The controversy at Mass MoCA.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Sept. 25 2007 11:39 AM

Mess MoCA

An artist and a museum fight over a work of art.

The scene at the federal courthouse in Springfield, Mass., in the countersuits of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art v. Christoph Büchel, seemed more like a bitter divorce than a dispute about a work of art. On one side of the hearing on Sept. 21, much anticipated in the art world, was the estranged Swiss sculptor, Büchel, complaining of a lack of commitment from his partner. On the other was the jilted museum, known as Mass MoCA, which had shelled out more than twice the $160,000 budgeted for Büchel's artistic materials—the two-story house, the mobile home, the movie theater, the police car—but balked at the requested airplane. The museum had taken the unusual step of exhibiting Büchel's proposed shopping list, which also included (according to Roberta Smith's extremely pro-Büchel assessment in the New York Times) four prosthetic legs, a hospital bed, eight voting booths, and much more. Not exactly Imelda Marcos' closet of shoes, but still. As usual in such matters, the forlorn offspring—named Training Ground for Democracy—was caught in the middle, swaddled in protective yellow sheets like an abandoned Christo.

How did it come to this? A year ago, Mass MoCA, housed in a network of renovated factory buildings in the city of North Adams, near Williamstown, invited Büchel to fill its football-field sized Building 5—one of the biggest exhibition spaces for art in the country—with one of his politically charged installations. An earlier work for Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions was described as "replicas of missiles, bombs, and other military equipment stashed away as if hidden and forgotten in a small waiting room, discovered only after walking through a series of adjacent rooms and doors." For Mass MoCA, Büchel proposed something in an equally unsubtle if more ambitious vein. Both the Boston Globe ("it should have been a great match") and the Times ("the pairing made perfect sense") had high hopes for the marriage.

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During the fall of 2006, the artist, his assistants, and Mass MoCA staffers began assembling in Building 5 what was construed by some viewers as the sort of "training ground" that might be used to prepare anti-terrorist forces for military action at home or abroad. Michael A. Ponsor, the presiding judge in the case, was one of the few visitors allowed to see the exhibition with the tarps down. He described entering the space through a box office into a "beat-up" movie theater, then proceeding past a looted convenience store, an overturned police car, a "torture area adjoining a schoolroom," a replica of Saddam Hussein's spider-hole hanging from the ceiling, and other scenes of mayhem—the whole array permeated with "decay, grime, and squalor." The judge confessed that he "had approached the experience skeptically," but had "never been so powerfully affected by a work of contemporary art."

But it was never completed, at least not to the artist's satisfaction. The museum complained that Büchel's conception of the piece kept changing, in such a way that the cost skyrocketed. Büchel accused the museum of disregarding his instructions, and claimed that no firm budget was ever agreed upon. In May, Mass MoCA, in either an emotional act of spite or a calculated attempt to blackmail Büchel into finishing (or declaring finished) the work without further expense, draped the materials with yellow tarps—thus restricting, as it noted in a statement distributed to the press in the courtroom, "physical and visual access to the materials"—and exhibited instead Büchel's exorbitant wish list, along with journalistic commentary about the work. Meanwhile, Mass MoCA asked the court for guidance in what to do with the stuff. 

Büchel, as Robert Smith and other critics noted, seemed to have the law, at least the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, on his side. Passed in the wake of such previous debacles as the Richard Serra Tilted Arc controversy of the 1980s, when Serra argued that to remove his steel wall from its site on Federal Plaza in New York was in effect to destroy it, the act specifies that the artist "shall have the right to prevent 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 which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation." Mass MoCA believed that it had found two loopholes in the act. First, the museum didn't plan to identify Büchel as the creator of the work, and second, it believed that displaying the unveiled work in its unfinished state, against the artist's wishes, would not constitute "distortion." Büchel's attorney countered that showing an unfinished work under such circumstances itself constituted "a distortion of the highest order." 

Like so many messy divorces, Mass MoCA v. Büchel was ultimately less about commitment and art than about money. The space-rich and cash-poor museum wanted some kind of return on its considerable investment. The artist wanted some kind of return on his wasted time and the supposed injury to his reputation.

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