Gregory Colbert, The Storyteller:
breaking the rules of conventional art
Author: Sal Levi
University of Maine
Professor: Owen Smith
It was the spring of 2006. I was driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in Los Angeles, my convertible open. It wasn’t out of the corner of my eye. For it was far too big. Huge crate boxes were swallowing up a parking lot. This wasn’t good for there was never enough parking to be found in Santa Monica. Aesthetically, it intrigued me, but I just drove on. It wasn’t for another month or so, when a colleague of mine said something that caught my attention. She was going on about some exhibit on the beach with a line so long that it was in question whether the wait would be worth it. She pressed that everyone had to see it. After that, there was no break from hearing recent spectators’ experiences. My anticipation grew, but so did the wait time. I had never heard so many people this excited about art. Now knowing that the exhibit was called Ashes and Snow, I waited for the line to settle down before making plans on a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon to finally see what all of the fuss was about.
The solo exhibition was by Gregory Colbert, born April 19, 1960 in Toronto, Canada. Colbert’s life’s work is an ongoing multimedia travelling exhibition entitled Ashes and Snow, housed in a large-scale installation which Colbert has named the “Nomadic Museum.” He began his career in Paris making social issue documentaries. His filmmaking career was placed on hold when he disappeared for ten years. “When I started Ashes and Snow in 1992, I set out to explore the relationship between man and animals from the inside out,” (1) Colbert explained. He was 32 years old at the time. In 2002, at age 42, he re-emerged with a show at the Arsenale in Venice, where every print was bought by the Chairman of Rolex, Patrick Heiniger. Rolex then sponsored the travelling show, which was to become the most viewed exhibition of all time, reaching over ten million people. The show debuted in March of 2005 at Pier 54 on the Hudson River in New York City, before going to Los Angeles in 2006. This was the first time that Colbert exhibited in the US. After that, Ashes and Snow travelled to Tokyo and Mexico City, but with each destination a variation on the installation was designed. The photographs, film and structure were uniquely curated for the new place. The exhibit currently is not being shown, but will return in the near future. Colbert has never shown his work in a US Museum or any commercial gallery worldwide.
The title of the exhibition, Ashes and Snow, is a literary reference to a component of the exhibition. There is a novel of 365 letters hand-written by Colbert. It is a fictional account from a man writing to his wife over a year’s length of time. In the last letter, there is mention of the exhibition title. Colbert has revealed that the first and last letter were written before he begun the project: “With words I am relating the story of a man who looses his human face because he lost his animal face…. out of his experiences, as he sees man in Western culture. It is an autobiographical account in form not in facts. The idea was that words were a separate elephant from the sounds, and a different elephants from the stills…everything was separate. The ideas wasn’t for one to be illustrative from the other, it was a separate strand. I do not want people to be focused on words because it would take them on an intellectual mindset” (1). The ancient books are made by paper experts, headed by Gloria Velandia. Velandia says of Colbert: “He storms into the studio at least five times a day with a brand new idea and says ‘Glo, Glo I have this idea….’ He has an endless fascination with ancient artifacts, thus stumbling upon them and envisioning how to incorporate them into his life-his project” (1). Velandia continues to work for the Art Basel Conservation, an art conversation and restoration service company.
“The show itself opens with elephants, which is no accident. 'Elephants keep out evil spirits… Indian lore says they remove obstacles and promise good luck and prosperity'” (17). Colbert’s exhibit is not a finished piece, but something that he is continuing to work on. His work is primarily done in far-off locations from Burma, India, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Kenya and Antarctica. He has captured such creatures as elephants, whales, eagles and cheetahs. The animals interacting with humans is beautifully shocking, yet looks completely dangerous, which may be the case. On Colbert’s personal website, under biography, he writes: “I have been tusked by an elephant, almost eaten by a sperm whale, knocked off my feet by a rhinoceros, embraced by a jaguar, given a haircut by a tiger shark, chased by a hippo and a black mamba, brought to my knees by malaria and dengue. But I was always able to avoid the greatest danger of all. Never stop exploring the things that open you, or that you love” (2).
When speaking of his work, Colbert mentions the words: instruments, orchestra, melodic and other musical terms. He speaks of his work as to say it is a symphony of sorts. Colbert doesn’t call himself an artist. In a camera interview with Riz Khan, Colbert considers himself a storyteller: “I’m a storyteller who uses photography, or architecture, or film… I try to tell stories” (10). Though he doesn’t mention himself as an Intermedia or installation artist, Colbert wants “to have spaces that are reactive and agile” (10). In the interview, Colbert points out with a childlike smile how exhibitions are set several years in advance, which makes them unable to be agile, and negatively references the personnel who administrate and curate them. He goes on to talk about “the idea of academics to create films, to create a publishing house or create a dance, you… no… we should have our ears to the sidewalk and the sidewalk tells us” (10). He also offers that it’s a bad model that unfortunately other countries are following. Colbert goes on to say that “The mistake that people have made with the arts, is it has been very elitist. And the glitterati is relevant to the other glitterati” (10). Colbert openly has no social aspirations, but rather likes to spend time in the field. He’s been criticized for being a white man capturing images of exotic people. His response is that the MOMA and The Metropolitan tell the stories of white people, where he doesn’t tell those stories. His are of indigenous people and there cultures. Many artists are criticized for the same supposed offense, being called voyeuristic. In the interview, Colbert mentions the scathing New York Times review, where it reads: “the only white guy and adult male in sight” (9).
