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.

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.

Despite Judge Ponsor’s observation that a courtroom is no place for what he called matters of “aesthetic ideology,” the legal arguments did raise interesting questions about the status of works of art vis-à-vis their creators.  A big question centered on who ultimately controls a collaborative work of art. Ponsor clearly didn’t think the issue was as simple as many in the art world believed. In accepting Mass MoCA’s patronage and financial partnership, rather than following the more traditional route of completing the work in his studio at his own expense and sending it or selling it to the museum, Büchel surely realized that the budget (even if never precisely specified, as he claimed) was not unlimited and that the museum’s needs and preferences couldn’t be ignored altogether. Both artist and museum had moved, uncertainly and apparently (as the judge noted) without a sufficiently well-framed contract, into an area more familiar in such arts of collaboration and compromise as movies and architecture. We all know that there’s a difference between the director’s cut and the version shown in the theaters, or, more concretely, between Daniel Libeskind’s original design for the Freedom Tower and what’s actually going up at the World Trade Center site.

Another aesthetic question hinges on the nature of the work that Büchel makes, “fictitious yet highly believable environments,” as the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions put it, that are “carefully constructed so that the institutional framework of the art museum and all reference to the gallery context are removed.” The title of the work, Training Ground for Democracy, was meant to be ironic, in a safe, anti-American way. But the irony has played out in ways the artist and museum couldn’t have foreseen. For an artist like Büchel, of the “where-does-art-end-and-reality-begin” variety, the formal courtroom in Springfield seemed a bizarre extension of the shrouded installation at Mass MoCA. Judge Ponsor wondered aloud whether the work had expanded to include his own courtroom. In its own blog, Mass MoCA denied that it had worked under the premise that the stalemate itself was “some sort of big ruse, or a work of conceptual art presented in the form of a legal quagmire.”

In the end, Judge Ponsor ruled from the bench in favor of Mass MoCA, determining that exhibiting the unfinished work, with a suitable disclaimer acknowledging that it did not represent the artist’s original intent, constituted neither a violation of VARA nor a distortion of the work itself. The museum, with other plans for Building 5, has yet to decide whether and for how long to show it. Büchel’s lawyers, meanwhile, have filed an appeal. In his very public controversy with a generous, if (as Ponsor noted) somewhat naive, museum, Büchel has received some training in how cultural institutions and artists are forced to work together in a democratic society. And, come to think of it, isn’t a well-run courtroom a pretty good example of a training ground for democracy?