The art of Christoph Buchel seems to be predicated upon conflict and controversy. An ‘expert set designer’, he has used this ability to sculpt what life is like for certain segments of society, and hence shine a light on contemporary human existence as a whole. And the sets he designs are quite realistic, although a case maybe made that they are hyper-realistic, sprawling spectacles, often going over the top to get a point across.
And that point is an ironic one; while re-contextualizing segments of society, like putting a ‘common’ community center in one of the most exclusive London art establishments, or putting ‘Americana’ elements of American culture in an American museum, might seem a bit like having a snow exhibition in a snowy place, but these subversive acts shed light on what might be taken for granted; the great divide that exists, causing one to initially consider such acts preposterous.
Chosen to do the Icelandic Pavilion for the 2015 Venice Biennale, Buchel rented an unused cathedral and turned it into a fully functioning Islamic mosque. Although the Venician authorities shut it down in a few weeks, before the Biennale was over, the ‘damage’ had already been done; divisive and controversial, its one of those projects you either loved or hated, but something everyone there was talking about.
However inflammatory or heretic one might think of putting a mosque in an Italian cathedral would be, if you were a muslim person, you would think this is the most normal or sensible thing to do. Those who deem this is be inflammatory or an amateurish attempt at cross-cultural assimilation, who say it would offend Muslims, the local Venetian community and the Italian Government, with the ‘tolerant Icelanders and bigoted Italians’ narrative, have missed the point.
And the point is that it is an artistic expression, albeit one that leans towards being more of a social experiment, where the precise outcome is unforeseeable, but still manages to depict the ‘institutionalization of segregation’ and prejudice; with one group, art lovers and media photographers, roped off and staring at and photographing the other group, muslim believers. ‘We watch and they are here as art objects’. There is supposedly a no-photo policy, which I presumed is not being enforced here, which might be why the local Government shut it down.
Case in point: have you noticed that ‘chandelier’ light fixture – those clear glass light fittings are more Scandinavian than middle eastern design and the support frame is shaped as a pentagram, the traditional Jewish symbol for the Star of David, and hence its not a plain attempt to recreate a Muslim mosque in a cathedral, but re-contextualizing icons of different religions together to see what happens.
Is it an art project, social integration project or just a place of worship? The answer as in many a case, is ambiguous.
Have you ever walked into an art gallery and did hola hoops or lay on the floor doing some relaxation exercise, let alone a wood paneled one in an Edward Lutyens early 1920’s building? The experience of walking into an art gallery these days, is quite often daunting for the average consumer, unless one has been invited, its silence and blank stares from staff and so to turn it into a community center with gyms, workshops, and multi-purpose hall would be leave quite a bad taste in the mouths of regulars in the elite art community. But then so did Marcel Duchamps ready-mades at that time.
In Last Man Out Turn Off Lights (2010), which is in a way a tour of Scottish blue collar culture culminating in a huge recreation of an aviation disaster investigation scene, reminiscent of the PanAm Lockerbie bombing disaster in 1988. I wonder if the title is in fact how they say it in Scotland, leaving out ‘the’ before ‘lights’ in the name of linguistic efficiency.
How anyone would respond to this exhibition, upon seeing the communal toilets-cum laundry room, sleeping quarters and heaps of junk piled around ‘the office’, on whether one would feel victimized, shocked or melancholically philosophical about it depends upon one’s background experiences and standing in life.
Memorial (2007) is a three roomed drug administration clinic placed inside another one of London’s elite art institutions as a ‘memorial’ to the (ongoing) 2003 Iraq war. The first room is a waiting area with a TV broadcasting CNN, the second room would where the drugs are administered to visitors, a drug mixing narcotics and ‘the ashes of dead bodies from the war’, and the third room would be a white gallery space to experience the effects of the drug.
While this tripartite experience has some semblance to such classics as Dante’s Inferno, or maybe an inverted Dante’s Inferno, where the experiential sequence ends up in a man-made, bastardized version of heaven; not one where you have overcome temptations and are allowed to progress, but one where you give in and are given a place to ‘enjoy’.
But on the other hand this is might be what many people remember of the war and thus aptly named ‘memorial’; the waiting, the fighting and finally ending up wounded and shipped to a hospital or medical clinic for the rest of the war, the terminal destination of the initial temptation.
Minus (2002) is a fully functional bar and punk concert which had been held in a special container which freezes everything down to minus 25 degrees centigrade when turned on after everyone had left. The result is a freezing of a moment in time, turning the viewer into an archaeologist; a re-contextualization of the role of the viewer and the viewee. It also is an attempt to depict how artworks are frozen once they are displayed or sold to a museum.
Training Ground For Democracy (2007) might be the most bizarre project to date; a huge warehouse sized museum gallery space full of.. American things in MOCA Massachusetts which Buchel ultimately pulled out of because it wasn’t…full enough and a burnt out 737 airliner wasn’t in there (neither was Saddam Hussein’s hideout hole), which they went to court to sue, which MOCA Mass ultimately won the right to exhibition whats installed already but ultimately didn’t because of peer pressure from other museums who said its a no-no to exhibit without an artists blessing.
While the artistic value of school buses, Pringles chips, golf clubs and other ‘party’ memorabilia might be questioned, especially exhibiting these quintessentially American things in America, the irony is that Buchel became more famous because of this ‘failed’ project, and Mass MOCA received more funding from donors; so both parties ‘lost’ in the lawsuit, but both won in the end. And irony and ambiguity are major themes in Buchel’s work.