Christoph Buchel's Tarp Art at Mass MoCA

Crap Under Wrap

By: - Jul 31, 2007

Christoph Buchel’s Tarp Art at Mass MoCA - Image 1 Christoph Buchel’s Tarp Art at Mass MoCA - Image 2 Christoph Buchel’s Tarp Art at Mass MoCA - Image 3 Christoph Buchel’s Tarp Art at Mass MoCA - Image 4 Christoph Buchel’s Tarp Art at Mass MoCA - Image 5 Christoph Buchel’s Tarp Art at Mass MoCA - Image 6 Christoph Buchel’s Tarp Art at Mass MoCA

         "Merde" was the famous opening word of the absurd play by Alfred Jarry. The early 20th century audience rioted when it was performed in Paris. Some years back American Repertory Theatre revived it as a musical but now people were in on the joke and brought cabbages and other produce to hurl at the actors who tossed them back in what proved to be good fun and an avant-garde food fight. Like those midnight screenings with audience interactions during the "Rocky Horror Show."

          In the 1960s the Italian artist Piero Manzoni offered labeled and signed cans of his Shit for the price by weight of gold. The objects were cheap back then compared to what they are worth today. Some museum or collector had the bad taste or luck to open one and the contents proved to be more like tuna fish than human excrement. Seems the artist was just pulling a prank. It all started when the master, Marcel Duchamp, signed a urinal R. Mutt and submitted it to a juried show as "Fountain." For the record it was rejected. Which only made it more famous. The found object was photographed by Stieglitz but later disappeared only to be recreated in the 1960s as an edition by the artist when he needed the money now that he was "retired" from making art.

            But there is nothing funny, clever, witty or innovative about the Christoph Buchel installation which remains behind bright yellow tarps and covered with burlap at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. The artist and the museum remain at each other's throats and a jury trial is set to begin in a couple of weeks in Springfield.

             So far the museum is reported to have cooked its relatively modest exhibition budget for some $300,000 plus which is twice what was originally planned. Add to that the legal and court fees, costs to eventually deinstall, and the potential that the artist may indeed prevail and seek damages. There is no end in sight to what all this adds up to and to what extent it will be a fatal blow to the museum just when it is appealing for funds for expansion and endowment. A nasty and expensive legal battle is no way to launch a capital campaign. Even if the museum wins it looses. And there are at best even odds that it will win. And if it wins then what?

             Presumably that means that the wraps will come off. By then the prime tourist season will be just about over. Although the Berkshires remain active through Fall Foliage and even into the Holidays.

             Today, I finally got around to visiting the show which under all the tarps is really kind of a conceptual peep show. It doesn't take much effort or imagination to see most of the work. Sure it is off limits and no photos are allowed but the museum is kind of posturing to go along with the artist's wishes that the work not be viewed in an "incomplete" state. Mass MoCA is hiding an elephant behind a napkin.

               So this is a wink, wink, wrap show. Perhaps in the spirit of "Pere Ubu" we should bring our cabbages and rotten tomatoes and pelt the tarps. Or the museum's director, Joe Thompson, depending on which side you are on.

                Actually, from what I glimpsed through the tarps, the museum would make a huge mistake to take them down. It is just about all that is interesting about this "installation." The fact that the artist protests that it is unfinished and does not conform to his vision is just nonsense. If the museum were to succumb to his every whim and just throw money at the project virtually nothing of substance or interest will come of it. This is the worst use of the cavernous space since the terrible Carsten Holler "Amusement Park" show a couple of years ago when, similarly, they filled it with Carnival junk and rides that no longer work. Holler is reported to have paid little or no attention to the installation which was left to the brilliant MoCA installer, Richard Criddle, and his crew to figure out.

                   Meantime the Buchel curator of record, Nato Thompson, has blown town for another job although he will undoubtedly be called on to testify if the trial goes forward. He got out when the going was good.

                  The museum has concocted a little show documenting its many successful collaborations and fabrications with artists. Indeed, Mass MoCA has been remarkable in its willingness to take chances and meet the demands and expectations of artists. In that sense they are arguably the nation's most adventurous and progressive contemporary museum. But, this time, all that good effort just backfired. Many have suggested that Buchel is putting the screws to the museum as a conceptual piece.

                  If he is that conceptual strategy just lacks wit or irony. It is so heavy handed. Not a classic move like Abbie Hoffman and his merry pranksters causing panic on the floor when they tossed dollars from the balcony of the Stock Exchange. Or, when Father Daniel Berrigan, during the Vietnam War, poured blood on the records of a Draft Board. Speaking of Wrap Art how does this pathetic little squabble and the silly tarps compare to Christo wrapping the Reichstag or the Coast of Australia?

                 On this hot July afternoon when there was just a spatter of folks in the museum I got around to indulging my curiosity. Yes there was a local former movie theatre reassembled. I actually sat in that grungy cinema when it was still functioning out on Route 8. And a beat up house, banged up cop car, piles of containers, and an amusement ride which may well have been recycled from the Holler fiasco. None of this added up to anything at all. This is just about boys and their toys. Very expensive toys.

                   In the upper balcony of the space where one normally looks down on the enormous long gallery, on the back wall, is a  collage of press clippings. Considering how much has been written it seemed rather sparse and selective. I didn't have to look too closely to know that these were puff pieces in the North Adams Transcript, the Berkshire Eagle, papers from Albany, and other rags not noted for serious art criticism. I kept searching for the coverage of the Williams College Alumni Bulletin. The scathing Sunday Boston Globe piece by Ken Johnson was glaring in its absence. And I don't expect to return anytime soon and find a print out of this piece tacked to that wall. The museum only seems interested in putting its spin on all this. Which is really sad.

                 What is really missing from all this mess is a serious critical dialogue. Given that Mass MoCA is surrounded by other arts organizations and colleges this is a missed opportunity. Nobody so far has stepped up to the plate. It's like the ninth inning of a Red Sox/ Yankees game and Papelbon blowing a save.