His process surprised me. When I first saw his images, I thought I was seeing a documentary project. It turns out that Colbert arranges the animals and people from far and wide. The image featured in many advertisements is of a young girl, with closed eyes, leaned up against a posed Cheetah on a small mound. An intimacy and relationship captured between the girl and animal. I automatically thought that the girl cohabited the landscape with the Cheetah. I believed I was seeing an image that Colbert captured during an existing moment. The truth is that Colbert staged the photograph. He found the young girl at her school, while scouting for models in Namibia. Her name is Sannatjie Keinamses and at the time she was five years old. She is part of the San tribe, which has inhabited Southern Africa for over 30,000 years. Colbert met her parents and asked the girl to model. She was afraid when Colbert asked her to lean against the Cheetah. Sannatjie said: “I was scared but Gregory explained to me how to behave. He also told me I had to be careful. He said he was going to take the photos, enlarge them and sell them overseas” (4). She has continued to model for Colbert over the past eleven years and travelled with him to countries including Malaysia, Mexico, Australia, Thailand, and Antarctica. Her brother has also become a model for Colbert. Sannatjie is the only girl in her school that can say that she has bought a car for her mother. There are rumors that other children have been severely hurt, if not killed, during a Colbert shoot. Because Colbert works under the radar, there is no way to know if this is true or not.
When speaking of his exotic locations, Colbert talks about some of the difficulties that he had in Myanmar, a sovereign state in Southeast Asia. “I chose to shoot there principally because the prodemocracy politician Aung San Suu Kyi invited me – in addition to the fact that the country has dense virgin rainforest and the people are the most lovely you could hope to meet. At the time, she had been released and there was renewed hope that things would be different. As it turns out, the junta re-arrested her a week after we left and we had to send the film out of the country in an assistant's personal luggage, as we feared that the authorities would try to confiscate it, which is exactly what they did. So I'm persona non grata with them” (19). The “hopelessly utopic” (12) Colbert, considers himself: “blessed to be able to photo my dreams” (12). My favorite of Colbert’s work is the elephant piece with a boy looking like he was reading to it. It is dream-like and innocent. Colbert: “In exploring the shared language and poetic sensibilities of all animals, I am working towards rediscovering the common ground that once existed when people lived in harmony with animals. The images depict a world that is without beginning or end, here or there, past or present” (8).
Colbert said: “If you could make the hairs on peoples’ necks stand up using words or movement, or sculpture, just as long as the hairs stand up. You don’t have to stay in any box” (7). The hairs stood up on my arms when walking into the massive space made from shipping crates, but lit by what felt like fire, I was engaged by the overwhelming floor to ceiling prints, which were sepia-tone on Japanese paper and exactly six by nine feet in size, all 100 of them. “Colbert uses beeswax or pigment to create a sense of age--or perhaps agelessness” (18). Colbert chooses not to name each of his photographs, because he prefers each piece “without explanatory text so as to encourage an open-ended interaction with the images” (2). The hour-long film looped continuously and often in slow motion was projected on a theatre-sized canvas with what I remember as wooden water barrels lined for people to sit. The narrated 35mm film was poetic and felt quiet in the large space. “One can find harmony, melody or counterpoint in words or images, or in stills in motion. To assemble those individual strands into a whole enriches the process and the project even more.” Though Colbert started Ashes and Snow by using film cameras, he has switched to digital for the low-impact environmentally friendly nature of the new technology. Colbert now uses the Hassalblad H3DII-50, which can handle such large-scale work as his. “I do not think about taking pictures but rather about making images, much in the way that a musician might compose a narrative piece” (3), Colbert confesses. He doesn’t consider himself a photographer. Though Colbert is extremely thorough with his craft, it is in the service of the art. He claims that he does not do any photo manipulation or retouching.
