Magazine article The Spectator

Unlocking a Mystery

Magazine article The Spectator

Unlocking a Mystery

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 2

Unlocking a mystery

Die Familie Schneider

Whitechapel, until December

When I first heard the name 'Artangel' some two decades ago, it sent a shiver of pleasurable anticipation down my spine, with its hint of divine intervention in the arts scene here below. In fact, it is as literal a description as you can get of what it is: a group of angels, or investors, in art. For £500 a year (£400, if you invest over a four-year period) you can join the Company of Angels - but there the similarities with any of your other investments come to an abrupt end. First, do not expect any financial remuneration, as you would from, say, a successful play or musical. Second, do not expect regular company reports and accounts, or invitations to heckle the management at an AGM. The two directors, Michael Morris and James Lingwood, are more than prepared to talk about their enterprise in general terms, but attempts to prize out of them any precise details of work in progress tend to be neatly deflected. Their website offers tantalising glimpses of projects past, present and future, but nothing concrete enough to prepare you for the almost visceral impact they have in reality. Meanwhile, they've got your money.

It is not, however, being frittered away. Three or four times a year you will be invited to an event that will confound your expectations. You have bought shares, it turns out, in the element of surprise. You will emerge from the latest project unnerved, baffled, perhaps exhilarated: at the very least your mental universe will have subtly shifted a gear or two.

There is no such thing as a typical Artangel event, but the Die Familie Schneider bears some of the hallmarks: site-specific in a location resolutely divorced from the arts, brilliantly stagemanaged, and theatrical in the broadest possible sense of the term.

To experience it, you book a 20-minute slot to visit two houses in Whitechapel. You are strongly encouraged to bring a companion, and you learn that it is not suitable for children under the age of 16. With mounting apprehension, you collect two identical keys from an office in an obscure back street, and let yourselves in to two identical terraced houses in an adjacent street, with instructions that each of you spend five minutes in one house, then swap. Alone in the cramped, musty hall, the claustrophobia almost gets you by the throat, and a cloying, unnameable smell emanates from the basement. It is with some trepidation that you try the first door on the right, behind which you discern a muffled domestic clatter - and it opens on to a drab, soulless kitchen where a woman, her back to you, is methodically doing the dishes. She seems to be in a trance, and any attempt at conversation is rebuffed; should you be prying like this, you wonder?

You make your way upstairs and down, heart in your mouth, almost thankful when doors are firmly locked, for those that aren't open on to small dramas for which there is no apparent explanation but which link together in an imagined narrative of morbid fascination. The second house appears identical but differs in one important respeet, though I was too nervous to realise that the first time round: I had to return to that dreaded basement, and steel myself to venture beyond the protruding cupboard. …

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