Commentary Magazine


Contentions

The Cost of Transgression

Strange as it sounds, this summer’s “must see” art exhibition is a “may not see.” Training Ground for Democracy, a colossal installation by the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel, was to have opened last December at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts (MASS MoCA) in North Adams. But last week, after a series of fitful and last-minute demands by the artist that tripled its cost, the museum cancelled the exhibition and is now pursuing court action against the artist. Until the dispute is resolved, the installation will remain in limbo, roped off from the public—leaving only tantalizing glimpses of objects peeking out forlornly from above the yellow tarps.

Training Ground for Democracy is installed in MASS MoCA’s Building Five, a former mill that measures some 300 by 75 by 40 feet. Over the years, this hangar of a space has invariably affected artists in one of two ways, pushing them either to playfulness or to portentousness. Tim Hawkinson is an example of the first type; in 2000 he filled the gallery with a mad array of sputtering organ pipes, a Dr. Seuss fantasy that he called the Überorgan. Similarly lighthearted was Ann Hamilton’s Corpus (2004), in which machines mounted in the building’s roof truss released sheets of paper, to waft down like autumn leaves. An example of the portentous type is Robert Wilson, whose 14 Stations (2003) made a grim sacred procession out of concentration camp barracks. Büchel’s installation is of this sort.

Training Ground for Democracy juxtaposes emblems of American popular culture (a frame house, a child’s carousel, a mobile home, the interior of a 1940’s movie theater) against emblems of political tyranny (barbed wire, cinderblock walls, a guard tower that might have watched over the Berlin Wall). It was the scale of these emblems—Büchel’s last-minute demands included a scorched jet fuselage—that ultimately brought the installation to grief.

Having inspected it Thursday afternoon, I am not sure that it suffers from being enveiled. On the contrary: just as most naked bodies benefit from clothing, the yellow shrouds hiding most of the exhibit add a note of complexity and mystery to what would otherwise be a rather simplistic exercise in political art. Juxtapositions like the one Büchel ateempts here were startling in 1965, when James Rosenquist painted the fuselage of an F-111 fighter across a background of Firestone tires and bowls of spaghetti; today they are merely trite. And trite art—even if possessed of an epic scale and an equally epic budget, and even if it struggles mightily to say something urgent about the war in Iraq—is still trite.