In September 2004, the German sculptor John Bock turned the main gallery at the ICA into something like a giant treehouse, a cluster of cabins, platforms and dens bashed together out of plywood and hung about with tinfoil, blankets and washing-lines. To get between them you’d climb ladders and squeeze through tunnels, balance on walkways and clamber over hay bales. Installations of this kind are popular at the moment. They get rid of the separation between the observer and the work; you’re shifted out of contemplation into activity, and don’t stand in front of what’s there so much as traverse it or occupy it. The works that make the deepest impression are the ones in which the exploration of the space has some thematic or narrative purpose.

Gregor Schneider, in Die Familie Schneider, his October 2004 project for Artangel, took over two neighbouring houses in Whitechapel and transformed each into a fully realised re-creation of a cramped Victorian terrace, apparently lived in and mouldered in, unchanging, for decades. You entered the houses alone, first one then the other. But others were there already: a young woman, catatonic, washing up in the kitchen; a man with his back turned, masturbating in the shower; a small figure slumped in the corner of the bedroom, head and torso covered in a black bin-bag. (You could see the plastic moving as he breathed, which didn’t stop some people kicking him to find out ‘if he was real’.) Entering the second house brought a shock. It was the same as the first: not only the wallpaper and the furniture and the pattern in the carpet, but the number of cigarettes in the ashtrays, the miasma of meat, detergent and stale biscuits in the overheated kitchen, even the spot that had been rubbed clean on the landing wall. Unnervingly, the people, too, were the same. Schneider had employed identical twins, one of each pair to do the same thing in each of the two houses.

I don’t know how other visitors behaved. I was intrusive – leafed through the magazines under the TV, opened the fridge and the medicine cabinet – but stopped short of talking to the actors; sidestepped them, rather, as if not to disturb. The house wasn’t quite silent, but it was hard to tell whether or not the scuffling sounds were those of someone next door, or where the sound of the baby’s sobbing was coming from. I felt uncomfortable and vulnerable, not sure what I should be doing or what I wanted to do or whether I should be there at all. In the cellar, amid the garbage and the tools and the damp, a wardrobe had been pulled away from the wall, and behind it, there was an opening. Through it, a short corridor with a very low ceiling; close, hot, muffled. A room, too small for an adult to want to climb into, carpeted on walls and ceiling; in one corner, a box of cheap fairy cakes. At the end of the corridor, a padlocked door. In the other house – this the only difference between the two – the door was unlocked. It was a coal hole, and in it lay a filthy infant's mattress.

Die Familie Schneider was a clever, deeply nasty piece of work. Its theatricalisation of a terrible memory, frozen in time to be inspected, even inhabited, was also, in its uncanny repetitions, a provocation to whatever memories one might have of similar houses, atmospheres, smells and silences. It was a sensation-piece, as coercive in its way as a ghost train: its narrative pulled you down to the basement, and once there you found a version of exactly the horror you expected.

Christoph Büchel’s Simply Botiful, at the Coppermill, Hauser & Wirth’s East London venue, until 18 March next year, reminded me of Schneider’s piece, but it is richer, more elastic in its meanings, and more engaged altogether. Until its recent conversion, the Coppermill, a warehouse built in the 1960s to replace Huguenot housing bombed in the war, was part of the Brick Lane rag trade. Büchel has transformed the building, inside and out, with a single, massive installation.

An illuminated ‘Hotel’ sign juts out over the entrance; above it, a red-lit window has the name ‘Chrissy’ picked out in fairy lights. There is a shopfront; through the grills on the window you can see people inspecting second-hand fridges. Letters have fallen off the warehouse wall to leave: ‘import ex-ort T-ZKER -N- S-NS reclamation’. Press the buzzer, and the gallery attendants will admit you to a shabby reception area; you sign your name in a guestbook, then climb the stairs. It is a flop house, cramped and squalid. Short narrow beds fill the corridor; there are two more under the breakfast bar in the kitchen, and another crammed next to a shower cubicle; suitcases, grimy handprints on the wall, polystyrene tiling and strip lighting. Sooner or later you’ll find Chrissy’s room: there are empty condom packets and used tissues by the bed; kicked-off high heels and discarded underwear, a filofax full of names and addresses: just enough detail to suggest the shape of a life. But in the first room you come to, there is almost too much to take in: shelves stuffed with books on evolution, psychology, Marxism and law; on the wall, antlers, African icons, a framed collection of knots; in a potent evocation of Freud’s consulting room, a couch covered with a red carpet and a desk strewn with fossils. There is a hole in the back of the wardrobe, through which you’ll find another perverse Narnia, an airless antechamber with bricked-up windows: piercingly loud death metal plays on a boombox; there is a charred scooter in a display case, a small animal cage, a child’s mattress and a plastic sack stuffed with toys. I was sitting on the bed making notes when two more visitors crawled in; one whispered to the other: ‘Is he part of it?’

That’s only the beginning. There is a gantry through a door at the back of the hotel, overlooking an enormous warehouse space. It appears to be an abandoned recycling den: in one corner, hundreds of fridges, piled up like sugarcubes; in another, a fifteen-foot-high mountain of wires, print cartridges, computer parts, monitors, photocopiers. Shipping containers are propped on top of one another and used as offices, kitchens, laboratories and the living quarters of the disappeared labour force: four, five, even six bunks to a room, half-buried in stuff of so many kinds that the distinctions between living space, workspace and storage space have been erased. Faced with such an overwhelming amount of material, you are forced to become more selective, forensic, on the lookout for salient details. At the same time, you want to take in the whole, the way in which the various elements of the installation relate to one another and to the narratives they imply. If the work is disorienting, it is because of this oscillation in attention between the minuscule and the vast, the self-evident and the ungraspably complex.

There are secrets to discover. You can pick your way through the fridge mountain to get to the shop; in the office there is a monitor showing CCTV footage from the antechamber in the hotel. Elsewhere, in the recess behind the bunks and washing-lines in the back of a lorry, you can climb down through a hole in the floor. One of the strangers I encountered in the pitch-darkness told me he’d found a Bible down there the day before. (He’d been down here the day before?) In another container, there is a freezer cabinet; climb inside it then crawl through a tunnel along muddied planks to discover the deepest secret of all: an archaeological dig that connects back to the first room in the hotel.

The making of these links, and the effort of trying to make them, is what Büchel seems to want from visitors to the Coppermill. The thematic aspects of the piece – it is clearly in some sense ‘about’ migration and the black economy – are not analysed so much as intuited in the exploration of it. This exploration has its own narrative: you choose whether and what to look at, where to go next, and what sense to make of the things you see. If the experience is disorienting, if the links seem obscure and indeterminate, then this is what Büchel has to say about the lived realities the installation represents. I’d have been happy for it to remain just that: a work centred on anxieties about the shadow migrant economy, in a part of London whose history has for centuries been that of successive waves of immigrants and their ways of staying here and thriving. But then I climbed down inside the freezer cabinet. In some ways I wish I hadn’t. In Die Familie Schneider, the secret buried in the basement was too blunt; it closed the work down, rather than opening it up. In Büchel’s case, too, the Freudian trope is so powerful, and the descent into the basement so thrilling, that it’s difficult to treat it as just another part of the puzzle. But here the secrets are just as likely to be dead ends as they are clues: there’s less down there than meets the eye.

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