Christoph Büchel

Hauser & Wirth Coppermill

Acting as an obsessive set designer, Christoph Büchel has transformed Hauser & Wirth’s recently acquired warehouse space in London’s East End into Simply Botiful, 2006, the dystopian scene of a sprawling recycling camp and sweatshop fronted by a seedy hotel-cum-brothel and an import-export shop. Visitors must crawl through dirt tunnels and climb ladders to discover hidden spaces that suggest yearnings for escape—via religious transcendence, pornographic fantasy, and extremist ideology—ostensibly created by the imaginary inhabitants to help them survive in their terrible world. Cruelly, these passages only lead back to the same horrors.

Beyond the hotel’s reception area, with its telling red lights, cheesy furniture, and whiffs of mildew, a stairway leads to a series of small bedrooms suggestive of human desolation: They’re littered with well-thumbed porno magazines, used tissues, and condoms. An iron balcony overlooks the vast warehouse interior, where the accumulation of material is overwhelming: Old refrigerators, computer terminals, and television sets pile into mountains; dirty workstations sit underneath fluorescent lights; and several cargo containers filled with bunk beds await inspection. It’s like the belly of the black market. That the gallery is situated near the heart of Bangladeshi London infuses the presentation’s rather stereotypical image of informal labor with third-world flavor.

At the back of one dank shipping container sits a large cooler that leads down into a twenty-foot-long subterranean passage. It opens, surprisingly, onto the subgrade site of a recent, seemingly unauthorized excavation, where one sees a bus-size block of dirt from which emerge two mammoth tusks. Another tiny room, walled with cinder blocks, holds nine Muslim prayer rugs and leads to a further chamber wallpapered with more pornography—mostly featuring the bleached blondes and fake tits found in British tabloids—and furnished with cheap blue upholstered chairs holding Bibles (New International Edition). Recalling the elaborate illusionism of an installation by Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, these clashing juxtapositions draw religious practice and sexual objectification into proximity but, unlike a similar Thomas Hirschhorn display, lack the explicit moralism of ethical condemnation or dutiful social-work-based alternatives. The import-export shop, with its shabby business office and stocks of secondhand merchandise, is reached through a labyrinth of old refrigerators. Among its banal contents is a rear display of used electronics, canned German foods, and copies of Mein Kampf in Arabic.

While it is fascinating to be a voyeur in such a space—for, generally speaking, a contemporary art audience would never venture into its real-world counterpart—the slumming is made safe by the absence of a transcultural encounter with real people. This is the obvious limitation of the project—an art of marveling at the living and working conditions of exploited migrant laborers and prostitutes—which resembles a bourgeois playground similar to those of old colonial exhibitions, only without the human zoo. But Büchel’s installation is not exactly the objective portrayal of an ethnographic diorama; its abject scenes, imaginary but believable, instead re-create the causal connections that define a post-9/11 world in which sexual violence, escapist fantasy, and recourse to fanatical political and religious cults reinforce the alienation that impedes social and economic integration in the first place. There are no answers here, just a brief chance to imagine life in a kind of neo-Artaudian theater of cruelty, more real than reality because it renders visible what lies beneath the banality of the everyday. Büchel mixes vicarious fantasy with sensitivity training, but the danger is that the result simply makes misery entertaining.

T. J. Demos