'The Stuff of Life'

By Lawrence Cosentino

Art at the Broad Museum will question everything, including the Broad Museum

Anyone who walks into the Eli and Edythe Broad Museum expecting to see a sterile array of pricey, incomprehensible status objects is in for a surprise.

“The building is very expensive and very significant, but in it we will have the stuff of life,” Broad Curator Alison Gass said. “This is not a museum that you walk into, you stand at a remove from an expensive object and you admire.”

Start with the lean, serene man in the hipster beanie, quietly subverting the $45 million museum, and the university that bought into it, in the education wing near the east entrance.

Over the summer, Fritz Haeg, the Broad Museum’s first artist in residence, invited the community to weave a spiral rug out of discarded clothing, rags and other throwaway fabric. The rug is now part of the museum’s opening exhibitions.

Haeg compared the rug to the slowly swirling island of plastic garbage that’s forming in the Pacific Ocean.

“It’s a gyre, a spiral that’s sucking up all the crap,” he said.

Community members will be encouraged to bring humble domestic things — dried flowers, fresh loaves of bread, cups of tea — and share them on the rug. Not exactly a hall full of stockbrokers ogling a pricey Jasper Johns.

Haeg’s project is a key to the Broad Museum’s mission and a glimpse into its soul, for all its Zaha Hadid glitz and Eli Broad megabucks.

“Our whole art system is based on things we labor over and hold as valuable, that get bought and sold,” Haeg told a class at MSU last month. “I like caring about things, holding onto them loosely and letting them go.”

It’s a point of pride for Haeg that his art costs next to nothing.

“I’ve never worked with an artist like Fritz,” Gass said. “He wants the cost of production to be low. Not every artist feels that way.”

Haeg’s plainspun domesticity offers an implicit rebuke to the architectural bling around it.

“I’m excited about the contrast between Zaha Hadid’s angular architecture and this warm, cozy, crocheted rug, with us sitting there drinking tea,” Haeg said.

Broad Museum Director Michael Rush said everything is ripe for questioning at the Broad, including the building.

“One thing I avoided in the opening exhibitions is to offer any sort of critique of contemporary architecture, but that will be coming,” Rush promised.

“I love architecture and design, and this building is so magnificent, I want to celebrate it, but it’s our job to provide a smart critique, too.”

The art world’s mad affair with Hadid and other lionized temple builders of post-modernism won’t escape scrutiny.

“We have fetishized architecture, and ‘starchitects,’ to a large degree,” Rush said. “So you’ll be seeing that critique down the road.”

Rush feels that Hadid’s design not only can take the heat, but almost begs for it.

“The dynamism of the building demands that we question the whole system of art production,” Rush said. “There are issues with the money that’s involved in contemporary art, how money is spent when so many people are hungry.”

Haeg calls his rug project “Domestic Integrities,” a tweak of the phrase “pattern integrity” used by R. Buckminster Fuller, the visionary engineer and inventor of the geodesic dome.

As Haeg explained it to an assembly of students in September, human beings “turn over” all their molecules in seven years or so. What exactly are you, then? A unique pattern.

As it happens, pattern integrity is not a bad way to describe the program for the Broad Museum, where exhibits will change constantly and nothing will be fixed on the walls for good. Rush, Gass and the rest of the staff promise a dynamic place where thoughts are more important than objects.

The same goes for events hosted by the museum. It’s said that in modern American cities and suburbs, you’re either shopping or trespassing. With all the fuss over the architecture and art, it’s easy to forget that Broad Museum will also provide a free public space.

“Urbanization and development encroaches on the public’s ability to gather without doing it in a mall or a sanctioned space,” Dan Hirsch, the Broad Museum’s curator of public performances, explained. He wants the Broad to “carve out a territory and provide stimuli that trigger the conversation.”

Haeg’s view of art as social practice, not pricey objects gathering dust, made him ideal for the museum’s provocative April 2012 program, “The Land Grant.”

Not content to wait for the museum’s (delayed) November opening, Gass organized a series of between-the-cracks “art as social practice” public events inside the temporarily reclaimed husk of the defunct Barnes & Noble bookstore down the street from the museum. (“Barns are Noble,” read the signs in the window.)

The events cannily grafted the university’s land-grant history onto 21st-century sustainability issues — a concern Gass found in common with professors across several MSU departments.

So it came to pass that Haeg, the (literally) groundbreaking author of “Attack on the Front Lawn,” brought his message of liberated land use to the only university in the nation with a turfgrass library. Other speakers and events presented alternative models of farming, food consumption and urban planning.

MSU President Lou Anna Simon noticed.

“We are a place that is big enough in mind and heart to have these kinds of conversations,” she said, even though “they’re typically in bigger places” than East Lansing.

Simon is well aware of “Land Grant’s” challenge to the agricultural status quo, and the Broad Museum’s promise to keep the critiques coming.

“A great university can also do this,” she said. “It’s a world of and’s, not or’s.”