Christoph Büchel Superstar

This text was originally published in The Athenaeum Review.

Few artists deserve the title of “provocateur” more than the Swiss-Icelandic bad boy Christoph Büchel. His gigantic, elaborate installations, which take on hot topics such as migration, multiculturalism, or, as in his latest exhibition at Fondazione Prada in Venice, capital and debt, leave audiences overwhelmed and confused. Some of his works, like the wreck of a fishing trawler that became the watery grave for hundreds of Libyan migrants, show up in exhibitions without warning or context and outrage the art world commentariat. A few, like the artist’s ill-fated collaboration with Mass MoCA, ended up in court. A handful, for example, his attempt to turn a show at Helmhaus in Zürich into a public cash hunt, were canceled before they even opened. 

For all of Büchel’s bravado, his extensive exhibition history, and access to seemingly unlimited resources, the artist has never become a household brand. Nor is his work a stable reference by which critics reflect on art’s role in society. Monte di Pietà (Pawn Shop), Büchel’s mega show in Venice, is the product of years of development and must have cost millions (in any currency) to stage. It should finally earn him a place in the contemporary art canon. But judging by the tone of the commentary that this and many of Büchel’s earlier projects received, it won’t. Why it cannot may be the work’s most significant virtue. Such critical failure throws into question art’s ability to observe its own condition.

Monte di Pietà turns the grand palazzo at Ca’ Corner della Regina into a ramshackle, dusty pawn shop whose wares fill the building’s three floors, courtyard, and even the ceiling to the brim. Until the 1960s, the location housed a charitable lending bank that offered the citizens of Venice access to cheap credit away from capitalism’s predatory financial institutions. Büchel’s version of this pseudo-charitable establishment reaches much further. By associating contemporary art, a fashion brand patron, and junk disguised as luxury, the pawn shop becomes a site of communal money laundering. This theme park installation is thus both a joy ride and unnervingly oppressive. 

The exhibition shows off thousands of objects assembled in a maze according to their implicit value. Some are the kind of detritus found at the back of an old mechanic’s shop. Grimy tools, chipped crockery, and rows of empty plastic chemical barrels line the walls of alcoves and nooks, mixing traces of labor and destitution. Behind the bank’s counters upstairs, myriad books, paintings, electronic gadgets, and guns are among the assorted valuables that the pawn shop’s imaginary patrons traded for cash.

Büchel’s interventions often turn into financial disasters, and this exhibition may be a personal declaration of bankruptcy. The art world has a track record of holding up a distorted mirror to its problematic relationship with money, anyhow. But aesthetically, Büchel’s project is a far cry from the kinds of polite institutional critique exemplified by the practice of the German artist Maria Eichhorn. Her 2016 exhibition at London’s Chisenhale Gallery had the space closed and the staff packed off on holiday. When Büchel tried a similar trick in his aborted project in Zürich, he imagined the punters taking sledgehammers to the gallery’s walls in search of a golden ticket.

Christoph Büchel, Monte di Pietà, 2024. Fondazione Prada, Venice. Photo: Marco Cappelletti. Courtesy Fondazione Prada.

Büchel doesn’t explain his intentions, and this makes his critics uneasy. What is the value of all these wares? There are no price tags in this Venice pawn shop. The installation thus turns visitors into unwitting contestants of TV’s Antiques Roadshow or Bargain Hunt, or worse, passive observers of the world’s material lack. Between the piles of used clothes and an antique dealer’s library, the only reprieve comes from displays of counterfeit luxury handbags that were once sold in Venice by migrant African men. 

The authorities cracked down on their trade. “So what?” asks the by-now overwhelmed viewer. Büchel nonchalantly raises the stakes with a briefcase full of synthetic diamonds made from his own feces, and a merch fashion line branded by Prada that screams “made in China.”

All this is more than enough. But it is also only the beginning. Büchel turned the palazzo’s side rooms, which once housed the bank’s offices, into a crypto-bro’s den and a webcam girl’s broadcast studio. There is a security room where CCTV streams the live view of Israel’s border with Lebanon. Next to it, in a windowless bedroom for the invisible workers who keep this infrastructure running, a television screen blasts a telesales channel pushing worthless paintings.

