Big Players

A look at a Big museum, a Big-name artist and a Big problem




Training Ground for Democracy, installation images by John Carli, NY Times 


Unplugged (Simply Botiful), Christophe Büchel, Art Unlimited 2007 


Everybody knows that bigger isn’t always better, though big can often be extraordinary. Sometimes things just need to be enormous for them to feel just right. At a fraction of their scale, The Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty or the Pyramids just wouldn’t have the same impact. In recent history we have seen a rise of voluminous exhibition spaces, such as the Tate Modern or Dia Beacon, for whopping installation art. But what happens when a really big museum and an artist with a really big ego get into a really big fight, with enough art and money at stake to fill a football field?

Swiss artist Christophe Büchel and American exhibition space MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass., spent most of 2007 slugging it out in a manner that was less David and Goliath than Godzilla and Mothra. In December 2006, in the midst of installing Training Ground for Democracy, which would have been the artist’s first major exhibition in the US, relations soured between the museum and Büchel. Complications arose, and the opening date was changed to May 2007. The budget and tensions rose. Then came “the straw that broke the camel’s back”: Büchel left for the holidays, leaving the museum with an unattainable shopping list that included, among other articles, the bombed out fuselage of a commercial jetliner. The museum went ballistic.

The affair spilled into the public realm, becoming a pitched battle between institution and artist, with the rights of who determines when a work of art is ready for public consumption hanging in the balance. The skirmish eclipsed the very artwork the museum purported to support.  At the end of the battle, the Titans were bested, their egos bruised, the money spent, and the art dismantled. There was no clear winner and the only clear loser was the average artist.

In an era of these ballooning centres for exhibitions, it is ultimately the relationship between museums and artists that remains essential. Negotiating an exhibition into fruition is not always an easy affair, and throughout the process many disputes can arise. In most cases, debates are business as usual and everything is worked out well before the vernissage. With installations, the potential for complications is compounded as every item is weighed and considered. Now throw a vast space, an ambitious artist and a seemingly limitless pool of money into the mix.

In the Büchel-MASS MoCA affair, it seems it was the informal, collaborative approach between the parties that backfired, as a surprising lack of contractual information led to a series of misunderstandings that grew to monstrous proportions. Afraid that the artist would never be satisfied and having already doubled its budget to over $300,000, the museum panicked, and launched a lawsuit to gain the right to show the work in its incomplete state.

MASS MoCA has been creating large-scale artworks with contemporary artists since it opened in 1999 on a former electrical components production factory. One of the largest institutions for contemporary visual art in North America, it comprises 19 buildings on 13 acres with more than 100, 000 square feet of exhibition space. Building 5 is as long and wide as a football field. Their ambitious mandate focuses largely on community engagement through a flexible, year-round calendar replete with performing arts programs, film screenings, educational tours and residencies. Their uniqueness is in the scale, scope and technical resources they can offer to artists to create large-scale works. The Büchel installation would have been a crown jewel towards this end.

Size and money can be complicating factors in the long-standing question of when a work of art is finished. This very question can plague any artist, whether a painter, sculptor, filmmaker and most certainly those that works specifically with installations. It is the sort of question that gets even stickier when a museum enters the debate as patron, or commissions an installation and begins to see itself as collaborator or perhaps even co-author.

Regardless of who held the morally superior position throughout the debacle, it precipitated compelling repercussions in the art world. Before the judgment, the museum created an impromptu exhibition titled Made at MASS MoCA, the idea being to illustrate the previous and successful working processes the museum has had with various artists. A haphazard display of photographs and text panels presented a somewhat biased version of events that led to the cancellation of Büchel’s Democracy show, with most local newspaper reports naming the artist as the uncooperative player in the drama.

Perhaps the most bizarre element of the Made at MASS MoCA show was the shielded pathway through Büchel’s unfinished installation. Yellow tarps blocked the view of the exhibition, though one could still see elements of the installation in the taller forms of a house, a guard tower, streetlights, a cinderblock wall, barbed wire and other components. It was possible to decipher what sort of exhibition could be displayed, but this mode of presentation confused the intent. In fact, given that Büchel’s installations are so precisely constructed, the yellow tarps added a sort of juvenile, facile attempt at doing exactly what typically works so well with his installations, that of physically and emotionally guiding a spectator through highly charged environments.

MASS MoCA had been hyping the exhibition for a long time in advance. They had even modified the building with a new door to allow entry of larger items such as a complete 2-story house and an oil tanker. Local townspeople had brought in items requested and the complete interior—the entry, ticket booth, office, projection room and theatre—of a local disused movie theatre was brought inside. For obvious reasons many people felt implicated and involved in the process and were eager to see the results. But is just any result valid?

