July 31 2013 12:00 AM

Artist Lisa Walcott explores 'the space between' at the Broad

You find a closet door open. One hanger is wobbling back and forth. Who was just here? Why did she leave? And why is a wobbly hanger so weirdly fascinating?

You’ll get no straight answers from Holland, Mich., artist Lisa Walcott, but two new installations at the Broad Art Museum will open up a few new questions.

Walcott is a specialist in kinetic art who dares to be boring before it becomes that. In “No Vacancy,” a haunting work she entered at last year’s ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, soap bubbles oozed up through planks in a wooden floor. It forced viewers to focus on soap bubbles — among the most beautiful cathedrals chemistry and mathematics can build — along with the random beauty of wood grain, the loneliness of empty rooms, the monotony of scrubbing floors, the mysteries of cracks in the floor and who knows what else. You get the feeling that if Walcott could make you watch paint dry all day, she would — and it would blow your mind.

“My studio process is really playful,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just staying really still. You feel the air on your arm and it’s ‘Hey, something is happening.’ You see a fly buzz around.”

The Broad gave Walcott a play space much bigger than her arm. Walcott is the first artist to be sponsored by a $1 million grant from the MSU Federal Credit Union for visiting guest artists. She responded to the commission with two large-scale installations that still manage to focus on tiny things.

“Vice Versa,” in the museum’s education wing, invites the viewer to walk through a rubbery rain of 10 racquetballs, each rigged to a windshield wiper motor way overhead.

The balls silently bounce up and down, now touching the floor, now stopping short.

“I’m playing with the weight of the ball, the elasticity of the string and the pull of the motor,” Walcott explained. It sounds absurdly simple, but the simpler the stimulus, the harder it is to turn away. Hypnotists know that.

“It’s fun to play with expectations,” Walcott said. “You think it’s going to bounce every time. You can be surprised many times in a row.”

As the balls go up and down, time itself starts to dilate and shrink by turns. “It’s slow and odd,” Walcott said. 

Walcott went to Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Ill., with no idea what she wanted to do until she took an art history class. History’s wild run of art trends and movements, each devouring the previous and feeding the next, made her wonder what would come next. For art students, the answer is: you.

She was fascinated with the idea of investigating “intangible connections” between little things.

Walcott didn’t want Plato mentioned in this story, for fear of coming off as pretentious, but she got the idea for kinetic sculptures from reading the famous “What is beauty?” grilling Socrates inflicted on his student, Atreus, in “The Symposium.” 

It’s a long discussion in “The Symposium” — after all, the guy invented the Socratic method — but Walcott’s takeaway was simple: beauty is “neither this nor that, but the thing between.”

“Dang, that’s beautiful,” Walcott said. “Fleeting moments are the most beautiful.”

At first, she tried to express the “space between” in stationary works of art. She inflated a balloon, coated it in glue and poked it. It made a “wonderful” noise and took on an interesting shape, “like it was trying to stay inflated but couldn’t,” but by then the show was over, folks. Walcott couldn’t stand in a gallery all day poking glue-coated balloons. “The space between” was an elusive butterfly.

Then Walcott created her first kinetic sculpture, “on and on,” by rigging a motor up to an old-fashioned pull string used to turn a light on and off. The string jerked around all day as if it had just been pulled. To paraphrase Goethe’s Faust: Oh space between, stay. And it stayed.

“Until I used mechanized motion, it felt like I was describing it rather than embodying it,” she said.

The problem that causes the whole wrangle over beauty in “The Symposium” is that Atreus has two works of art, with space in the gallery only for one, and has to pick.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the case at the Broad Art Museum, where Walcott has installed two (literally) moving works of art.

“The Swarm,” a web of wires studded with hundreds of small sinkers covered in black wax, hangs in the towering atrium on the museum’s east side. The mobile spins at one rotation per minute, agitated like a swarm of gnats by protruding pieces of latex and wire.

At 16 feet tall and 7 feet wide, it’s among the biggest works Walcott has attempted.

With the swooping lines of the Broad as a playground, Walcott wanted gravity to play a crucial role in both “Swarm” and “Vice Versa.” Hence, one bounces, the other hangs.

“I wanted my vertical lines to show in contrast to everything that’s angled around it,” she said. 

The biggest challenge for Walcott was the need to build “Swarm” on site. The mobile is so big and delicate it couldn’t be moved very far. Looking down on the gossamer web from the museum’s second-floor window, Walcott looked content with the results. “It’s like a wonderful insect infestation,” she said.

‘Less Still’

Lisa Walcott

Through Oct. 20

Eli and Edythe Broad 

Art Museum

547 E. Circle Drive, 

East Lansing

(517) 353-9836