The original architect that Colbert worked with to design the “Nomadic Museum” environment was Shigeru Ban, a famed Japanese designer. “The containers reﬂect Colbert's love of things that age,” (5) Shigeru Ban remarks. The structure built is indeed made out of shipping containers that are designed to break down and ship part of the exhibit, then be re-constructed for the new space. Ban explains: “Traveling all over the world… each container has its own history" (20). It takes up over 45,000 square feet, with a height of over 34 feet. Colbert thinks that “This kind of architecture doesn’t exist. It’s not trying to be separate to the work. It is organic to the work” (1). From the large materials to the most minor detail, Colbert and Ban utilized recycled materials: “a handmade curtain to be suspended from the ceiling is made of one million pressed paper tea bags (used, with the tea leaves removed)” (20). This sounds ideal in theory, but have the artists been making claims about their work that has not been implicated? “Though the ‘Nomadic Museum’ was designed to be recyclable, New York builders erred and welded the structure together, so it had to be ‘trashed,’ according to Santa Monica site Superintendent Bob Meeks of RMS Group General Contractors” (23).
When entering what I would consider a gigantic installation, it instantaneously felt like a cool summer night - swept into another world where a journey awaits. The unframed photographs hang between cardboard columns, free from walls. Colbert comments that “It is certainly far away from the, ‘white cube’ concept cherished by today’s Contemporary Art thought police. I want to expand the boundaries, not create a box” (1). Shadows play a large part of the design of his two-dimensional photographs. The darkness they cast, creates mood and atmosphere in which to experience the haunting images. For me, it was reminiscent of the catacombs in Paris, The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul and Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland. It feels vacantly ancient. It does not appear like a history lesson or an environmental statement. It feels like art and entertainment.
''’As a kid I was always called an elephant because my ears stuck out,’ he said, laughing. ‘My mother was worried that I'd be traumatized, and she had my ears fixed. So I have an association with elephants that goes way back. The elephant became my Proust's madeleine’'' (17). Now considered a Postmodern, Renaissance artist, Colbert has shunned away from publicity. He spends half of the year isolating himself in Scotland and the other half out in the field. He considers himself nomadic and feels that it weighs on his personal life, but for him, he has to be who he is. There is a mystique about Colbert. Not much is known about his childhood, education or his private life. He has mentioned in passing that he doesn’t have a notable education. He does have a high school degree from Brantford, Ontario with average grades. He did not go to college, but instead decided to become a writer at age 21. He headed to the South Pacific, but stopped in Paris, becoming apart of a foreign arts group, “who were being prepared to carry French culture back to their own countries” (17) by the new French socialist government. Colbert decided to stay in Paris instead. In Paris, Colbert made social documentaries on subjects of rape, death, and AIDS. The AIDS documentary aired on The Discovery Channel in the mid 1980’s. “The AIDS film influenced how he would later work. Because the insurance company sponsoring the program objected to an image of two men kissing, he said, he vowed never again to accept corporate sponsorship” (17). At the same time, he had picked up photography and had his first show called “Timewaves” at a photography museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, The Museé de l'Élysée, which is believed to have opened to critical acclaim. I could not find any reviews. Though he destroyed most of the work after the exhibit, Colbert had caught the eye of a group of collectors. Why Colbert destroyed the work from the exhibition is unknown. There is no more information on this exhibit. It’s almost like it never happened.
Mention of his parents’ identity seems to be as vague as how he afforded to take ten years to travel around the world creating Ashes and Snow. It is believed that in 1992, after showing his films in Switzerland and Japan, individual collectors offered to sponsor his new project giving him no budget and no deadline. Since the project began, not one collector has sold a piece of his work. To the contrary, he did put his New York loft for sale in 2009 for twenty million dollars, stating it was going to fund his upcoming expeditions. He describes the expeditions for Ashes and Snow as any artist’s dream: “We would hang around for months. With whales we could work for six weeks, without even shooting a frame of film... around full moons is a good time. I think it’s the Zulus who say, patience is an egg that hatches great birds. I guess I’m a Zulu at heart. You wait heartfully, and there are days of miracles, and there are days when you’re just thinking about them. But you don’t push it. The elephants will decide, or the whales will decide. I’ll work on elephant time” (7). The New York Times writes that “Its cost has been met by the Bianimale Foundation, founded by Mr. Colbert and largely financed through the sale of his work.” The BiAnimale Foundation is based in Geneva. It organizes biennials with its theme being art and nature. Ashes and Snow, “which has a admission charge, is also partly sponsored by Rolex, which purchased these photographs from the foundation and is covering the show's extensive advertising” (9). “Ticket proceeds will go to Colbert’s Flying Elephants Foundation, which gives money to environmental charities, as well as paying for the artist’s expenses, according to Louise Errington of C4 Consulting, the public relations firm representing Ashes and Snow™ in Santa Monica” (23). Paul Hawken, the environmentalist, is also amongst his private collectors. Colbert’s work started at 0,000 in 2005 and has been purchased by celebrities including Brad Pitt and Donna Karen.