It is hard to untangle the complexity of this installation. Each surface and corner balks under the weight of references that clash with those of the assemblages next to them. It is as though a bomb exploded under the Venice canal’s surface and dredged up the world’s most incongruous material ideas. Never mind that rocket missiles are part of the installation, too. They stand next to a wreck of a room called the “Museum of Memory” in Arabic that doubles up as the “Museum of War and Debt” in Italian. The only element missing in this fairground is the immediate, overabundant, Western contemporaneity of The Mall of America.

Despite the installation’s heavy tonnage, however, this project is crushingly banal. It belongs to a familiar genre shared by Büchel with, for example, Mike Nelson whose labyrinth installations seem unambitious by contrast. Aesthetic environments like Monte di Pietà have been staged many times before as arty gimmicks. A prime example is the graffiti artist Banksy’s ironic 2015 art theme park Dismaland in a run-down English coastal town. Büchel, who like Banksy shuns publicity, has turned industrial deserts into artistic wastelands, too. His 2007 Simply Botiful dug deep under the ground of a trading site in a rapidly gentrifying part of East London to uncover not only its engrained poverty but also a full-size stuffed mammoth.

Christoph Büchel, Simply Botiful. Photo Mike Bruce, courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

The crude outlines of the Fondazione Prada exhibition form a critique of socially responsible capital, the benevolent art world, and the charity complex, too. But it’s not clear who is critiquing whom. An auction room on the ground floor of the exhibition faces the palazzo’s canal jetty so that VIPs arriving by boat get in the way of the public bidding on bric-à-brac. Next to it are an empty food bank and a disordered prayer chapel. 

The bank, the church, and the museum have failed in their missions, Büchel elliptically suggests, as though the jet set’s tastes or the Catholic church’s hypocrisy alone could account for world hunger. He knows that they cannot. So do the visitors of his 1:1 scale model village. The installation is both familiar and still exotic enough to a Venice art punter that it inspires a childlike excitement at first. Its realism, however, is too excessive to allow for distance. What starts as critique thus turns into embarrassment.

Discomfort is an art genre with established rules. Büchel doesn’t follow them. The obscure allusions that permeate his work are more often explained by rumor than by a gallery guide. Frequently, therefore, a visitor to Büchel’s universe is unaware of playing a part in his bait-and-switch scheme until much later. Because Monte di Pietà piles together the material of the global commodity trade, the failings of Western institutions, and, for good measure, whichever war is in the news today in a package that does not differentiate between precious and vulgar materials, visitors eventually feel that they have been played.

Büchel’s reputation precedes him, and the gossip rhetoric surrounding his works means that many of them fail outright. His 2018 project Border Wall Prototypes called for the official designation of the eight designs proposed for President Donald Trump’s wall as national monuments. Under the auspices of project “MAGA,” Büchel organized tours of the California site where sections of concrete and steel were installed for testing and publicity. To reassure art critics that the artist wasn’t a Trump chud, however, the project’s website claimed that it “celebrates creativity, openness, tolerance, and generosity.” 

The Wall Prototype Construction Project near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry. Photo Mani Albrecht/U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Flickr.

The liberal art world’s response was entirely humorless. Never mind whether Trump is a conceptual artist, didn’t the Swiss white man think about the plight of Mexican migrants and the “lived experience” of DACA recipients? Büchel must have expected this. This controversy and the project’s predetermined fiasco is how Büchel’s work first sticks to, and then comes away from, contemporary art’s glossy critical façade. 

Such interventions materialize as category errors. It is unthinkable, for example, to see the apparatus of state oppression, as one critical position would see Trump’s border wall, as equal to the art that critiques it. But once such a worthy, knee-jerk account of Büchel’s proposal is made, a bewildered “Why not?” must logically follow it. Why, if art has access to assets as boundless as the scale of Büchel’s oeuvre suggests, are its actions so impotent? How should an art historian think of security objects, anyhow? Might a border wall, indeed, be aptly considered a work of conceptual art, when the reality of US border security has been the subject of artful manipulation by successive state administrations? 

