June 29 2011 12:00 AM

Video art of Hiraki Sawa is a curtain-raiser for Broad Museum


Say you live in a typical apartment with a kitchen, a
hallway, a bathroom and gray Midwestern blah outside the window. You
wake up feeling different one day — not sick, just different. Instead of
going to work, you sit at home and stare at your walls and floors,
watch your toothbrush and toaster.

You slowly start to notice things. The toaster stands up
on little legs, walks over to the other side of the counter and squats
back down. A small jumbo jet taxis across your sofa and takes wing,
clearing the desk by a few inches.

Meanwhile, tiny people are marching across the floor. They look very purposeful.

“Other Dwellings,” an exhibit of video art by Japanese
artist Hiraki Sawa now at Michigan State University’s Kresge Art
Gallery, quietly opens a different world that’s only a vibration or two
away from everyday life.

A gentle awakening to another reality is just what Michael Rush, curator of the Sawa exhibit, has in mind. As
founding director of MSU’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, his larger
task is to nudge a conservative community into the free-floating
universe of contemporary art.

The Broad Museum won’t be ready until spring 2012, but
Rush wanted to start nudging right away. When he decided to do a
“pre-opening” summer exhibit at MSU’s Kresge Art Gallery, he deemed Sawa
the perfect gateway drug for the stronger stuff to follow at Broad. 

“It’s both experimental but very approachable,” Rush said.

It’s not always clear what distinguishes video “art” from
TV, YouTube clips or even movies, with their increasing reliance on
digital technology. Would “Avatar,” a Coke commercial, the latest “Grand
Theft Auto” game or your kid’s 2010-11 basketball highlights — all shot
or created on digital video — qualify?

In a 2003 book, “New Media in Art,” Rush took a spacewalk
through the amorphous, ever-changing universe of moving images, and came
to the conclusion that a digital video artist must create an “artful
place” where “narratives, perceptions and visual expectations become

Sawa is a quiet disrupter. In the clip with the airplane
taking off from the sofa, it takes several minutes for more aircraft to
slide into view until the apartment hallway becomes a surreal,
gracefully choreographed LaGuardia.

“In a post-9/11 world, seeing airplanes multiply inside
someone’s apartment is scary, but it’s also funny,” Rush said. “People
are mesmerized by it. They plug into the humor.”

Rush said he was “blown away” by Sawa’s work when he first
saw it at the James Cohan Gallery in New York a few years ago. “I found
the mixture of fantasy and intimate spaces to be very appealing.”

Sawa, born in Japan and living in London, is only 34, but
he’s been doing video art for 10 years. Rush said he showed exceptional
talent and vision from the start.

“He was that perfect combination of idea and craft, right out of the gate,” Rush said.

Sawa sometimes takes a child’s point of view in “Other
Dwellings” (about couch-level in the airplane sequence). He encourages
the viewer to find the long-lost inner 6-year-old, to whom it makes
perfect sense for a hallway to double as a bustling airport.

“People feel both a strong impact and a certain lightness, and not many artists can do that in the same artwork,” Rush said.

It’s no wonder that a man who’s about to unleash a major
museum of contemporary art, designed by one of the world’s wildest
architects, on the unsuspecting cornfields of mid-Michigan would be
interested in fostering a sense of wonder and receptivity to new

Sawa appealed not only to Rush’s inner child, but also to
his outer curator. Look closely at the works, Rush said, and you’ll find
a “deep understanding and appreciation of the history of the moving

He might have added “sneaky.” “Other Dwellings” is crammed
with references to film artists from Sergei Eisenstein to Alfred
Hitchcock to Busby Berkeley, and non-film icons like surrealist
photographer Man Ray.

The references go all the way back to Eadward Muybridge,
the pioneering 19th-century English photographer who first captured
galloping horses, running people, and other moving targets by making
rapid series of images.

The moving legs on the toasters, glasses of water and
other ambulatory objects are digitized versions of Muybridge’s historic

“For a young artist to be so keenly aware of his mentors,
so to speak, is quite remarkable,” Rush said. “Some contemporary artists
really don’t know who they’re referring to in their work, but Sawa

All the works in “Other Dwellings” are in black and white, except the flipbook piece, and that’s by design, Rush said.

“He consciously uses black and white, which makes us think
of vintage films and vintage objects, but it’s also a little scary. It
adds tension to those multiplying airplanes.”

One of Sawa’s “Other Dwellings” works shows the artist’s
hand flipping through a book of pages to create the illusion of an
airplane zooming overhead. In Rush’s view, that fits in with another of
big preoccupation of contemporary art: calling attention to the process
instead of turning out a neatly framed illusion, like a painting, or a
conventional narrative, like a movie.

“He exposes the mechanism of animation and yet makes it his own,” Rush said.

Hiraki Sawa: ’Other Dwellings’
Pre-opening exhibit of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum
Kresge Art Museum
Through July 29
11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Friday, noon-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
(517) 355-7631