Christoph Büchel

Kunsthalle Basel

Basel-born and -based Christoph Büchel is known as a master of incommodiousness. In his recent installation HOLE, 2005, he confronts us once more with a meticulously staged worst-case scenario. And once again, his vision gets closer to us than we wish. The title evokes a number of associations: from the ugly deep wound that came to be called Ground Zero to Saddam Hussein’s cavelike hideaway to black holes in the universe. Actually, the installation represents none of these, yet it suggests a great many similar things. The title might also refer to the narrow passages and claustrophobic rooms through which the artist forces us. Or, perhaps, a state of collective amnesia. In any case, the normally daylit hall of Basel’s Kunsthalle currently seems to have been sucked into a black hole: It’s basically gone. One doesn’t enter by way of the grand stairway but by means of a cramped elevator, and, as often in Büchel’s works, the journey starts in a depressing waiting room, where a disquieting surveillance video showing a suicide in a police station loops in endless repetition. Next comes a small antechamber leading into what can easily be identified as a psychotherapist’s office. On the desk lies an open book about Rorschach technique, and the shelves are filled with books—mostly publications on sociology and psychology. Behind a plastic curtain is a tiny bathroom with a hole in one of its walls; one has to crawl through it and climb up a narrow airshaft to reach the core of the installation. In a makeshift tent stands the skeleton of a bombed-out bus. Scattered all around it, laid out on sorting tables, wrapped in plastic bags, or stacked on shelves and on the floor, one encounters the relics of the incident. The hope that one might painstakingly reconstruct and come to rationally understand what has happened turns out to be little more than an illusion. Just one fact can be proved: The accident did not take place in Ramallah, say, nor in Jerusalem, Baghdad, or London. It’s obviously a Swiss bus.

As in previous installations, like the staged asylum-seekers’ camp CLOSE QUARTERS, 2004, at Kunstverein Freiburg, Büchel plays with different perspectives of voyeurism. We are forced to get painfully close to things—we feel that we could almost open drawers, touch private belongings of absent people, or even enter the cadaver of what once was a bus. On another level, from some kind of control room, we can watch the scenario from a secure distance. The overview cynically calls to mind the viewing platform around Ground Zero, which turned it into a tourist attraction only months after 9/11. The stinking corpses are gone; only twisted steel and a lot of rubble remain visible.

The references in HOLE are as complex as they are ambiguous. Different levels of time, space, and reality seem to collapse. Is this a dark vision of the future, or has the catastrophe already happened? The only way out is the inconvenient way back. While it may only involve simulation, Büchel’s art is physically and psychologically violent—and not only toward the institution: His work also forces the viewer to give up any secure, contemplative point of view. Beyond metaphor, political and sociological reality has long entered that mind space. Büchel exaggerates, but only a little. It’s precisely the hyperrealism of his scenarios that makes them so disquieting.

Eva Scharrer