As of 2005, he was not married and did not have any children. Since then, it is thought that he has mentioned having a son. He has thrown fundraisers for the American Democratic Party, which differs from his perceived elusive character. He has strong views on consumerism, which he speaks of with a gentle mannerism. He does not have artistic representation. Colbert expressed in a live interview that “I don’t see the arts as real estate” (10). His work can only be bought directly from him and he makes himself accessible through his website. Colbert is quoted in an interview to say “my aim is to bring art to the people, it is art of inclusion” (1). This is why he shuns away from being part of collections, “For me the courageous collector is not the one who figures out the market, he who seems to be a visionary, but the one that dares to be naked and to express his sensibility” (1). It’s very important to him to bring nature and humans together and to leave a lasting positive impact on the world with his work. Influences that he notes include a babysitter who was from an Aboriginal tribe in Canada and her family’s relationship to animals. This might be where he came to the conclusion to “reverse the separation that exists between modern man and animals, and to nestle the ideological values of co-existence, respect, equality, preservation and conservation” (1).
“I didn’t grow up wanting to make objects for wealthy people,” (10) Colbert clarified during an interview. He goes on to talk about how important it is for his work to be for everyone and that is why the “Nomadic Museum” exists, rather than having his work be in a collection of a museum. Colbert notes that “Visitors to the exhibition aren't invited to be clinical observers, as they are in most art galleries. The fact that the exhibition isn't in a white space seems to be breaking a tacit law of the art world” (19). What doesn’t make sense is that I paid to see the exhibit, which many people would not be able to afford and is more than a lot of museums charge as an entry fee. “The Los Angeles Unified School District and the Santa Monica-Malibu School District plan to bring 300,000 school children from throughout the County to view the exhibit free of charge” (23). The “Nomadic Museum” has become a model of sorts, “Parallel to this vision of tech-enabled art outside the confines of the gallery, there is a growing interest in the travelling or ‘Nomadic Museum’” (26). Not necessarily for the better if considering art accessibility: “Despite being conceived as temporary projects, it is notable that these nomadic museums have been large budget projects, targeted at the ‘A list’ of contemporary art institutions” (26).
He doesn’t take time into account with his work, because he works with animals and they don’t have our human sense of time. This is why he doesn’t wear a watch and doesn’t think about how long something may or may not take, which is ironic considering his connection with Rolex. He also talks about his appreciation for success, but how to be able to do his work he needs solitude. Colbert recites John Updike’s saying: “Celebrity’s a mask that eats your face” (10). Though he does enjoy the benefits, while in his stunning loft in the Bowery, when he’s in New York City. He likes to appear as a man who “has few possessions and lives simply, even monastically, sleeping graduate-school style with a mattress on the floor” (15). Though when “Gregory Colbert tried to sell his 6,785-square-foot” (16) loft, which was fully furnished. Pictures revealed the truth.
The second rendition situated on Santa Monica beach, the city welcomed Ashes and Snow, accepting the 0,000 fee for use of the parking lot, which goes to a beach fund. The Hudson River Park Trust received 0,000 for rental of the pier off-season. Something that Colbert doesn’t seem to take into account is the structure’s impact on the place or the people trying to build it. Onsite at Pier 54, which is the same dock “where the Lusitania first shoved off and where the Titanic’s stunned survivors were deposited” (54), it seemed like the people and place were not be accounted for. “Grizzled dockbuilders are putting in 12-hour days, seven days a week to get the structure ready in time. (‘Between you and me,’ says Steve Medich, an electrical foreman on the site, pointing to an exhibit poster of a boy kneeling before an elephant, ‘I don’t get it.’)” (23). Brian Braiker’s Newsweek article wrote that “nobody had bothered to calculate whether the cranes required for its construction could be supported… the steel wedges that make up the roof became giant kites when river winds swept underneath them as they were lowered onto the building, nearly dragging a crane into the river” (23). It sounds like Colbert’s ethics are questionable when it comes to his artwork’s impact on the building crew and the location. This seems like a very different description of Colbert than the artist that does not care about time and who is conscientious of the environment. It makes me question the safety protocol of Ashes and Snow.
Some of his most stunning images are self-portraits. The one that he is most known for is Colbert swimming with sperm whales, a carnivorous creature. In the image you can see that he is not swimming with a breathing apparatus. That would scare the whale. As important as it is to not cause fear, it is vital to not be afraid. “The whales were wild, and we were in open sea, rather than in a tank as some people have assumed. We had to build these giant speakers to attract the sperm whales. Most of the scientists aboard our ship had never swum with whales, although they'd studied them for years” (19). Colbert might not having studied the creatures formally, but he has experienced them. Colbert remarks: “We are so caught up in our human, narcissistic fascination with ourselves that we have neglected to read the poem. We have even gone as far as ripping its pages without spending the time to read its content, to explore its inner life, its essence. To learn about the essence, you need to open yourself to it and explore it” (1). New York Times critic, Roberta Smith, thinks that: “Mr. Colbert's efforts form an exercise in conspicuous narcissism that is off the charts,” before finishing her review, she states that “This exhibition pulls out all the stops to sensitize us to the natural world, but mainly it reveals that selfless sincerity is often close to overweaning egomania and that the path between them is unconsciousness” (9).
