For Project 16, Gregor Schneider transformed Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach in 2007 with a giant cage titled 21 Beach Cells. The 4 x 4 metre cells
contained amenities for visitors – an air mattress, beach umbrella and black plastic garbage bag – and were soon inhabited by beachgoers looking for
a site to rest and find shelter from the sun. The shadow image of Guantánamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray – and Australia’s own immigration detention centres –
became a site for relaxation. 21 Beach Cells captured the atmosphere of the time, an environment of global terrorism, detention of illegal
immigrants and the recent Cronulla race riots, questioning Australia’s egalitarian self-image.
Since 1985, Schneider’s work has focused on the creation of uncanny architectural environments, cavernous depths and labyrinths that evoke a dark individual
or collective psyche. Between 1985 and 1997, from his mid-teens, he compulsively refigured a former residential block next-door to his father’s lead
factory in Rheydt for the work he has renamed Totes Haus Ur (Dead house ur). Schneider rented and moved into the building, reshaping it piece
by piece with constant additions until it became a complex organic structure, no longer conceivable as a whole.
Drawing from a place between the seen, contained and constructed experiences of the world and the unseen and unfathomable, Schneider’s works activate physical
and psychological impulses. Clear identification and orientation are denied and visitors are left unsure of where they are and what they are seeing.
The architecture of Guantánamo Bay has inspired a number of Schneider’s works. Weisse Folter (White torture), 2007, was named after a form
of psychological torture and interrogation that leaves no bodily trace and was modelled from images of Guantánamo’s Camp V maximum-security facility.
The indeterminate purpose and function of the 21 Beach Cells positioned them between comfort and isolation, safety and imprisonment. The work’s
labyrinthine structure became apparent once people were inside. The transparent walls gave a false impression of expanded vision and orientation. Some
doors were locked and required visitors to retrace their steps to the exit; others led into open cells, creating confusing paths and passageways. Schneider
stated that the influence for the work was the Cronulla race riots, which occurred on 11 December 2005 when a crowd of around 5000 young Anglo-Australians
descended on the Sydney suburb to ‘reclaim the beach’, leading to violent attacks on people of Middle Eastern appearance. A backlash from the Lebanese
community resulted in a pervasive environment of fear and segregation, including a police ‘lock-down’ of the local area.
In 2009, 21 Beach Cells was recreated on Accadia Beach in Herzliya, Israel.