By JAMES HULL
I have tried for over a week not to respond to the simplistic, one-sided, Op-Ed rant by Ken Johnson about Christoph Büchel's problematic Mass MoCA installation disguised as a "Critic's Notebook". The opinion piece was proudly run in color on the front page of the Arts section of the Boston Sunday Globe (July 1, 2007). The first sentence clearly establishes the biases of the "critic" and irresponsibly places blame singularly on a valuable regional art center that has won accolades for almost everything it has done artistically and economically since it opened -- until now. Johnson concludes, as if he is in some way a good judge of the complicated legal and budgetary issues that have not even been made public, that the Museum's response is "sad, dumb and shameful." What is shameful is that Mr. Johnson did not consider that there may be two sides to this story.
Just to put my take in perspective, I have been working with artists to create installations of all kinds on a limited budget for over 15 years. I am an artist who fundraises for myself and other artists and volunteers my time at a non-profit gallery to install work for public exhibition. I have written reviews of exhibitions that have been published in Art Papers, ArtsMedia and Big RED & Shiny. I have also worked with artists as an installer at the List Visual art Center at MIT, ICA Boston, the Thread Waxing space, the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, The High Museum of Art and Barbara Krakow Gallery. Additionally I have had to work with installers at the Huntsville Museum of Art to have one of my own installations installed to my specifications for the Triennial "Red Clay Survey" several years ago.
This is just to say that I looked at view this in a the situation in a much more open-minded way than Mr. Johnson. Which is not much of a challenge, considering that he spent the entire article vilifying an institution whose side of the story he barely even mentions except to quickly list that the artist had already used up a budget of $300,000 after agreeing to do the installation for $160,000. He gives the museum's past record short shrift in the second paragraph saying "Mass MoCA is known for sponsoring artists with ambitious, big ideas." This actually is just a disguised compliment that Johnson pays to the artist, implying he was another artist with a big idea. When the museum tried to remind visitors of the successes it had always had in the past Johnson again attacks them saying, "Mass MoCA has compounded its misdoings by mounting a slick, disingenuous, egregiously self-serving photo and text display called "made at Mass MoCA" ... "The implicit message is that Büchel must be a real jerk to have been so uncooperative." Show me a single museum that does not brag and archive its past exhibitions. The message is only implicit and egregious because this critic does not want anyone to get both sides of the argument.
To call the installation "slick" -- which I think is an underhanded compliment about how well installed the temporary, unplanned "Made at Mass MoCA" installation must have looked -- showing the unmentioned skills that the institution can muster in a crunch were not good enough to satisfy the artist (or were they?).
I am not faulting the artist yet, just because I agree with some of the bloggers and writers that gave more consideration than Mr. Johnson to the obvious similarities of this legal battle to the artist's stated practice. The text for a recent exhibition Hauser & Wirth Coppermill in London's East End states:
"Büchel often appropriates mass media sources such as the Internet, printed political pamphlets and everyday household objects. His work is informed by an explicit political awareness, often telling of new forms of propaganda..." perhaps referring to Mr. Johnson's article!
It goes on to say that "'Capital Affair' (also 2002), another collaboration with Motti, promised the entire exhibition budget to the gallery visitor who could find a cheque hidden within the exhibition space of the Helmhaus in Zurich. Büchel repeatedly manipulates and exploits the perceived power of the social and legal contract, subverting the relationship between artist and audience while insisting on a more active political role for both."
It is not unreasonable, given his past history, to think Büchel may include his legal contract and exhibition budget as fodder to be used in his artistic practice and his installation. After all, there is no such thing as bad press -- at least for an artist -- unfortunately that may not ring true for an institution that has to raise money from almost any source available in order to survive.
This possibility was obvious to others as well, just not to Mr. Johnson, as a posting on the blog ANABA by Evan demonstrates...
"Regarding the Büchel kerfuffle: I've been following it for awhile now, and I've come to the conclusion that perhaps his intent all along was to have a "non-show show" at Mass MoCA. It seems like something he would do -- create a lot of hype, pull a supposed "freakout" at the last minute, force the folks at Mass MoCA to cleverly conceal everything, post some newspaper clippings about the whole thing and voila, you have a VERY tongue-in-cheek and subversive show. In any event, it's pretty clear to me that Büchel did indeed manipulate the powers-that-be in the press and Mass MoCA to get something out of it, even if it was just some more exposure."
Yet another posting says:
"Man, I pretty much ALWAYS side with the artist, and hate curators claiming artistic license... but I have to hand it to Joe Thompson and Mass Moca for one-upping Büchel at his own "subverting the relationship" game."
One reason to consider why this explanation was ignored by Mr. Johnson comes from Johnson's own writings on the artist from a few years earlier at the Swiss Institute, New York (which he quotes in his Boston Globe rant) where he describes the exhibition space as "a grungy, fully furnished apartment with a meandering cinderblock wall running through it. There is a visceral absurdity about the wall, and it is sad how it divides and isolates two people who, we may imagine, might otherwise productively commune and collaborate."
Could the "two people" of Johnson's Swiss Institute review be replaced by the Museum vs. Büchel for the same effect? Might the artist want the burlap and tarps of the "Closed" Mass MoCA exhibit to function like the cinder block wall?
Many reasonable questions such as these were omitted by Johnson throughout the incendiary article and replaced by argumentative suppositions like "What may seem to museum workers a perfect solution may not necessarily be acceptable to an artist who has an extremely exacting vision" while the museum implicitly has no vision, not to mention that the installers, many of whom are artists, get slighted by Johnson as well in this slur. I guess the MoCA installers and even his imported, salaried Swiss assistants were incapable of making things look "grungy" in just the right way.
For those interested in reading more in-depth coverage of the Büchel controversy, here are a few links:
Big RED & Shiny - "Christoph Büchel & Mass MoCA" by Micah J. Malone
Boston Globe - "Behind Closed Doors: A World Unseen" by Geoff Edgers
Zeke's Gallery - "Christoph Büchel should learn from Jana Sterbak"
Grammarpolice - "The Big Dig"
Geoff Edgers posted Büchel's public statement in 5 parts at The Exhibitionist: 1 2 3 4 5
Edward Winkleman weighs in
Anaba takes a look
Image from the New York Times, via Edward Winkleman.