süßer duft, translated as 'Sweet Perfume' or 'Sweet Scent' is the title of at least two art installations by the German artist Gregor Schneider.
Schneider's work mainly comprise simulated or reconstructed rooms and buildings, incorporating false or fly-away walls, mechanical sound, motors and pulleys that may alter the experience individually, and a sense of unease or suspense on those awaiting entry to an installation. He has bought a home in Germany which has had its interior reworked and rebuilt several times, into a sort of Twilight Zone Tower of Terror interlaced with House of Leaves or Cube. He has had rejected a proposal of a replica of the Kaaba, and has also explored-- in a sort of inverse version of Tilda Swinton and Cornelia Parker's The Maybe-- the presentation of someone on their deathbed.
The first incarnation of süßer duft took place in Paris at la maison rouge in Paris in the spring of 2008. Only one person was let in a time, after signing a release form from a guard at the first door, which led to a narrower hallway, and down more, until rooms within rooms are discovered, either all white with the scent of cleaning powder, or all metal with a draining grid in the floor, or pitch black. The french art magazine esse gives an overview of the experience:
It is hot; the air is stale. Located behind a translucent, plasticized curtain, a handle similar to those found on freezer doors again indicates a new path to follow. Upon opening this door, the change in temperature is compounded by another surprise: the space’s profound obscurity. We must grope around in the dark to find the next exit, and we discover a handle curiously identical to the previous one. A doubt overcomes us: have we retraced our steps? The darkness is complete.
A video walkthrough reflects the changing sounds and atmosphere. A labyrinth that adds pressure to almost all senses the further and deeper one goes.
The second incarnation of süßer duft took place throughout the August of 2013, at Summerhall in Edinburgh. Summerhall is a veterinary school repurposed as an art centre, yet without rebuilding or scouring out resulting in a hodgepodge of century-old and mid-century buildings and outbuildings containing lecture rooms, classrooms and surgeries still fitted with cupboards, cases, file drawers, sinks and mysterious cluttery. Hallways lead one down past rooms opening to wide spaces or narrow cupboards or stairs up to a student’s bar with stairs off a side corridor leading into another wing or twisting around to an exit. It’s the Winchester Mystery House melded to The Kingdom hospital even before any interventions.
Before finally finding the entry and line to Schneider's work, I had already viewed a kinetic work that included a Tesla coil, read and watched about artwork involving the Wall in Gaza, and somehow discovered an attic room with creeping vine plants in sinks and on sills, with photos from Sun Ra performances, as his music played from invisible speakers. In another much larger attic, ten opaque screens of various sizes and orientation simultaneously played Michael Nyman’s score and ten edits of the film ‘Man with a movie camera’, with scattered about further video with headphone music displays available. Those familiar with Nyman’s music from Peter Greenaway films can imagine the cacophonous concert that assaulted and teased one's vision and hearing.
The entrance to süßer duft turned out to be straight in from the main door, but behind a grand split staircase, where another set of stairs led down to the basement. A queue had formed and I stood in it, hoping this was for the right one. A woman in a security guard uniform soon popped her head around from a set of double doors at the bottom of the stairs to let us know the wait could be up to a half hour. I pulled out my book and read as another queue formed on the opposite side of the stairs. These folk turned out to be attending one of thousands of plays taking place in the city during the August festival season, in this case a performance where each person sat at a webcam enabled computer to engage with an actor somewhere else in the world, a small snippet of an interactive play.
It wasn’t that long before I was part of the next group through the double doors, facing another set of double doors, with a doorless entrance to a storage room to the side of me filled with paint cans, canvas, rucksacks, rubbish. A sign noted that there was nudity in the exhibition. The ‘guard’ told us we could only enter one at a time, that we had five minutes to thoroughly explore the exhibition, to open all the doors, and if there was any trouble, to stay where we were and ‘help would come’. Those of us waiting made furtive eye contact after this, a young man made jokes about amusement parks to impress his girlfriend. Near me were two men near my age who seemed keen to see what this work was, but when they entered, one man took two minutes and another only one, with the announcement of his exit crackling through a walkie talkie to the guard.
Through the doors led to a long hallway, ceiling floors and walls painted in glossy white with the fluorescent lights bathing it in beige. Just behind the double doors was another door that opened to another white room, a much brighter white, and still smelling sharply of paint. Two small vents let the air circulate with a small hum. I could hear the murmur of voices, but could not tell where they came from until returning to the hall. Now the voices were louder, and I could tell they were speaking in French, only with an accent I couldn’t translate with my meagre understanding. One voice was louder and more urgent, and was certainly African, with other voices laughing or giving a brief comment. A locked or barred door further down did not seem to be the source, they could only be from behind the set of double doors at the far end of the hall way. I reached to open and go through and the voices stopped as I stepped into a dark room, the walls a glossy brown, the space filled with nude standing black and white men at their peak of fitness, most of whom making sure not to look me in the eye. I pushed up the shoulder of my messenger bag, and spluttered something like ‘Talkative bunch, aren’t you?’ and tried to give a grin as my quip was not responded to and I eased up and out the last door into a café.
In later discussions with friends about the exhibition, my first instinct was to liken it to the Man Eating Chicken rube of fairs of yesteryear: the artist is playing a joke, but once you are in on the joke, you want others to be suckered into it. Yet this implies that I was underwhelmed or disappointed by the exhibition, which I wasn’t. The whole experience, from the waiting to early exploration and suspicion to exposure as well as my own reaction during and after is something that has very little comparison to other works of art. Obviously there are other works that force the viewer to confront uncomfortable issues, but not in a way that would directly cause an individual reaction. While the theme of the work for the artist addressed issues of slavery and racism, I –a white, straight, going-to-seed male-- found it personally aligned more with male body dysmorphism and self-esteem, sexuality and racism. The dark room mirrored entering a male sauna, from the heat to the scent of sweat to the chance of others there, in much better fitness than myself, falling silent after they may have just been talking about me. On leaving all I could think about was cleverer things I could have said, and why did that matter? And of course race concerns, spinning me back to a recurring childhood nightmare of falling into a giant cauldron around which are dancing gleeful hottentots. Those dreams were a manipulation, just as Schneider’s construction is, but sometimes it is good to confront them to get past them, or expose them.
The glossy rooms, the windowless white walls, the double doors into the dark, the silent slightly ashamed men, and escape into sweet daylight.