Installation from early 2007
Christoph Büchel’s Simply Botiful is the most involved, engaging and creepiest piece of installation work I have ever seen. Taking over a massive warehouse in London’s East End, Büchel has constructed his own universe – a cheap, nasty hotel for prostitutes and desperate asylum seekers; a shop, decorated with terrorist propaganda, selling fridges; and a huge, gloomy industrial space, full of discarded electronics, broken fridges and crammed with portakabins and haulage wagons serving as cheap, dismal accommodation. Visitors have free access and can wander anywhere, clambering up stairwells and ladders, descending tunnels, adjusting TV sets and picking up and casting down the myriad objects littering the space – diaries, leads and wires, letters, bibles, newspapers, korans, bras, invoices, calculators. The space, built over three of four floors, is of football-pitch proportions. It takes perhaps two hours to walk round everything, and even then there is still plenty left unseen.
Christian Büchel, Fridges from Simply Botiful
The experience is more akin to playing a video game than viewing an artwork; certainly it is nothing like visiting a museum. There’s a strong echo of first person shoot and strategy games (e.g. Thief or Splinter Cell) where the character is dumped in an alien surrounding and must explore a location and its objects, trying to forge a geographical and a narrative sense of the space around them. The lack of information presented to the player / user and the lack of people with which to communicate and understand the space add to the sense of eeriness and disorientation in both types of medium.
The sense of evil pervading Büchel’s universe is palpable. Büchel touches on a host of contemporary and perennial fears – death, child abuse, immigration, religion, terrorism, capitalism. Or rather he does not touch on them, he gives evidence to the fact they have actually happened – we see unmade bids littering the hallways, bathrooms, kitchens and bedrooms of the hotel, a rainbow of bleak pornography and graffiti, tapestries celebrating September 11th, copies of Mein Kampf in Arabic, a call-girl’s filo-a-fax, a warren of stinking fridges, evidence of inhumane living conditions. The suggestion of pain, perhaps also torture, is strong.
At the same time (again here is a connection with the video game) there is a childish pleasure to be had in walking around the installation. Photographs of the installation on Flickr show grinning faces dropping down tunnels or posing in front of pornographic images. The museum is normally a place of prohibitions as regards the artistic object; Simply Botiful is precisely the opposite – curiosity, investigation, exploration are positively demanded. But this innocence doesn’t last long. The griminess of the artwork contaminates such innocence, and soon one reads a discarded letter, flips over a postcard or rifles with a diary with a fear that will reveal something more traumatic.
Like a good video game, you’re never going to finish Simply Botiful off at the first sitting – it requires multiple attendances. But will turning up again and going through the artwork lead anywhere? Is there really a message or set of ideas that a visitor can extract from the work? Or is it simply an intellectual jumble sale, an array of provocative objects and ideas scattered around without any coherence?
Well, wait to find the two hidden rooms. On busy days, I imagine they are actually not that hidden – there will be a queue of visitors clambering and crawling towards them. But while not providing a resolution they provide a hook that makes it a little easier to add some focus to the artwork. I’ll mention the first.
A wardrobe in one of the hotel rooms (seemingly decked out like Freud’s consulting room – don’t ask) hides a narrow hole, punched through a flimsy wall, through to another room. On hands and knees one penetrates the hole and into another room, this time cleaner, less cluttered and more brightly lit.
Christian Büchel, Toys in bags from Simply Botiful
The burnt husk of a scooter stands, Damien Hirst-style, in a huge glass case, purveying some kind of totemic significance. Aggressively loud heavy metal thrashes out from a chunky stereo. What on earth is this about? Whereas the rest of the installation is dirty and random, this room is tended to, cared for, and replete with inexplicable objects. The motorbike sits silently in its case, a shrine of some kind. A video-camera whirrs in the corner … this place seems to be guarded, watched over, like a warped sanctuary. Then one notices the large transparent bags of rubbish collected in the corner. What’s inside them? A child clothes, some other toys, some dolls. Are these discarded for a particular reason? Are these the objects of a child no longer with us? Was she perhaps involved in a motorbike accident? Is this room the work of a grieving father, pushed to the depths of infernal despair? One cannot tell. But whilst most of this installation is dismal, this room is tragic. Here, with dark, inhospitable music of satanic assailing your ears, the room stands as a home of pain, being nurtured and then spilling out to the rest of this astonishing piece of art.
Christian Büchel, Burnt scooter from Simply Botiful
Thanks to Saw2th for the great pictures. There are more of the installation on the Flickr site.