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Guess which is bigger: the art or the argument?

A massive and pricey exhibition has sparked a major feud between artist and museum.

August 13, 2007|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. -- From the day MASS MoCA opened in 1999, its defining space has been Building 5, the gallery almost invariably described as "football-field-sized," meaning it was big enough to accommodate Robert Rauschenberg's "The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece," 206 panels of painting and collage, or Robert Wilson's "14 Stations," a Shaker Village reflecting on Jesus' final march, or Tim Hawkinson's "Überorgan," balloon-like creations that seemed a cross between giant human bladders and bagpipes that bellowed tones as visitors passed.

"It's how people remember when they were at MASS MoCA," says Joe Thompson, director of the museum in a factory that once made Civil War uniforms. "They'll say, 'I was there the year exploding cars were floating through the gallery.' "

What many will remember from this summer, however, is how yellow tarps obscured what figured to be the most ambitious installation ever in Building 5.

True, they can get glimpses, above the tarps, of the bigger components of what was to be Swiss artist Christoph Buchel's "Training Ground for Democracy" -- an entire two-story Cape Cod house, stacked cargo containers and a towering cinder-block wall alongside a re-creation of the "spider hole" in which Saddam Hussein hid in Iraq. And if they peek under the tarps, before a guard shoos them away, they may see hazardous waste containers or a swing-around carnival ride in which bombs replace the usual child-friendly miniature airplanes.

It was going to be a commentary on America's efforts to remake the world through war and other means. Instead "Training Ground for Democracy" has become an expensive lesson in what can go wrong when a risk-taking museum partners with a risk-taking artist.

In May, the museum announced it was canceling the exhibit because it was behind schedule, over budget and facing its creator's demands for more costly components -- notably a jet fuselage. The museum said it was going to federal court to win permission to show the unfinished piece as a "back-lot workshop . . . providing important insight into the intricacies of creating art in our time and day."

That's when Buchel countersued to keep the museum from doing any such thing and asked for damages, alleging that MASS MoCA had failed to provide materials it promised and was violating the federal Visual Artists Rights Act by showing his incomplete creation.

Thus the stalemate -- and tarps and guards -- at a time when the museum should be enjoying the Berkshires' prime tourist season. U.S. District Judge Michael A. Posner is not scheduled to make a decision until Sept. 21, at the earliest, after visiting the site himself.

"An experience like this is like a punch in the nose," says Thompson, who estimates that MASS MoCA spent $320,000 on the exhibit, twice what it planned and a sizable chunk for a museum that draws 120,000 visitors a year.

But Buchel has a lot invested too, according to his lawyer, Donn Zaretsky, who has waged a counterattack both in court and on his art law blog. He says Buchel canceled two other shows, one in Paris, to complete this piece that the museum now wants to display in "a drastically distorted and modified version."

Although the legal process often leads to compromise, relations seem to have grown more bitter in this case.

Zaretsky points to how the museum sought "to mock and humiliate" Buchel by staging an exhibit titled "Made at MASS MoCA," which spotlights how other ambitious installations were successfully created in Building 5. Though wall text notes that "Making Art Is Not Easy" and "Stumble-throughs" are normal, it also speaks of "Budget-Busting Debacles," a clear reference to the tarp-obscured work that visitors must maneuver through to get to the exhibit.

Thompson, meanwhile, says Buchel has turned their dispute into a performance piece mocking him, in effect -- by selling copies of the museum's legal complaint and his correspondence, which Buchel then signed.

"At this point, you know, we seem to be pretty far apart," Zaretsky says. He portrays the issue as one of "artistic freedom and integrity" because of the museum's bid to show the unfinished piece, inspiring Buchel's invocation of the 1990 federal law adopted generally to protect murals and outdoor sculptures threatened by new development.

Perhaps no detail better spotlights the distance between the parties than the airplane. Zaretsky says the museum was always aware that Buchel wanted remnants of a plane in his piece and as proof posted an e-mail Thompson wrote telling the artist "the only big things we haven't gotten are the airplane fuselage and one other. . . ." The museum chief's e-mail also reported that workers were "hauling a ton of useful junk in every day … [but] I'm terrified about the costs. . . . So far we have zero in sponsorships, nada."

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