MASS MoCA wins right to show Büchel installation

A mobile home being moved into MASS MoCA's Building 5, by John Carli, The New York Times

As MASS MoCA describes on its blog, the relationship with Swiss artist Christoph Büchel soured long ago. Last summer, Büchel began an ambitious installation that was budgeted to cost $160,000 and was slated to open this December. Housed in a football field-sized building, Training Ground for Democracy would be a reflection on living in wartime and would include a replica of the "spider hole" Saddam Hussein was captured in, a two-story house, a smashed police car, a rusty oil tanker, and other outsized items.

Long story short, Büchel abandoned the project after a few months, stating that the museum "proved not to be capable — neither logistically, neither schedule- nor budget-wise — to manage the project." MASS MoCA doubled the budget (later offering to throw in an additional $100,000) to entice him to complete the work.

He refused, ratcheting up an ugly standoff between the artist and the institution. He would neither finish the piece nor agree to remove materials from the site -- and he wouldn't let the museum open the installation for public viewing (it did, however, but with obscured views of the project).

After leaving the state, Büchel sent a communique listing demands, which can be summarized by this line: “The artist demands full autonomy with regard to his artwork.

MASSMOCA filed suit in an attempt to win the right to show or dispose of the work. Büchel countersued, seeking an injunction against the museum and financial damages. He cited the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA), which protects artists by preventing "the use of his or her name as the author of the work of visual art in the event of a distortion, mutilation, or other modification of the work.” On Friday, a federal court judge ruled that the museum could exhibit the installation, as long as it clearly indicated it was an unfinished work.

Some, like Yale art school dean Robert Storr (whose affidavit in the case said under no circumstances should a work be shown until the artist deems it complete), have sided with Büchel. But Judge Michael Ponsor questioned who owns the work's copyright in the first place. The Hartford Courant writes:
While museum workers in North Adams spent months following Buchel's meticulous instructions for completing the work, the judge said, the artist spent only six weeks on site in Massachusetts. The museum acquired most of the objects for the display -- including an oil tanker truck, a Cape Cod house and a vintage movie theater -- and coordinated the complicated task of acquiring cast-off appliances from residents of North Adams. E-mail exchanges between the artist and museum staff included such minutiae as whether a wrecked police car should rest on its side or its wheels.

"I put all of this together and ask myself where is the copyright here?" Ponsor said during questioning in his court Friday. "Who owns the work when what is being created is collaborative art? The museum spent most of the money and did most of the work."

Ponsor toured the exhibition for two to three hours as research for his decision, calling it "the kind of art that wakes you up in the middle of the night."

"I have never been so powerfully affected by a piece of art," he said. "I'm very disappointed that such a powerful piece finds itself embroiled in controversy."

And embroiled it may remain.

MASS MoCA, according to press reports, isn't yet sure when or if the public will have the opportunity to see the work. And Büchel's lawyers Friday said they'd likely appeal the decision.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a comfortable European artist who's been lavished with government funds for a long time. Welcome to reality, Christoph. And what a "LINO" (lefty in name only). His liberal concerns don't apply to the obscene expenditures of cash in his name, which could've gone to actually help somewhere.


Anonymous said...

The result of the trial is troubling, this boondoggle was a big loss for Mass Moca, but an even bigger loss for artists. How can an institution say what is too much or too far for an artist to go? The more Mass MoCA tries to use the press to prove their point that he was too tedious or wanted to much I find myself more and more into the project. Büchel's obsession with detail is what makes him and his work so interesting, especially in this age of mediocrity. This is up there with Clement Greenberg re-painting David Smith's sculptures. Now that MM has "won the right" and the artist has lost his, I hope they choose to shut down the show, and put this to rest.

Büchel is an established, internationally known artist, whose work is easy to research and likely his personality is as well. Mass MoCA should be committed to artists it commissions regardless of the pain. Raise the price of coffee in the cafeteria, have some fund raisers, get the money finish the project and be done with it. If it was taking too long, postpone other shows and keep this up for a year. It would have been a blockbuster. I find that this has really undone allot of what artists and institutions worked for in the 80's-90's, providing a venue for realizing massive and difficult projects, nearly impossible to complete with out their assistance.

Finally in regards to the statement of "that money could have gone to help with real things..." a sentiment I've found on several blogs. How is this a fair assessment, and why should artist be responsible for this and not other massive cash expenditures like professional sport or Hollywood? I dream of the day when artist have multimillion dollar budgets to make projects. Büchel's or almost any artist show does use funds that goto something real, these projects do help. We value and promote artist to these positions because their work questions and looks at the fabric of our society in ways that aren't commonly noticed, accepted or understood. It is the transmission of ideas and hopefully education, that makes these types of projects helpful and important.