In a 1990 interview, Jeff Wall made the claim, “Critique is a philosophical practice which does not just separate good from bad—that is, make answers and give judgements. Rather, it dramatizes the relations between what we want and what we are.” It is a useful observation when considering Christoph Büchel’s recent exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, where the Swiss artist transformed the gallery’s imposing Piccadilly space into a functioning community center.
The staging was almost eerily convincing. Viewers entered to find themselves in a cheaply carpeted corridor leading past notice boards to an unmanned Western Union concession window. Artificial potted plants, fire extinguishers and framed van Gogh posters dotted the insipid yellow walls along the corridor, past cramped offices, a computer room and a canteen complete with Formica tables and a kitchenette. Stairs at the end of the hallway led to a mezzanine housing a small gym and a large ballroom, as well as meeting, counselling and prayer rooms: all for hire, and seemingly in constant use. Pensioners taking a break from line dancing could be found milling about in the canteen; visitors could take workshops ranging from postnatal yoga to fencing, or browse the charity shop installed on the gallery’s upper floor (which it shared with a rather more sparsely attended Conservative Party stand touting anti-Labour Party memorabilia).
The atmosphere was undeniably peculiar. The retirees, shipped in from across the city (not, it should be noted, members of any local “community”) seemed understandably oblivious to any art context, very likely unaware of the Mike Nelson-esque tableaux of squatters’ mattresses and left wing agit-prop staged in the attic and behind a basement door marked “private,” way off most visitors’ radar. As a subtext addressing the project’s more public face, these elements felt pat and ineffective, seeming almost to attempt a pre-emptive neutralization of criticisms of high-handedness, which one could level against Büchel himself.
Any project passing itself off as a community resource while maintaining a high degree of opacity regarding its actual nature is asking for trouble. On paper this could be framed as the work’s strength, but in practice the labyrinthine complexities it tried to juggle collapsed into a muddled heap. As one wrestled to pick nuanced staging apart from genuine problems in Büchel’s modus operandi, the dramatization that Wall locates as a central component of critique dissipated under the weight of a bored irritation. The picture of a densely stratified sociocultural nexus was eclipsed by that of the artist as the mighty Wizard of Oz—hiding behind a velvet curtain, clumsily manipulating his device—separating his project from any meaningful social engagement. On one of my visits someone had taped up signs reading, “This is disrespectful and should be removed,” underneath the large banner promoting the Conservative Party on the gallery’s exterior wall. Upon leaving the gallery, I noticed that, while the banner was still flying, these homemade markers of genuine community protest had been removed.
Photo: View of Christoph Büchel’s exhibition “Picadilly Community Center,” 2011; at Hauser & Wirth.