It isn’t merely that Büchel calls the art world’s bluff. Scandals such as the current echoes of the Israel-Hamas conflict in the Western art community show that the industry has no shame left. Büchel can’t be discounted as too elusive, either, as if the problems his work identifies were terminally intractable and thus beyond art’s purview. Indeed, many ideological factions pride themselves on having ready, if untested proposals for dealing with the unstoppable circulation of capital and the vast quantities of commodity goods that it produces. Monte di Pietà, therefore, neither excessively rubs the art collector’s nose in poverty nor does its material abundance overly depress any worse-off visitors.

No, the discomfort of Büchel’s work lies in exposing that the endgame of mainstream artistic political sentiment is pure spectacle. The left-leaning art world has reproduced countless instantiations of ideas much like his blockbuster installations. They are usually more modest in scale, granted, but collectively they could amount to far more than Büchel’s junkyards. 

But they don’t. It could be that access to great resources blunts art’s revolutionary tools. This is an accusation levelled at the likes of Hans Haacke, the father of institutional critique, whose 1971 solo show at the Guggenheim was canceled because the artist’s work named and shamed New York’s slum landlords and highlighted their connections to the museum. In 2019, however, Haacke was labeled a traitor when he refused to support the unionization drive of workers at The New Museum as it hosted his career retrospective.

This mechanism alone isn’t enough to account for the either angry or disaffected responses that Büchel’s work meets. Its unease comes with the realization that in the match between politics and aesthetics, art can only choose one. Büchel shows that even the most politically committed artist would be seduced by the material and conceptual excess in which he revels. As though he could be an exception, he makes “autonomous” political art “for art’s sake” and suggests that all artists would do the same if they only could. For attempting the critically impossible, he must be condemned or, better still, ignored.

Büchel’s practice also shows up art’s manipulation of reality at scale as merely symbolic. Monte di Pietàdoesn’t even pretend to solve the problems it manifests. There is no curatorial note that would address this failure by non-artistic means. Not for the first time. When Büchel represented Iceland at the 2015 Venice Biennale, he tried to turn Chiesa della Misericordia, one of the city’s 139 Christian places of worship, into its first-ever mosque. The project was shut down by the authorities on the pretext of licensing violations.

Christoph Büchel, the Icelandic pavilion in Venice, 2015, installation view.

Critics blamed Italy’s rising xenophobia that, to them, prevented Venice from fully embracing its mercantile multiculturalism. But it was the commentary of Hrag Vartanian, editor of the liberal art magazine Hyperallergic, that revealed what really bothered the art world. Büchel had not done enough to fully “promote understanding” between the religious cultures. He hadn’t spent two years working with community leaders. He hadn’t resolved the tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Generally, he hadn’t done “the work.” 

Vartanian saw the mosque project as privileged Icelandic liberalism rubbing its culture of tolerance into the faces of bigoted Italians at the expense of Muslims. The critic would have preferred that Büchel had neutralized the problems of multiculturalism with contemporary art’s magic wand, leaving the audience to carry on as though this was a scalable solution. 

Who can blame him? Critics love to be recognized as social and political influencers more than artists do. Wouldn’t it be handy if making Venice harmoniously multicultural was as easy as staging an exhibition? Vartanian, instead, was unnerved that Büchel didn’t own the failing of his project because the critic knew that he wouldn’t have pulled it off, either. 

At Fondazione Prada, the pawn shop stock includes a collection of banners that could have come from the Occupy movement’s 2011 protests. “Bail out the people,” demands one.  Büchel will aestheticize this demand as far as his means and his audience’s patience will let him. The people, however, will have to bail out themselves.

Monte di Pietà is on at Fondazione Prada in Venice until 24 November 2024.

Main image: Christoph Büchel, Monte di Pietà, 2024. Fondazione Prada, Venice. Photo: Marco Cappelletti. Courtesy Fondazione Prada.