Büchel filed a countersuit claiming that to exhibit any part of the installation without his consent would be a modification of the original work and therefore protected under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA). Unfortunately, in a judgement that sided with the museum, Justice Michael Ponsor claimed that unfinished works did not fall under the VARA protection, thus unveiling a very strange loophole in the law. Now, there is little to prevent overzealous dealers or museums to exhibit artwork that an artist may not be comfortable or ready to show, without expressed written consent.

It should be no wonder that problems would arise when giving an artist like Büchel, reputed for his painstaking attention to detail, such a colossal space to work with. Was there a larger lesson at work here? Would, as the museum was claiming, Büchel continue to demand more and more and never actually realize the piece? Did the title: Training Ground for Democracy actually have something more to do with the Artist-Institution relationship than with wargames and US foreign policy? Was he pushing for a different reaction, or just playing a cat-and-mouse game with the museum? Or was it just a working relationship that progressed into irreconcilable differences?

If that is the case then in my opinion Training Ground for Democracy was both an artistic and an institutional failure. The museum, despite winning the legal option, buckled under intense criticism from the arts community and decided against showing the exhibition in its unfinished state. It was disappointing that the parties could not come to a more amicable agreement, because beyond the fact that a lot of money went to waste and a potentially thrilling installation was scrapped, from a legal standpoint the disillusionment is compounded further by the erosion of artist rights.

Here in Canada we are not immune to the growing trend of large spaces, big installations and the peculiarities such work can bring. The site of the first aluminum smelting plant in North America is located in Shawinigan, QC; It was declared a National Historic Site in 2001 and in 2003 Espace Shawinigan was launched in collaboration with the National Gallery of Canada to present one blockbuster show per year, often themed exhibitions based on works from their collection.

The historical, architectural and geographic similarities between the two centres has now spawned a couple years of shared exhibitions, attributed mostly to the available logistics. The recent Carsten Höller and Cai Guo Qiang exhibits at MASS MoCA were featured in subsequent years with exhibits at Espace Shawinigan, although in modified or reduced forms. Large as it is, featuring over 35,000 square feet of exhibition space spread through four large buildings, Espace Shawinigan is still tiny in comparison to MASS MoCA. Höller’s Amusement Park had room to breathe in Building 5, but felt cramped in Shawinigan’s somewhat smaller Building 9.

An issue did arise with the recent Carsten Höller installation at Espace Shawinigan. For The Belgium Problem Höller wanted starlings shipped from Belgium to be part of an avarium installation where the Belgium birds would swap and learn regional dialects from their Québecois counterparts. It proved to be a more complicated affair than either the gallery or the artist had envisioned. The duration of the exhibition would mean that the birds would in effect lose their citizenship, and would then fall under different laws of immigration and exportattion. A complicated affair, but the artist, initially trained as a scientist, sees art as an arena for maintaining a sustained state of doubt, and “is content to leave mishaps, whether large or small, alone.”
1 Ontario starlings were used instead, with an undeniable reference to the linguistic two solitudes of French and English in Canada.

Undoubtedly aware of the recent mess at MASS MoCA, it is at best a long shot that the NGC would be cooking up plans to try to lure Büchel to Shawinigan anytime soon. I would love to experience an industrial-sized Büchel closer to home, though perhaps in a venue more suited to his exacting style of installation work. I would suggest something more site-specific, such as a former industrial site but before it becomes a rarified, exhibition space. As so-called developed countries shed their industrial economies in favour of those that are knowledge-based, there are more and more abandoned factories available. Within these empty husks lie the remnants of our colonial legacy, materials richly loaded and perfect for use in the art of assemblages and complex installations. Why transform these spaces into permanent museums if temporary and ephemeral fits the art better, like a worn (work) glove? At the very least, it could circumvent the institutional bickering, lawsuits and tawdry yellow tarps.  

Chris Lloyd, March 2008  

1 One, Some, Many Deux plus tout, exhibition catalogue, Jonathan Shaughnessy, with contributions by Jennifer Allen and Matthew L. Levy, National Gallery of Canada, 2007

Stephanie Cash "Big mess at MASS MoCA". Art in America. Sept 2007. 19 Mar. 2008

No admittance, Mass MoCA has mishandled disputed art installation, By Ken Johnson, Globe Staff  |  July 1, 2007

Training Ground for Democracy, The Brooklyn Rail, Thomas Miccelli 

Christophe Büchel trashes MaSS MOCA,  Berkshire Fine Arts,  Gregory Schekler