Does East Lansing, Michigan have the next Guggenheim? The Wall Street Journal seems to think so. 1 Michigan State University’s new Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum garnered significant national and international attention. Relevant, contemporary, and, at times, disorienting, the Broad Museum and its inaugural exhibitions showcase the art’s ability to engage with and contribute to contemporary culture.
The Eli and Edythe Broad itself stands as a work of art. In whimsical defiance of architecture as a static medium, its architect Dame Zaha Hadid infuses her buildings with dynamism, making them counter-intuitively twist and bend in all directions. This London-based, Iraqi-born architect earned her spot in the exclusive textbook-pantheon of Jansen’s History of Art and received the Pritzker Prize in 2004. In November 2012 Michigan State University inaugurated the 46,000 square foot museum at a ceremony drawing several thousand and broadcasted live to museums and universities internationally, including Turkey, China, and Dubai. Made possible largely through a $28 million lead gift from Eli and Edythe Broad, it pursues the mission to “explore global and contemporary culture and ideas though art.” The Broad’s emphatically contemporary, perhaps outright futuristic, appearance underscores this vision. It bursts with energy. At the inauguration, founding director Michael Rush likened the dynamic form to a gust of wind. The east side extends its roots firmly into the earth, yet propels both outward and upward, reaching a visual climax on its western elevation towering at an angle over pedestrians. Inside and out, the building consumes visitors’ senses. Lacking right angles, everything bends.
While the works on display date as far back as ancient Greece, the overwhelming majority on display in the main galleries seems handpicked for their contemporary cultural relevance. In one installation, Marjetica Ptroc’s Soweto House with Prepaid Water Meter (2012) draws attention to humanitarian issues raised by the commoditization of water in Phiri Township, Johannesburg in 2006. In Chen Quilin’s surreal installation Floating (2009), a series of contorted paper-mâché bodies seem to float in the air. The installation responds to the massive flooding caused by China’s Three Gorges Dam project.
The Broad’s two inaugural exhibitions emphasize the museum’s vision to engage with contemporary culture. Complimentary booklets offering commentary by director and widely published expert on new media, Michael Rush, accompany the exhibitions.
The larger of the two exhibitions, In Search of Time, brings together works from the Broad collection, the Broad Art Foundation, and others. In the first and most visually arresting of three galleries, the viewer confronts three triptychs. On one wall hangs Damien Hirst’s, The Kingdom of the Father (2007), a large triptych composed of hundreds of butterfly wings, each luminous panel mimicking a pointed stained glass window from a gothic cathedral. On the opposite wall hangs Paolo di Giovannini’s Crucifixion (1400). Displayed alongside Andy Warhol’s Three Unidentified Men (1985), a pairing of three Polaroid photographs of some young men in suits, these works bend the visual pun perhaps beyond its breaking point. The juxtaposition spans a massive breadth of medium, artistic intent, and, indeed, time.
The majority of the works hang in the other two galleries. We occasionally see very literal representations of time, as in Eadweard Muybridge’s composite photograph Descending Stairs, Turning Cup and Saucer in Right Hand (1887), which, frame by frame, shows a woman descending a staircase. Other times, the theme becomes less direct and more conceptual. Joseph Beuys’ Sled (1969), for example, refers to a deeply personal memory of the artist about the events surrounding his rescue by Russian tribesman after his plane was shot down during the Second World War. Toba Khedoori’s Untitled (Black Fireplace) (2006) depicts a small fireplace set against a large field of black, indeterminate space. This, Michel Rush states, is “that most evocative symbol of longing for home, which pulls at our own memories and desires.”
The viewer should prepare for a bit of mental jolting. Albert Bierstadt’s Clouds (1871-73) hangs incongruously in the same room as Warhol’s Ambulance Disaster (1963). On a slanted wall, Manet’s The Guitar Player (1861) hangs alongside Warhol’s Polaroid Campbell’s Wonton Soup (1981).
Global Grove, the Broad’s second inaugural exhibit, displays twelve works of video art, each continually playing on a loop. The show takes its name from its centerpiece, Nam June Paik’s 1965 innovative, migraine-inducing video of the same name. The selections on display triumphantly demonstrate the capability of video art to make powerful and provocative political and artistic statements.
The emphatically contemporary and international exhibit features artists from North America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa and includes subject matter ranging from tongue-in-cheek humor to the poignant and political. Simon Lee and Eve Sussman’s Seitenflügel (2012) directly references Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window (1954), turning viewers into voyeurs, peering through the 24 windows of an apartment complex, watching the private lives of the inhabitants within. It also obliquely references the invasive East-German government of the recent past. Li Ming’s visual pun, Comb (2008), shows the artist calmly sitting motionless as the menacing teeth of the shovel of an industrial excavator brush her hair. This video humorously addresses the issue of urban transformation by disarming the excavator, now a ubiquitous sight in urban China. Most of these works confront politically charged subjects, including the 1956 Labor Unionist riots in Zimbabwe (Berry Bickle’s Ze ), the state of women in Iran (Negar Behbahani’s Agony, Never Ending ), latent residue of the Cold War in Korea (Lee Yongbaek’s Angel Soldier ), and the risky and subversive act of making graffiti art in Vietnam (The Propeller Group’s Spray it, Don’t Say it ).
The exhibition guides, while not prohibitively academic, assume that the reader will comprehend passing references to Marcel Proust and T.S. Eliot. Michael Rush offers commentary and explanations for the often seemingly incongruous works on display making contemporary works accessible to the Broad’s visitors.
This building is a Gesamtkunstwerk, to borrow from Richard Wagner: a “total work of art.” Delightfully bewildering, many of its walls slant inward or outward. Sculptures sit on slanted pedestals. Even the tumblers in the museum café slant diagonally. After two hours of this rich and rewarding experience, stepping out into the familiar, if boring, world of right angles again feels admittedly nice. If the Broad’s opening exhibitions indicate what to expect, even when the building itself inevitably seems dated, its prospects of remaining relevant and contemporary seem promising.