New York

Christoph Büchel

Maccarone | 630 Greenwich Street

For his New York solo debut, Christoph Büchel created the kind of project that few artists could pull off, and few would want to take on. His large-scale architectural installation was born as much of circumstance as of his energetic imagination: The mischievous Swiss artist was invited to do whatever he wanted for this unrenovated two-story gallery’s inaugural show. He created a new set of spaces by hacking through floors and walls, hauling in bundles of newspaper and street detritus, desks, TVs, record players, and the most cigarette butts I’ve seen since Damien Hirst came to town. Büchel was first and foremost the artist, but he also assumed the roles of engineer, set dresser, construction worker, and, apparently, perfectionist taskmaster. “He made us save all our cigarette butts,” said one person who assisted with the two-month process of assembly. “We weren’t allowed to throw anything out; we had to save all our bottles, cans, napkins—everything.”

It’s not hard to see why the installation took so long to realize. Everything in this junkyard/fun-house version of Chutes & Ladders was perfectly calculated, even the changes in temperature from room to room. The level of theatrical detail was extraordinary. The entrance was set up as a makeshift bathroom-attendant station, with a tip dish filled with coins, an acrid overflowing ashtray, and a transistor radio droning on an AM frequency. The “attendant” asked visitors to sign a waiver (perhaps a necessary precaution). You then climbed through a ragged hole in the tiled wall above a bathtub, just wide enough for one person to get through. The piece made certain demands: To squeeze around the tight comers, navigate the wobbly ladders, and slither into the small rooms, you had to be of no more than average physical size and not too claustrophobic. One of the most unnerving spaces was a schoolroom with a ceiling so low that most kindergartners would have been uncomfortable, but anyone who could take it could crawl all the way in and scrawl a message on the chalkboard. The unease was heightened by the maniacally repeating ice-cream-truck music that was piped in and the ceaseless ugly buzz of the fluorescent lights.

Also memorable was the emergency bunker equipped with narrow beds, portable toilet, exercise bike, and just enough food and water to last two people seven days while Armageddon raged outside the DIY walls. The plastic potty doubled as a stepladder leading to a two-and-a-half-foot-high rec room outfitted with a Ping-Pong table (good luck!). The level of provocative uncertainty was just enough to whet your sense of adventure without actually scaring you, and after about twenty minutes of not knowing where you’d find yourself next or how it all would end, it did, calmly even, in a dean, empty attic where you could hear rain pattering on the shingles above. If you crawled out onto the roof, you would see that the “rainwater” was dripping from a punctured plastic pipe extending horizontally over the building; you might have remembered being splashed a little as you entered the gallery two stories below.

This was the antithesis of the sterile white-cube gallery experience and in fact made that kind of viewing feel very remote from a real encounter. In this regard Büchel’s work is similar to that of German artist Gregor Schneider, who also performs feats of alteration in interior spaces. But Schneider’s gravity and chill are rather unlike Büchel’s chaos management. That both artists have been likened to Kurt Schwitters is interesting (can both be heir to the hectic experience of the Merzbau?), and Büchel’s work also recalls the turmoil stirring in Ilya Kabakov’s installations. But precedents don’t much matter. Büchel’s phenomenological machinery sets one of its own, and we viewers may now demand that we always be part of the story.

Meghan Dailey