By ROBERTA SMITH
Published: September 16, 2007
North Adams, Mass.
WHEN a museum behaves badly, it’s never pretty. But few examples top the depressing spectacle at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
I refer to Mass MoCA’s decision to exhibit “Training Ground for Democracy,” an immense but incomplete work of installation art, despite strenuous opposition from Christoph Büchel, the Swiss artist who conceived it and oversaw its construction until his relationship with the museum dissolved in acrimony early this year. By opening this show without his assent, the museum has broken faith with the artist, the public and art itself.
The legal principles at stake in this dispute will be argued on Friday when lawyers for the museum and Mr. Büchel face off in federal court in Springfield, Mass. Each side hopes for a summary judgment against the other.
The Büchel project was an inspired, nervy move for Mass MoCA, which has struggled to find its voice since it opened eight years ago in a rehabilitated mill complex in downtown North Adams. It was the first American museum to commission one of Mr. Büchel’s dense, fraught creations, which compress masses of material and objects into historically charged labyrinthine environments through which viewers walk, climb and crawl.
And the pairing made perfect sense, given that Mass MoCA has one of the largest galleries of any museum in the United States — known as Building 5 — and annually stages big installations there.
“Training Ground for Democracy” was to be assembled at the museum’s expense, with its staff members seeking out and installing items on a long list in collaboration with Mr. Büchel. His outsize list included a two-story Cape Cod cottage, a leaflet-bomb carousel, an old bar from a tavern, a vintage movie theater and various banged-up rolling stock (a trailer, a mobile home, a bus, a truck). Nine full-size shipping containers were requested. There was even to be a re-creation of Saddam Hussein’s spider hole. But things did not go smoothly. By the end of January, and well past the scheduled Dec. 16 opening date, Mr. Büchel had departed for good and begun accusing the museum of interference, unprofessionalism and wasting his time.
The museum said it had tried mightily to gather everything on Mr. Büchel’s wish list but balked at acquiring a burnt-out fuselage of a 737 airliner. It pointed out that it had spent more than double the show’s $160,000 budget; Mr. Büchel countered that an amount had never been agreed upon.
Mass MoCA argues that it has a responsibility to deliver a show to its public. “At some point the realities of our budget, resources and staff imposed themselves,” Joe Thompson, the museum’s director, told The New York Times.
Now the components of “Training for Democracy” loom as if in a desolate ghost town, surreally camouflaged by plastic tarps in Building 5. Mass MoCA says it shrouded the elements pending a court decision that it hopes will allow it to display the installation. Mass MoCA may have been a little naïve about what it was getting into with Mr. Büchel. Artists can be difficult and demanding, and the bigger the artwork, the greater the stress on all sides. And while Mr. Büchel’s environments are huge in scale, they are also often guided by a sense of horror vacui, and so obsessively detailed that they might best be described as panoramic collage.
They’re like bristling three-dimensional history paintings: messy offices, banal living rooms, sinister hideouts, piles of old appliances or towers of newspapers, with each space telling its own story. It is as if the detritus of dozens of sad lives has been warehoused yet remains in use. Everyone has just gone out to lunch, or has been arrested.
Occasionally there are moments of respite. In an installation that Mr. Büchel carved into Michelle Maccarone’s crumbling two-story gallery on the Lower East Side in 2001, for example, I spent a calm moment crouched in a child’s classroom chair while facing a blackboard that ran floor to ceiling — the room was only four feet high — wondering what on earth would come next.
Since Mr. Büchel walked off the Mass MoCA project in January, accusations have flown back and forth like poison arrows, and it’s hard to sort out who did or didn’t do what and when.
Mr. Thompson, director of Mass MoCA, said the museum had “clearly bent over backwards” for Mr. Büchel. Yet by opening the show, covered, last spring against Mr. Büchel’s wishes and now seeking a court’s go-ahead to remove the tarps, the museum renders all of that moot. If an artist who conceived a work says that it is unfinished and should not be exhibited, it isn’t — and shouldn’t be. End of story.
(His lawyer cites a federal law that says as much, the Visual Artist Rights Act. But Mass MoCA argues that the law applies only to finished works of art.)
It’s hard for a museum to recover when it forfeits the high ground. To this day the Corcoran Gallery of Art remains infamous for canceling its 1989 exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs after his work was denounced by Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina. To conservatives’ horror, the show had been partly financed by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The meltdown at Mass MOCA is sad for all concerned, yet is also a reflection of the changes wrought since the late 1960s, as installation art evolved from renegade form into an institutional staple of ever-bigger galleries and museums.