After calling Colbert seemingly “godlike,” New York Times reporter continues: “The pretentious voiceover, written by Mr. Colbert and narrated by the actor Laurence Fishburne, is riddled with clichés and first-person pronouns: ‘I want to see through the elephant's eyes. I want to dance the dance that has no steps. I want to become the dance’" (9). All over the internet are nay-sayers, who question the authenticity of the images. Even with numerous bad reviews, the travelling exhibit was a huge success and have an endless amount of blogs referencing the piece as spiritual, breath-taking, incomparable. On rotten tomatoes, 93% liked it. The New York Times also criticized that: “…you would barely think twice about these photographs if you saw them framed under glass in a Chelsea art gallery. They're too derivative” (9). It makes me question whether Colbert’s art is an accomplishment as an installation, rather than looking at the different medium’s separately. Though it did appear more of a multimedia event once the initial reaction of entering the installation faded away. Is this more of a production, than museum-quality art? Colbert even has a company called “Flying Elephant Productions” and his background is in filmmaking. His work, which he refers to as a “bestiary,” might fall between the cracks of art and entertainment. Or maybe the naivety of the artist and his choices are easily criticized. In Colbert’s opinion, “In these agnostic and cynical times, the building becomes a place to feel and even believe. Ashes and Snow is a show that is disarmingly, and grandly, simple” (2).
Regardless, his work has a strong cause, which is animal advocacy. Colbert started The BiAnimale Foundation, a non-profit, in 2000 with an environmentalist, Giuli Cordara, who was the founding president. The foundation, which is “widely described by the New York press as a nonprofit organization that ‘encourages artistic endeavors to increase public support for the protection and conservation of animals and their natural habitats’” (23), does not seem to have an active website. Colbert also has founded the Flying Elephant Foundation. “The Foundation has awarded 10 fellowships and is planning to award additional fellowships on a regular basis” (21). One of the fellowships was awarded to Gregory Colbert himself for “grace, beauty, and empathy infusing his view of the world. He is the epitome of what the Flying Elephant Foundation seeks to do; give insight on a world that exists beyond the borders of chaos and war, if we will just open our eyes to it, and work to preserve it” (23). This seems strange since he is part of the organization. It makes me wonder whether the other nine of the ,000 fellowships also were awarded to Colbert. I could not find anymore information on the award. I did find an opposing article, which stated that: “Flying Elephants Fellowships have been awarded to ten individuals --none of them Colbert – ‘whose work inspires a reverence for the natural world,’ according to www.flyingelephants.org” (23). The initiative currently has an inactive website. Gregory Colbert’s website seems to be the only official online link to Colbert’s work, but it has little to do with activism that I can tell. “As for Colbert, he stops short of describing himself as an activist, but he says he hopes his work has an impact outside the art world” (23)
Colbert has left a lasting impression on the artworld with the success of the “Nomadic Museum” and the number of people it has reached. His ability to think beyond the box and create a new box with his installation work has left a strong footprint on the art world in general. The future for Colbert is looking bright. He took a “message from the elephants to the penguins” (7) with his next exhibition focused in Antarctica with a forty-eight person team on a 65 meter boat. This project has many facets, but emphasis has been placed on the feature-film, which is not a documentary. Like all of Colbert’s work, there is little written about it and much ambiguity, but it is expected to exhibit in 2014. There’s no telling who Colbert is as a man or an artist. The little that is known seems contradictory. The hidden truths may never be revealed. I walked into Ashes and Snow not knowing who the artist was and not really understanding what type of art I was going to see. Seven years later, I remember the experience vividly.
Patrick Heiniger, Chairman of Rolex, passed away on March 8th, 2013 in Morocco.
1. Loft Magazine – May 2005
“Seeing Nature through the Elephant’s Eye”
by Mariangela Capuzzo
18. McGuigan, Cathleen. “Animal Magnetism,” Smithsonian, Jun2005, Vol. 36 Issue 3, p72-79
19. Christian Amodeo in conversation with... Gregory Colbert.
Geographical (Campion Interactive Publishing); Sep2005, Vol. 77 Issue 9, p106-106
24. Sustainability Guidelines for the Structural Engineer, edited by Dirk M. Kestner, Jennifer Goupil, Emily Lorenz
25. Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, V3.3, By Ken Wilbur
26. Mixed reality and curatorial design: from existing practice to the nomad tech museum, Jules Moloney, University of Melbourne
Interesting installation artist in nyc.
Toni Dove lives and works in New York. Since the early 1990s, she has produced unique, highly imaginative, embodied hybrids of film, installation art and experimental theater. In her work, performers and participants interact with an unfolding narrative, using interface technologies such as motion sensing and laser harp to ѰerformѠon-screen avatars.
