Swiss artist loses US court case over exhibit

Büchel's work Unplugged/Simply Botiful was on show at this year's Art Basel Keystone

A United States federal court has ruled that an American museum can show an installation by Swiss artist Christoph Büchel even if he claims it is unfinished.

This content was published on September 24, 2007 - 13:14

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art fell out with Büchel after his project allegedly went over budget and behind schedule, leading to a dispute over who held the right to control the artist's work.

The federal judge decided that displaying the work, Training Ground for Democracy, would not violate the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, according to Swiss and US media reports.

The act gives an artist the right to prevent the use of his or her name if their work is modified.

Judge Michael Ponsor said the legislation could not be applied because there was no provision to prohibit the exhibition of an unfinished work of art simply because it had not been completed.

Büchel's lawyers had argued the artist had the right to block the display if he felt it was incomplete and would give a false idea of his work.

The judge added though that so long as visitors were clearly informed of the state of the installation, there was no reason not to show it to the public.

Ponsor also said that the museum had spent a substantial sum of money on the work and helped set it up. This gave it the right to display the work since it would not harm Büchel's reputation.

Several US specialists had criticised the decision to take the case to court, saying artists should have a bigger say in how their work is presented.

First major US show

Training Ground was supposed to be the Swiss artist's first major US museum show. Its aim was to feature thousands of objects, including a smashed-up police car and a two-story house, on the theme of life in wartime.

Büchel's original concept was to reconsider the training used by the US army to help soldiers adapt in foreign cultures.

The judge visited the exhibit last week before taking his decision, it was reported. While sceptical at first about its artistic value, he was quoted as saying that it was the kind of work of art that wakes a person up in the middle of the night.

The installation is housed inside an old mill building in North Adams in western Massachusetts. It covers an area equivalent to a football field.

Büchel arrived with his team to begin setting up Training Ground last autumn, newspapers said. He soon ran into trouble over the cost involved and the time it would take to complete, said reports.


According to the museum, the initial budget was $160,000 (SFr188,000), but it ended up providing nearly twice that amount. It said that it had offered another $100,000 to complete the project.

The museum also claims that instead of taking six weeks to complete, work continued for three months.

The artist allegedly refused to complete his piece and turned down a proposal to remove his material and reimburse the museum's costs.

Büchel contends that the institution mishandled the project and failed to follow instructions, allowing costs to spiral out of control. According to the New York Times, the artist used terms such as "acid bath" to describe his time in Massachusetts and "jerks" for the people he had to work with.

Despite winning the case, the museum still hasn't decided if it will open the exhibit to the public. Büchel's lawyers can appeal against the court ruling.


Christoph Büchel

According to art specialists, Büchel creates hyper-realistic environments that are like walking into a mind at work.

His detailed installations are three-dimensional renderings of interior spaces and situations often conveying extreme psychological mindsets.

These fictitious environments – rooms within rooms – are carefully constructed so that the institutional framework of the art museum and all reference to the gallery context are removed.

Experts say Büchel locates contradictions and social inequities in the dominant ideological forces and aims to satirize, demystify, and resist these forces by revealing them as constructed realities subject to change.

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