Christoph Büchel’s “Piccadilly Community Centre”

Karen Archey

July 12, 2011
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton
May 13–July 30, 2011

Something uncanny this way comes at Hauser and Wirth London: for Christoph Büchel’s latest feat in politically-charged trompe l’oeil, the Swiss artist dropped a well-used community center straight onto Piccadilly. Though it only opened a couple weeks ago, the gallery’s usual parquet is covered by worn linoleum, and each successive room is perfectly decorated and organized for dance lessons, art therapy, and other various classes in full swing—the space even smells authentic. Though upon looking further, a curious eye will detect a few uncanny moments pointing to the artist’s critical engagement in creating such a space: a reproduced Rothko hangs in the prayer room, seemingly announcing and deflecting its transcendental nature; and upstairs the Geranium Shop for the Blind is situated next to a outpost for the Conservative Party Archive—a potent juxtaposition beckoning a consideration of Big Society politics.

On a tip from a casually-clad gallery attendant, I stumbled through a door labelled “Private” and into a magnificent, post-apocalyptic pile of trash. “There isn’t even anything I want to steal here,” a visitor to the Piccadilly Community Centre moaned. “Yeah, it’s all a bunch of crap!” added another. Cots with strewn bed sheets, which were more like human-sized rats’ nests, and piles of anachronistic materials ranging from no-name bands’ vinyl records to cheap, chintzy sculptures were strewn about. Two small pieces of wood, fitted with screws, literally sandwiched pieces of bread (toasted in the mid-20th century, it seems) and under this lay a carousel of VHS tapes. Hidden away in the attic were remnants of a long-forgotten party scattered on the floor—cigarette butts and cans of Special Brew (a beer ubiquitous with British alkies due to the 9% alcohol level).

Although the trash-ridden bowels of the building seem largely characteristic of Büchel’s oeuvre, the comparatively clean and welcoming community center seems anything but, and arguably traverses a ground more characteristic of Relational Aesthetics than installation art. Upon asking friends what “Büchel’s community center project” looked like, they unanimously answered, “Like a community center,” because it was, in fact, a community center. This, to me, was a huge endorsement considering the prevalence of built environments in contemporary art contexts that vainly attempt to appear genuine but fool no one. Thus the signifier never actually becomes the signified, and arguably such a project takes on a disingenuous relationship to its subject, often referring to actual historical moments or enacting humanitarian work but never really reaching out of the hermetic bubble. One only needs to look at Rirkrit Tiravanija’s umpteenth thousand curry-serving piece—who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green—at 100 Tonson Gallery’s booth at this year’s Art Basel to understand this paradox: hungry fair-goers too stingy to buy overpriced wurst flocked to Tiravanija’s installation, only to toss out their empty containers in Klara Liden’s $20,000 relocated trash cans next door at Reena Spaulings. (To be clear, you can eat the food that is also art, but you can’t throwaway the leftovers in the sculpture that is a trash can.) It seems like everyone is in on the RA game except for the people that may actually benefit from it, and further, the extra-textual information needed to understand such “socially active” works relegates them to a territory that excludes broader publics.

Büchel doesn’t exactly resolve all of these contradictions but at least reaches outside of this hermeticism, directly connecting his political aspirations with political content. By creating a vibrant, entirely volunteer-run community center Büchel seemingly sets up a Big Society ideal, yet the center’s fleeting nature (which is only in operation for about six weeks), and its existence within—and funding by—a blue-chip gallery seems to signal its impossibility. What remains to be seen is whether this is another tick on the long list of bravado accomplishments accruing cultural capital for Hauser and Wirth, or if the project actually manages to reach outside of the sphere of contemporary art and into that of politics with social reverberations. Whatever the answer, Büchel succeeds in illustrating the depressing fact that within the art world, political and social action teeters on the brink of impossibility.

Relational Aesthetics, Community, Socially Engaged Art

Karen Archey is editor of e-flux conversations and an art critic and curator living in Berlin.

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Hauser & Wirth Somerset
July 12, 2011

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