Presented in the United States, Europe and Canada as well as in print and on radio and television, her projects include:
Archeology of a Mother Tongue, a virtual reality installation with Michael Mackenzie, Banff Centre for the Arts (see the book щmmersed in TechnologyѠfrom M.I.T. Press).
Material World: Sculpture to Environment
through February 2011Working in a range of modest, industrially produced materials -- from plastic sheeting to fishing line -- Michael Beutler, Orly Genger, Tobias Putrih, Alyson Shotz, Dan Steinhilber, and collaborators Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen engage the former factory spaces of our second and third floors, creating extraordinary environments from ordinary things.
There's an old proofreading trick that involves reading a piece backwards in order to find aberrations that the mind would otherwise auto-correct. A similar experience happens when you stumble upon Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle's new installation at Mass MoCa. Gravity is a Force to be Reckoned With takes a an iconic example of modern architecture, Mies van der Rohe's uncompleted 50x50 House, and literally turns it on its head.
This is not a review of Christoph Büchel’s Training Ground for Democracy at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art because, as of this writing, the exhibition does not exist. As it has been widely reported, the artist and the museum hit an impasse in December when Büchel returned to Europe after being informed by the museum that the project’s budget, which had nearly doubled from 0,000 to 0,000 during the course of the installation, was depleted and the remaining materials he had requested, including the fuselage of a 727 jetliner, could not be procured.
The issue of whether these materials were new demands or part of the approved plan is one of the matters in dispute, which isn’t surprising since there is nothing about this debacle that isn’t in dispute. The media dissections of the situation have invariably focused on Büchel’s seemingly outlandish requests and MASS MoCA’s scramble to fill them until it reached the fiscal breaking point. These reports, however, arrived after the fact.
From the evidence of a clipping file obtained from MASS MoCA’s public relations office, the show’s initial failure to open on schedule was entirely ignored by the press. It’s a sobering commentary on the general awareness of contemporary visual culture that the collapse of the first major project in the United States by one of the world’s most compelling artists, commissioned by the nation’s largest and arguably most prestigious venue for new art, would pass unnoticed. It wasn’t until March 28, 2007, three months after the aborted opening date, that the Boston Globebroke the story. By that time, the uncompleted installation had already been toured by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Mayor John Barrett III of North Adams—the hard luck industrial town where the arts complex is located—and an unspecified number of museum directors and curators who were attending the invitation-only Berkshire Conference, described on its website as “a forum for leaders in the arts and business communities addressing issues that face the cultural landscape today and anticipate the cultural climate to come.”
Even then it remained a local issue, with follow-up articles in the North Adams Transcript, the Berkshire Eagle and the Albany Times Union, until May 22nd, the day after the museum sued the artist over the right to open the unfinished work to the public. The museum’s civil action was picked up by the New York Times as well as the Globe, the local papers and the online outlets of The New Republic(tnr.com) and Newsweek / MSNBC (msnbc.com). As of May 29th the story had metastasized into the blogosphere, and by mid-August even the Los Angeles Timeshad caught on.
The legal case is complex and far from settled. MASS MoCA’s claims, countered by those of Büchel, have been well documented in the press and online, so there’s no need to rehash them here. One issue, however, cuts to the heart of the matter: Büchel’s complaint that the museum denied his rights by allowing the general public to view the incomplete installation—nominally obscured by vinyl tarps—along a passageway leading to a show hastily mounted in an adjoining room. The makeshift exhibit, Made at MASS MoCA, is nothing more than a self-serving trifle of wall texts and documentary photographs implicitly touting the cooperative relationships the museum enjoyed with artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Tim Hawkinson and Cai Guo-Qiang while constructing their epic-scaled installations.
The museum clearly wants it both ways. While arguing for the right to open the exhibition as an unfinished work of art, asserting that it is “a joint owner of any copyright in the Materials which are the subject matter of Büchel’s counterclaims,” as reported by the website clancco.com in a post dated July 24, 2007, MASS MoCA has also alleged “that Büchel’s work is not even art, but simply a compilation of materials which, if accepted by the Court, would not be granted protection under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA)”—a legal right that Büchel staked in his counter suit.
So how much responsibility does Büchel bear for the impasse? While the museum’s motivations have been fairly transparent, the artist has refused to talk to the press. In the absence of information, cultural assumptions rush in. Randy Kennedy’s article in the New York Times relied on museum sources, in particular its director, Joseph C. Thompson, and consequently displayed a tacit bias against the artist, painting him as an out-of-touch control freak: “Mr. Büchel was also concerned with the appearance of even the smallest detail, like a soiled rag hanging near a jail-cell sink or a dusty bag of sunflower seeds atop a television set. As the project grew, the museum says, this kind of obsessiveness began to have its costs.” Kennedy writes that Thompson “‘began to suspect that there might not ever be an end’ to Mr. Büchel’s vision for the space” and that “Some people in the art world have suggested to [Thompson] that Mr. Büchel might have purposely forced the exhibit to grind to a halt as the final act of the work itself….”
