Over the weekend I expressed a desire for more documentation of what transpired between Christoph Büchel and Mass MoCA. Later that day, Büchel's lawyer Donn Zaretsky posted a little of what I was talking about over at the Art Law Blog: the text of a September 16, 2006 email from the director of Mass MoCA to the artist discussing what the museum had obtained for the exhibition, what had not been obtained, and the funding situation. While a lot of what it contains confirms what's already known, it does make some of the timeline a bit more specific. Büchel's previous statements indicated that he was in North Adams in August of 2006 to make a scale model of the installation, and here we have the museum's director the following month writing that they were still searching for some of the elements including the now notorious jet fuselage. So we have at least two data points on a timeline. What I'd really like to see, though, is what distance was covered in these lines from Büchel's statement:
Last August Christoph Büchel arrived in North Adams for a site visit and immediately set out to work on building a scale model of the gallery in order to finalize the plan he proposed months earlier. Christoph had presented the curator, Nato Thompson and the museum director Joe Thompson a cohesive proposal for his solo exhibition slated to open in Building 5 at Mass MoCA in mid-December.
Everyone was incredibly enthusiastic about “Training Camp for Democracy” and it was agreed that it was a massive installation requiring a significant amount of energy in research, compiling of elements and a labor-intensive build-out. The museum agreed to the proposal and the artist began to map out the installation months before. He left North Adams having given the museum a thorough checklist with all the key items they will need to organize and purchase and a clear plan of action.
As I understand it, there was an initial proposal at some unidentified point prior to August 2006, to which the museum agreed, and then the visit in August 2006 at which time Büchel made the model and gave Mass MoCA the thorough checklist--to which the museum apparently also agreed, whatever misgivings they may have had. So to rephrase the question, what if anything wasn't apparent to Mass MoCA of what would be required of them for the exhibition in the initial proposal that did become known in August 2006? I very much doubt they could have obtained the jet fuselage no matter what the timeline, but to think that they could do so in four months time was absurd. It would have been far wiser to pull the plug then rather than agree to the checklist and then try to drop the item once it couldn't be found.
So my basic outlook right now is the same as Geoff Edgers: "More please." I would like to note a couple of items, however, regarding the speculation that has accompanied this story for some time, summarized by the Times as follows:
Büchel might have purposely forced the exhibition to grind to a halt as the final act of the work itself — a literal demonstration of the kind of futility and absurdity that he seeks to communicate in the exhibition, with war, religion and the news media as his motifs.
Büchel has used his work to tweak the art establishment. In 2002 he sold his invitation to participate in Manifesta, an international art exhibition in Frankfurt, for $15,000 in an e-Bay auction to allow the winner to take his place.
Ed Winkleman took note of this passage in this post to which I linked last week, and added to it the example of Büchel's gathering signatures for a petition to remove modern art from public places in Salzburg. Both confirm--as does the fact that the artist creates installations using found objects--that he's given to anti-art gestures. The difference between these two instances and the Mass MoCA situation, however, is that in these prior situations Büchel's role and intentions were quite public (literally so in the Salzburg episode) and not, as anyone alleging purposeful sabotage of the exhibit here must hold, a covert agenda. In this instance, Büchel is quite vigorously maintaining that he was not the cause of the exhibition's cancellation. And as Ed himself acknowledged, having others think he deliberated punked Mass MoCA could cost the artist: who will trust him with a budget in the future? That's a stunt with a potentially high cost, unlike the other two.
I have some other vague thoughts about the possibility of viewing any such sabotage (for lack of a better word) as an artistic move regardless of this particular instance. It seems to me that to do so wouldn't really work as one--that it's an instance in which the artistic act would have moved itself so far out of the art context as to fail to function properly. That is, we'd be talking about fraud, not art. One can point to the example of Any Warhol's sending impostors to pretend to be him at lectures and so forth, but while these have always seemed to me to be more important as part of the myth of Warhol, which embraces many things that are not art themselves, than having the status of art themselves. Or is perhaps the scale and cost between the two that I'm getting hung up on? In any event, I was amused but not really impressed by Peter Plagens' cleverly cynical article on Mass MoCA and Büchel. Plagens uses an old narrative Newsweek's audience can understand and appreciate, another round of épater le bourgeois offered as the delicious entertainment of watching someone else's ox get gored (Plagens, I suspect, knows of all of Lousteau's tricks.) I'm not sure of how his account ties into the timeline above--he seems to have a more definite idea of what happened than I've seen, and I'm not sure from where--but in the end, his focus on who won and who lost is too easy. Mass MoCA surely did not win, but it's not clear to me that anyone did. With all due respect to all parties, when artists and museums are fighting in court, I'm not sure anyone wins.