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Judge rules Mass MoCA can show controversial unfinished installation

A house was sliced in pieces in order to fit it into the museum's space as part of 'Training Ground for Democracy.' A house was sliced in pieces in order to fit it into the museum's space as part of "Training Ground for Democracy." (Vanessa Badino)

SPRINGFIELD - The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art can show the public the smashed police car, two-story house, and all the other elements in Christoph Buchel's mammoth, unfinished artwork "Training Ground for Democracy," a federal judge in Springfield ruled yesterday.

The decision is the latest, but probably not the last chapter in a long struggle between the Swiss artist and the North Adams museum. Buchel's lawyers said yesterday that they were likely to appeal the decision, and Mass MoCA director Joseph Thompson said he wasn't sure if the museum would show the work, even though it could do so.

"We of course couldn't be more pleased with the ruling of the court," Thompson said. "This has been a horribly painful and difficult 10 months for the museum."

In his decision, Judge Michael Ponsor denied Buchel's request for an injunction to stop the museum from letting the public into the installation, which Buchel stopped constructing last year. Since May the installation has been hidden behind yellow tarps in Mass MoCA's football-field-size Building 5.

The judge also issued a clarification of Mass MoCA's rights regarding the artwork, ruling that because the museum had spent more than $300,000 on materials and helped set it up, and because showing the installation wouldn't harm Buchel's reputation, the museum could remove the tarps and display it.

Buchel's lawyers had argued that under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, Buchel had the right to demand that the museum not show the installation if he felt that it wasn't complete and exhibiting it would give the public a false impression of his work. The law allows an artwork's creator to prevent an institution from using his name if the work is modified in a way that harms his reputation.

"To show a work in an unfinished state contrary to the artist's wishes is a distortion of the highest order," said Buchel attorney Mark Elliott yesterday.

Ponsor rejected that argument, saying an unfinished work didn't qualify for protection under the law. The judge said Mass MoCA must post a disclaimer explaining that the installation isn't complete. The judge gave Buchel until Monday at 5 p.m. to provide any remarks to include in the disclaimer. The work cannot be shown until then, according to the ruling.

"It is not a distortion to exhibit something by saying exactly what it is," Ponsor said.

That gives Buchel's lawyers one day - Monday - to file an appeal with the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

In his opening remarks, the judge commented on his own visit to the museum on Tuesday, describing the experience as one he wouldn't soon forget.

"I approached this exhibition skeptically," he said. But "I was extremely moved by this piece of art. It is very powerful. It is not particularly pleasant to walk through. It is the kind of art that wakes you up in the middle of the night."

The installation, which was to be Buchel's first major US museum show, was designed to feature thousands of objects on the theme of life during wartime. But after Buchel and his assistants arrived to set it up last fall, the project went over budget, according to Mass MoCA, from $160,000 to $300,000. A dispute ensued, the museum saying that Buchel was uncooperative and Buchel charging that he and the museum had never nailed down a cost for the art. The December unveiling was postponed, and work on the project halted.

In May, Mass MoCA opened the exhibit "Made at Mass MoCA" at one end of the vast space housing Buchel's work. Fearing possible legal action, it covered Buchel's installation in tarps, but allowed the public to walk through it. At the same time, the museum sued Buchel and asked the court if it could remove the wrapping.

The result was a highly unusual event in the art world, a public argument involving lawyers and comments traded in the press.

Thompson claimed he had a responsibility to the public and museum supporters to show the installation, while Buchel claimed Mass MoCA was violating his rights as an artist under the Visual Rights Act of 1990.

Thompson said Mass MoCA was looking forward to moving on with its fall season, when an exhibit by artist Jenny Holzer will fill Building 5. Thompson said he might be able to show Buchel's work for a few weeks or months before Holzer's is set up.

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