This last bit of deep-background sourcing—a ploy you’d expect in a story about the State Department or the Pentagon—is especially problematic, not simply for its lack of accountability but also because it offers as evidence a conceptual joke Büchel played in 2002, when he “sold his invitation to participate in Manifesta, an international art exhibition in Frankfurt, for ,000 in an eBay auction to allow the winner to take his place.” While Büchel has been involved in similar games with his current legal case—selling signed copies of the museum’s complaint and his own correspondence (as noted by Paul Lieberman in the Los Angeles Times)—there have been no accounts of his walking away from an installation-in-progress.
And then there’s the issue of money. The two sides are at odds about whether the budget was ever discussed, let alone stipulated on paper, but several articles have taken pains to point out that none of the 0,000 spent so far has been from public funds, as if that were a good thing. It’s no use even broaching the subject of the monetary priorities of this country, in which exigencies as vital as the safety of bridges and mines, to cite just two recent tragedies, go begging while 0,000 is evaporated by Cheney’s imperial adventures in less time than it takes to exhale. But it’s true that Büchel, who comes from a cultural fabric in which the economic advantages of large-scale artistic enterprises are taken for granted, might have made unfounded assumptions about the extent to which the project would be supported. Would this indicate that Büchel is “pampered and spoiled,” as Marty Peretz sneered in tnr.com? Perhaps, but is he any more pampered than a corporate CEO, a pop music diva, an international supermodel or a Hollywood A-lister? Büchel has submitted a list of demands that the museum must meet before he would consider resuming work on the installation. They call for the raising of additional funds to cover “the costs for ALL elements and ALL structural elements, which are clearly defined and which were much discussed. This money would have to cover the cost of the salaries, flights, per diem and housing for the 1st and 2nd round for assistants and the replacement crew and equipment to be hired.” Büchel makes it very clear that there is NO negotiation about the scope of the project … the artist will not accept any orders and any more pressure or compromises as to how things have to be done from the museum director or museum’s technicians. The artist demands full autonomy with regard to his artwork.
Depending on your point of view, the tone of this statement might lead you to conclude that Büchel is either a passionate visionary or a supercilious jerk, though there is no law on the books separating the two. By commissioning Büchel to execute such a mind-bogglingly enormous work, with absolutely no qualms about his blatantly leftist approach, MASS MoCA performed an unprecedented and heroic act, one that calls out the financial and political timidity of virtually all its sister institutions. That such an auspicious endeavor can descend into recriminations and chaos holds broader aesthetic and social implications than the soul-sickening spectacle of a grand opportunity missed.
Despite the boldness of its initial actions, MASS MoCA ultimately lost confidence in its project, its public, and itself. Büchel had reached out to the citizens of North Adams to join in the undertaking, inviting them to donate whatever junk was cluttering their basements and attics. They responded by carting it to the museum by the truckload. This spontaneous participation by the museum’s largely working-class neighbors signaled a level of communal involvement that has been all but lost in the creation of modern art. But when read against the scheme of the project, Büchel’s outreach should not be taken as a good-will gesture, not by long shot. The grimly apocalyptic vision of a Fascist state that he was laying out would have had its starkest effect on the people living directly outside the museum walls. They would encounter a full-scale house from the neighborhood, the interior of the town’s old, shuttered movie theater (both structures were disassembled and reconstructed for the exhibition), and their own possessions—the very stuff of their lives—scattered and broken amid high cinderblock walls, an array of police vehicles, a looming yellow-and-black guard tower and a meticulous recreation of Saddam Hussein’s infamous spiderhole. They would have experienced the work with the kind of immediacy that Renaissance Florentines must have felt when they recognized their own streets and hilltops in the Biblical scenes rendered in fresco or carved in bas-relief by their own citizen-artists. This is the essence of what was lost—the reassertion of the demotic and the local into radical art making, and the emotional profundity that those qualities—the realness of real life—can evoke.
But for the museum administrators, the cost overruns were creating a do-or-die situation. If Büchel continued to work on the project, conceivably spending thousands upon thousands more on top of the three hundred grand he had already used (as a point of comparison, the annual operating budget for the entire museum is only 0,000), and if the results were not a critical and financial success, the consequences would have been devastating, maybe even fatal, for such a relatively young institution. What is puzzling is that the museum didn’t try to reach a more creative solution than simply pulling the plug. It’s as if the administrators’ thinking had narrowed in direct proportion to the rate that Büchel’s was expanding. Faced with the prospect of authentically risky art rather than the pseudo-avant-garde spectacle that crowds so many contemporary art venues—a work of imaginative daring that demanded as much from them as from the artist—they balked. The people of North Adams seemed willing to make that investment, but their museum officials weren’t.
