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Christoph Büchel, the office, at Maccarone

Photos courtesy Bob Coulter

The classroom

The bed

The toilet

The crawlspace

The roof
House Rules
by Michael Rossi

Christoph Büchel at Maccarone, Inc., 45 Canal Street, New York, N.Y. 10002.

Christoph Büchel's piece at Maccarone, the new gallery opened on Canal Street on the Lower East Side by Michelle Maccarone, immerses the viewer in a kind of ideal, pre-adolescent conception of an abandoned house. For his first New York show, the young Swiss artist has gutted the two-floor gallery and constructed a number of small, elaborately thematic rooms, encased within the walls of a red brick house and interconnected by ladders, holes in the walls, and secret passages.

There's a classroom with blackboards and folding chairs (and an impossibly low ceiling), a cubbyhole bunk with an exercycle nearby, an office that looks like a tornado hit it and a toilet in a claustrophobic corner. The piles of debris suggest the rooms' previous inhabitant was somewhat unbalanced.

Maccarone herself was out of town when work began on the installation, so she had little idea what to expect from the piece. "I told him he could do whatever he wanted," she recalled, "just as long as he didn't use the roofing material." The roofing material in question was a large pile of tarpaper slag that Maccarone adamantly wanted removed from the gallery. Needless to say, Büchel used the roofing material -- it sits like a menacing blob (with a sink on it) next to the faux roof of the school house.

This spirit of blithe provocation proves a coherent theme in the installation, which is expertly paced. Büchel appears to delight in forcing viewers to engage the work closely, literally getting their hands (and knees) dirty. It pays to try doors, twiddle dials and stand on top of things in Büchel's house. The piece can be disorienting and completely creepy (I got separated from my companion on my first trip through, and could hear him rustling around in the space above me). The uncertainty is just enough to provide a rush as each room opens into the next.

The piece is theoretically for sale, but the logistics of bringing it to market are complex. On one hand, it's conceivably possible to disassemble the rooms and reassemble them elsewhere. On the other hand, aspects of the piece are site-specific. Viewed from the street outside, the red brick of the installation mirrors the red brick of the gallery's façade. Though most of the material in the installation was brought to the gallery from outside, the desks and chalkboard in the classroom are from the gallery's previous life as a small school. A snapshot on the wall of the classroom shows the school as it was.

Originally scheduled to close last week, the gallery has extended the show for one month, to Jan. 15, 2002.

MICHAEL ROSSI is an art writer who lives in New York.