In 2005, the young German artist Gregor Schneider put a proposal to the Venice Biennale that proved to be too controversial for the city fathers. The centre of Saint Mark's Square was to be filled with a giant black cube in homage to Kazimir Malevich. They rejected it. Was it too ugly? Or could it have been something to do with the fact that it resembled the Kabaa, and therefore might offend Muslim sensibilities?
Such a cube was very typical of Schneider's practice, as we can see from this new exhibition of photographs and sculpture. Schneider's big idea concerns the idea of the Total House. Back in 1985, he made his first replica of a suburban German house inside a gallery. He has kept on returning to that idea. He has rebuilt the house, shifted walls, introduced new elements of mystery. It's not just something to look at. The idea is that this ersatz house – and sometimes it's even a house inside a house – should be an object that encloses us, that we get lost inside, that makes us feel profoundly uncomfortable to be marooned in. In the ground-floor gallery space, there are innumerable photographs of different manifestations of that house, and bits of the house itself, made from concrete, foam rubber. Sometimes the house looks as bland as can be – a radiator, chairs around a table, blowing white curtains. At other times, it looks menacing and horribly, suffocatingly small. You see photographs of a narrow descent into a damp, medieval-dungeon-like space – the walls seem to be closing in on you. It's pure Edgar Allan Poe. There's a rearing wall that seems to have grey spikes projecting from it – most certainly a homage to "The Pit and the Pendulum". And another section of white wall, rough-edged, concrete, with a heart trapped inside it. Poe again. You can almost hear the pulsing. When you brush up against those spikes, they turn out to be made from foam rubber.
Downstairs, things get darker and even nastier. The gallery space is completely blacked out. As your eyes become accustomed to the murk, you notice that there are some bodies in here; well, parts of bodies, each one eerily lit. Legs, with lengths of plastic shrouding the upper halves. Murder victims? Sometime friends? It's all rather isolating and disorienting.
Now it's quite difficult to say how good any of this really is. The idea of psychological enclosure is interesting, but is it really any cleverer or more profound than the best things to be found in any House of Horrors? Schneider calls his ongoing house project a gesamtkunstwerk, which means a total work of art. This sounds like pretentious guff. And what exactly does he mean by this anyway? Yes, it does envelop you, and yes you do feel a bit stripped bare by being totally enclosed. And, yes, it may well be the case that this is growing into something that may require a lifetime's endeavour to finish, and that each component is part of a manic exploration of a single idea, peeling back layer upon layer of the onion as he goes. But to use that word gesamtkunstwerk is to make claims of high seriousness that the results, frankly, may not justify.
Still, there's no denying that it's often quite scary fun.
Ends tomorrow (020 7493 8611)Reuse content