To approach the artwork in its current confines is to grasp the enormity of its potential and the corresponding size of its failure. In order to find the installation you must wend your way through the museum’s second floor galleries until you reach a barely noticeable stairway at the far end of a darkened room. As you walk down the stairs, all you can see is a corrugated steel wall with rust stains bleeding through its powder-blue paint job, and a bright red exit sign. You think, oh, I’m heading out the fire exit. I’m lost. You’re not. The corrugated steel is the back end of one of two shipping containers, one atop the other, that you have to navigate around before you can find the tarps hiding the exhibition from view.
The tarps are a bright, incongruously cheerful yellow stretched tight across gunmetal-gray stanchions. They don’t reach the floor, and they rise only about two feet above eye level, so they don’t cover much. You can easily crouch down to slip your head underneath or peek through the slits between the vinyl sheets. Beyond the passageway formed by the tarps, the monumental elements of the installation rise all around you, plain as day—the cinderblock walls, the two-story house, the guard tower, the trailers, the carnival ride, all compacted together in a claustrophobic, politically surreal borough of hell, George Orwell by way of David Lynch. The finished version, according to the artist’s legal papers as quoted in theLos Angeles Times, was to include “role-play for its visitors … in relation to the collective project called ‘democracy’: training to be an immigrant, training to vote, protest, and revolt … training to be interrogated and detained.”
The room was deathly still; there was no role-playing or even the sound of a footfall, and the Sunday afternoon daylight felt much too bright for the assembly’s internal gloom. Nevertheless, my teenage son and I, gazing at Büchel’s incomplete “compilation of materials,” were awestruck. I had read Randy Kennedy’s Timesarticle and was suitably skeptical of what we might find, half-expecting to dismiss it as hype. But even cloaked and abandoned, the dense physicality of the materials energized the vast space and wielded a startling, oppressive power. I was musing aloud about where Büchel might have hung the airplane (bomb-damaged and burned, as per his specifications) and my son was indiscreetly peering beneath one of the yellow tarps when we got busted. A little man in a Red-Sox-red MASS MoCA baseball cap materialized out of nowhere and barked at us that we couldn’t look at what we were looking at. It was under litigation. Shooting deeply suspicious glances at my notebook, he jerked his oversized walkie-talkie in the direction of the room holding Made at MASS MoCA and literally escorted us through the yellow-draped passageway until we got there.
Both my son and I had the same reaction: the inexplicable appearance of the guard revealed that we were being heard, watched, sonically tracked—who knows?—without our knowledge. We were hustled away for a security infraction that consisted of looking at something we weren’t supposed to see; that we were supposed to pretend wasn’t there. The subliminal dread and paranoia induced by the shrouded installation had burst floridly to life.
What’s remarkable about this looking-glass situation is that Büchel’s art is being thwarted not for its political content, which is uncompromised and uncompromising, but over matters of budget, copyright, moral rights and ownership. It is not censorship, but the ultimate effect is the same. Similarly, content is disappearing from the Internet due to aggressive copyright regulations, independent booksellers and small publishers face extinction from onerous new postal rates, and media consolidation continues its rapid, and rabid, pace. There is no need to quash dissent if no one can hear it.
A possibility remains that, if the funds can be raised and the litigants’ differences can be reconciled, the museum might set a 2008 opening date for the exhibition. One can hope. But as we move toward the denouement of the most disastrous and malignant presidency in the nation’s history, the prospect of witnessing the dismantled fragments of Training Ground for Democracy, unrealized and unseen, dragged out of MASS MoCA’s Building 5 by hardhatted workers and hauled away in a caravan of dumpsters, is far too horrific, and far too apt.
To encourage Mr. Büchel to finish the work, MASS MoCA extended the installation time from six weeks to more than three months, provided nearly twice the budgeted funds (over 0,000), and then offered an additional 0,000 to finish the work. Despite this, the artist refused to complete the piece. MASS MoCA offered him the opportunity to remove the materials, reimbursing the museum for their actual cost, which he also refused….
The only relief we have sought [in the lawsuit going to trial today] was a clear declaration of the parties’ rights, and a decision from the court that would allow MASS MoCA to move forward. Mr. Büchel…has asserted a number of counterclaims against MASS MoCA seeking to compel the museum to pay him monetary damages….Mr. Büchel has also made and sold or attempted to sell certain art works incorporating court filings from this dispute.
Buchel’s list of demands and his full account of the dispute were published on Geoff Edgers‘Exhibitionist blog, here, here and here.
Brilliant interactive lighting installation; “Water Light Graffiti” by Antonin Fourneau made during his residency at Digitalarti Artlab. When the LEDs on the wall come in contact with water either by paintbrush, atomizers, fingers or anything damp they light up to varying degrees depending on the moisture. “Water Light Graffiti is a wall for ephemeral messages in the urban space without deterioration. A wall to communicate and share magically in the city.”
Interesting how this artist made graffiti 3d!