any attention to this passage in decades.

You bump into lots of stuff as you tentatively explore the dank maze. A solitary guard stands in the cramped, dimly lighted quarters. Instructed to keep quiet, she doesn't reveal the location of the secret passage. Even if you didn't see Schneider's installation at the Venice Biennial two years ago (or at any other of its many stops on the international exhibition circuit over the last five years), you've seen enough scary movies to know that the faux alley the German artist has created is just the beginning -- the foyer, as it were, of a world turned inside-out.

When you find the hidden door, you feel as if you've discovered something special. This aspect of Schneider's installation appeals to our culture's fascination with privileged exclusivity. The behind-closed-doors layout of his walk-in tableau mirrors the format of board meetings and behind-the-scene deals, corrupt city officials and curators in love with the trappings of their profession.

The remainder of Schneider's installation is less claustrophobic and more brightly lighted. It includes a long hallway, four short flights of stairs, three rooms, two closets, lots of locked doors, several sealed windows, a one-way mirror and a secret chamber that takes a bit of ingenuity to discover. (You have to push open a false wall.)

Most of these rooms and passages are more realistic and more painstakingly detailed than movie sets. That's because Schneider has cut apart and reconstructed his actual childhood home from the coal mining town of Monchengladbach, Germany, to make "Dead House ur" ("ur" is the German word for "origin").

Born in 1969, he's been working on it since 1986, reconfiguring the floor plan, placing walls in front of other walls and changing the scale of rooms.

There's nothing special about the house in which Schneider grew up. To walk its obsessively re-created halls is to feel as if you're in a generic European apartment. But the proportions are off. And the self-conscious theatricality calls to mind the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. Next to that monument to renovation and nutty navel-gazing, Schneider's installation looks timid and artsy.

Here, it's impossible to forget that you're in a work of art in a museum of contemporary art. One dark room houses a room-size sculpture shaped like the little houses on Monopoly game boards. Hung upside-down from the ceiling, it forces visitors to squeeze between it and the walls to get to the next room.

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