Source: The New York Times (www.nytimes.com), by Randy Kennedy
A part of an installation is hoisted into a warehouse for a Christoph Büchel show.
A federal judge ruled yesterday that the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art has the right to display an immense unfinished installation by Christoph Büchel, a Swiss artist whose relationship with the museum fell apart early this year, leading to a bitter public battle over control of the work and over artists’ rights in general.
The judge, Michael A. Ponsor, in Federal District Court in Springfield, Mass., said that the museum’s display of the work would not, as Mr. Büchel argued, violate the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, which provides that an artist has 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.”
In this case, one watched closely by the art world for the effect it might have on the relationship between museums and artists who create huge, complex works, Judge Ponsor said that the artist rights act did not apply, in essence because it has no provision to prohibit showing an unfinished work of art simply because it is unfinished.
As long as the museum, known as Mass MoCA, made clear to visitors that the work was not completely realized, there was no reason the installation could not be shown, the judge said.
Joseph C. Thompson, the director of the museum, which is in an old mill complex in North Adams, Mass., said in a telephone interview that he was happy with the decision. But he added that his institution would now think long and hard about what to do with the work inside its Building 5, which covers an area the size of a football field and includes such Büchel components as a wrecked police car, a carnival ride rigged with bomb casings, a dilapidated two-story house, a mobile home and a rusted oil tanker.
“We very much appreciate the fact that the court granted us the right to use our discretion and we’ll use it very carefully,” said Mr. Thompson, who added that he would consult with art scholars, people who helped work on the installation and many of the museum’s visitors before he decided whether to open the unfinished installation or dismantle it.
“It’s not a decision that we’ve reached yet,” he said, but added: “Our mission is to help make new work and we’re very anxious to move forward.”
In May, just after it went to court against Mr. Büchel, the museum opened a show it called “Made at Mass MoCA,” that allowed visitors to enter Building 5 but shielded Mr. Büchel’s work almost completely from view by hanging pieces of tarp in front of it.
Several art critics and scholars have been highly critical of the museum’s decision to go to court and allow access to the shielded work, contending that artists should have broad power over the disposition of their work. “In my view, under no circumstances should a work of art be shown to the public until the artist has determined that it is finished,” Robert Storr, dean of the Yale University School of Art, wrote in an affidavit filed in the case.
Donn Zaretsky, Mr. Büchel’s lawyer, said in an e-mail message that he and his client were “obviously very disappointed in the judge’s ruling, and we’re exploring our options for appeal.”
Even in the ever more expensive and complicated world of large contemporary installations, the kind of fight that has been waged between Mr. Büchel and Mass MoCA is unusual.
Mr. Büchel has become well known for creating elaborate, politically provocative environments for viewers to wander, and sometimes to crawl, through. His conception for the work in Massachusetts, to be called “Training Ground for Democracy,” was that it would mimic and mock, in some ways, the kind of training that is used by the United States military to help soldiers adapt to situations in unfamiliar cultures. In one part of the installation, for example, a space appeared to be a dressing room to be shared by both rioters and riot police, as if they were all simply playing a part.
But after work began last fall on the installation, one of Mr. Büchel’s most ambitious, relations between the artist and the museum deteriorated and finally degenerated into an angry standoff. The artist contends that the museum badly mishandled the project and did not follow his instructions, allowing costs to climb. The museum contends that Mr. Büchel was difficult to work with almost from the start and made many demands and changes to the project as it was being built, causing an initial budget of $160,000 to more than double.
In e-mail exchanges made public as part of the case, Mr. Büchel referred to his time spent in North Adams working on the exhibition as an “acid bath” and called those he worked with there “jerks.” He argued in court papers that, after he left Massachusetts last December and stopped working on the project, the museum continued to work on it for four months without his supervision, causing “intentional and willful modification and distortion” to the installation.
Mr. Thompson asserted yesterday that even as relations with Mr. Büchel deteriorated and lawsuits were filed, the museum tried to respect the artist’s work. “We did not simply back up a dump truck and destroy these materials and partial constructions,” he said. “And we did not cavalierly fling open the doors to the gallery.”