- White Cube, Black Room, Sweet Scent
In an antechamber before the closed doors to Gregor Schneider’s 2013 installation performance Süßer Duft (Sweet Scent), a uniformed guard explains the situation to those queuing for the free unticketed event: “You will enter one by one. You will have five minutes. You will know you have reached the end by the lit exit sign. Take your time and open every door.” Laconic reviews reveal little, suggesting only that the guarded installation is arguably the most controversial offering in the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival; scant words in the festival program mention only that it deals with racism and slavery, that one must be eighteen years old to enter. When it is my turn I am let into a short white hallway with another closed double door at the other end. A passageway off to the side has been boarded up; I would need a screwdriver to pry it loose. Opening the double doors, I find myself in a nearly identical second hallway. At the other end stands another double door—distant muffled conversation tells me that the event’s end lies beyond; to my left a niche offers a single door.
I step into a small white room, but it is immediately wrong. Fluorescent lights overhead burn with sulphurous constancy. Where the hallways had been the scuffed off-white of the everyday, here the walls, the ceiling, and the floor are thick with incandescent white paint that gathers in the corners into an impenetrable luminosity. It creates a haze around the edges of vision, dislocates the orthogonal axes of the room so that I seem suspended in a ragged, vibrating density. Nothing could live here. Two small square vents are the only details on the surface. Surely they account for a plastic sweetness in the air hinting at toxicity. A humming white noise cancelling all ambient difference also prevents time from passing as normal. Thinking I know the work of Schneider, an artist who mines the subconscious terrors of everyday architecture, I bask in the discomfort as long as time allows. Returning to the hallway, I linger briefly over an emergency fire alarm recessed into the wall that I had not noticed (some ironic jab at my claustrophobia?) and proceed to the [End Page 80] second set of doors with its indistinguishable voices beyond.
What I’d thought an exit is, in fact, a final room. It is almost pitch black, and the talking has stopped with my entrance. I am standing face to face with a naked black man. I cannot recall how I react exactly, but as my eyes adjust I see that we are not alone. There are eight or ten young men in this small dark room—all naked, all black. They do not make eye contact, but I am watched. Their attitude is one of ease: a few lean against the walls, others are seated, someone brushes past me. Clearly shaken, I pretend to play the casual observer before fumbling for the lit exit sign.
Upstairs I emerge into the café at Summerhall, tables filled with people chattering away over tea and a scone, oblivious to all that is taking place in the bowels of the building. The site of the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh for nearly a century, the Summerhall complex was purchased by Robert McDowell in 2011 and converted into an art space. It has since become the most adventurous venue in the yearly festival. The former institutional frames of the medical and educational shadow the work shown, betraying a certain preoccupation with defining and disciplining the living. The small animal hospital in the courtyard is now a pub where slides of hundreds of biological specimens are inlaid in an amber-lit bar. Bones proliferate overhead, while glass cases hold beakers in a cabinet of curiosities. An adjoining dining room presents a more troubling display: artifacts from Africa on one wall, masks, effigies, and “primitive” paintings on another, oddities of American nostalgia such as a Route 66 road sign. Elsewhere, antiquated medical theatres...