Training Ground for Democracy
Although museums still focus most of their energy on finished works that they believe should be shown or collected, they now routinely function as patrons, using their budgets to help artists create works from scratch. They have happily become producers because these days installation artworks are often crowd pleasers, circuslike in their appeal. Viewers gasp at their scale or their sensational optical effects, as with “Sleepwalker,” the Doug Aitken video display on the Museum of Modern Art’s facades last winter.
Yet the experience can be very superficial. It’s strange to think that these big temporary installations may be the only contemporary art that some people know or enjoy. And there are dangers, including the possibility that in controlling the purse strings, a museum starts thinking of itself as a co-author who knows what the artist wants better than he or she does.
Yes, artists can be formidably difficult. The larger the artwork, the bigger the ego. Maybe Mr. Büchel was behaving like a diva. But what some call temper tantrums are often an artist’s last, furious stand for his or her art.
Initially I felt some sympathy for Mass MoCA. I was impressed that it had the courage to be the first American museum to take on Mr. Büchel, whose outsize ambition has anted up ideas implicit in Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau environments of the 1930s, Arman’s “Le Plein” of 1960 and Gordon Matta-Clark’s sliced buildings of the ’70s.
But when the museum became set on opening the unfinished piece over Mr. Büchel’s objections, my sympathy evaporated. And when I visited MassMoCA, my sentiments curdled.
The shrouded non-Büchel is a kind of museological car crash. You can’t stop looking, but tarps or no tarps, you also want to avert your eyes, especially if you are familiar with his previous work.
Mr. Büchel contends that the display damages his reputation. It will certainly give people unfamiliar with his obsessive, history-driven aesthetic an inaccurate sense of his art, and this is indeed a form of damage. But by opening this strange quasi display, MassMoCA does even more damage to itself and to its reputation as a steward of art and as a conduit between living artists and the public.
My first thought while walking among the tarps is that no one working at the museum had ever seen a finished Büchel, which would be pretty astonishing, especially since a very large Büchel installation was on view in London while things were unraveling in North Adams. Titled “Simply Botiful,” this 13,000-square-foot London piece was commissioned by the artist’s primary dealer, Hauser & Wirth, in its huge warehouse in the Coppermill neighborhood.
Interestingly, the gallery says it cost £80,000, or about $162,000, and was assembled by Mr. Büchel and 12 assistants and workers in three weeks. This might seem to suggest that when given full artistic control, Mr. Büchel delivers.
At Mass MoCA, meanwhile, there is a sense of something gone deeply awry. In one of two smaller galleries in Building 5, the museum has removed the bar that was part of the Büchel piece to make way for “Made at Mass MoCA,” a self-serving, slapped-together display of photographs of previous installations. It accomplishes little but to suggest the frequent vacuity of those projects and underscore the possibility that the Büchel was too big a reach for the museum. Beyond that and up a flight of stairs, things get stranger still.
Here you’ll find a wall covered with Mr. Büchel’s extensive wish list, which conceptually conveys something of the surface density, historical references and regional evocations he planned to incorporate. Requested are accouterments for Mass and Baptism; a hospital bed and related medical equipment; eight voting booths; hundreds of old tires; piles of old computers; 1,000 beverage cups from a race track; 1,000 feet of barbed wire; 12 grenades and 35 pounds of bullet casings; eight body bags and 75 white protective suits; four prosthetic legs; decorations and campaign buttons from election rallies; a concession stand, popcorn and popcorn buckets; Christmas lights; and 16 large bags of corn leaves and husks.
The list scrolls along in chapterlike clusters of related items, evoking recent events in or involving the United States, including the 2000 presidential election, Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq. On the opposite wall newspaper articles and editorials about the controversy are pinned to the wall, although a scathing indictment of Mass MoCA by The Boston Globe’s art critic is absent.
The museum deserves to be scathed. Although there may be parts of the installation proper that Mr. Büchel considers finished, what is visible above and below the tarps today is barely the skeleton of a Büchel. It’s just a lot of stuff.
You are reminded of Hollywood, where directors (that is, artists) are routinely denied “final cut.” Of course, Renaissance popes often had final cut too. But I prefer to invoke the spirit of Robert Rauschenberg, who, when asked to contribute to a show of portraits of the Paris dealer Iris Clert in 1961, sent a telegram that read, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.”
Never underestimate the amount of resentment and hostility we harbor toward artists. It springs largely from envy. They can behave quite badly, but mainly they operate with a kind of freedom and courage that other people don’t risk or enjoy. And it can lead to wondrous things.
In the end it doesn’t matter how many people toil on a work of art, or how much money is spent on it. The artist’s freedom includes the right to say, “This is not a work of art unless I say so.”