Re-gifting 'The Gift'

By Dana Casadei

Conceptual art exhibit enters final stage: the walls of strangers

If you have a portrait hanging in your living room, chances are it’s from a major life milestone —a graduation, a wedding, the beginning of a senior year — and certainly of someone you know. But the 1,182 Lansing-area people who took part in “The Gift,” one of the debut exhibits at the recently opened Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, have been tasked with displaying large-scale, black-and-white photographs of complete strangers in their homes. So what do you do with a headshot of someone you’ve never met?

Mitch Crank, a Lansing Realtor, simply laughed and stared at the portrait he picked up from the Broad on Sunday. It’s of an older woman with freckles around her eyes framed by dark eyeliner and wispy blonde hair. She could be anyone — your best friend’s mom, your doctor, a coworker you’ve never spoken to. Like the 1,181 others, it doesn´t identify who the photo is of.

“All of a sudden you have someone that’s not part of your life, part of your life,” Crank said. “Someone I can just wonder about — what’s her story, who is she, what’s her life like?”

The mystery of these strangers starts with the man behind “The Gift,” German artist Jochen Gerz, who conceptualized the idea. Last fall, Gerz invited members of the Lansing community to sit for a portrait in an impromptu studio near the campus of Michigan State University. The portraits were then assembled into a massive wall of faces that lined an entrance into the Broad. Gerz wasn’t present when the portraits were taken, having trained a group of MSU students to take them, adding to the anonymity of the exhibit.

The goal of “The Gift” was to bring together the community with the museum, breaking down the barriers between viewer and art — and turning the Greater Lansing residents themselves into art and their homes into galleries. Now, each person who participated is invited to come back to the museum to receive a portrait of one of “The Gift”’s other participants, with whom they now share a connection.

Crank says the photo will probably end up rotating around his home. When asked about knowing that his face is in someone else’s possession, he said that he’s conflicted.

“Even though it feels slightly invasive, it’s still intriguing,” he said. “It makes (me) wonder what they think about (me).”

Crank may wonder what others think of him, but Ben Graham, a graphic designer and business owner, just hopes that people appreciate the art.

“I’m fine with someone having a portrait of me in their house,” he said. “They might not be though.”

Seeing others’ portraits was part of what has drawn him back to the museum, saying he found the whole exhibit to be compelling.

“The democracy and equality of the exhibit is really important to me,” he said. “There are bartenders and judges, the president of MSU and students. They’re all equal, and that’s kind of the beauty.”

The photo that Graham was given was of a young woman he thinks could be a young professional in the area. It’s hanging in the hallway that’s become somewhat of a gallery in his home. Graham has no plans on doing any sort of search to find her.

“It’s cool to have people involved with art in the community,” Graham said.

For Carin Cryderman, a freelance writer/photographer who works for the State of Michigan, the community aspect of “The Gift” is something that stood out to her as well.

“I feel like everybody that got involved is pretty passionate about art and excited about the project,” she said. “I think it kind of joins us together.”

The portrait she received is hanging in her living room, front and center.

“I’m proud to have a piece of art from the Broad,” she said. “I want it visible where everyone can see it.” The East Lansing resident has come to see the museum, which is about half a mile from her home.

“I think (the exhibit) is a great way for the museum to give back and allow the community to be a part of the whole museum.” Cryderman said.

The “gift” may be uniting the community, but it’s also opening up the doors of curiosity and imagination.

“I imagine the interesting conversations that (having my photo in someone’s home) would evoke,” said Melik Brown, a radio marketing consultant. Brown’s portrait is on the landing of his stairwell, waiting for the perfect wall space to be found. Even though he doesn’t know the young woman with the light brown hair whose face he passes each day, he said that she looks like someone that would have a nice smile. Brown said that he’s been following the progress of the Broad for a number of years, after hearing some people talk about it at a restaurant.

“When it became an opportunity to be a part of something at the Broad, I had kind of a personal connection with it,” he said. “I thought it’d be (something) nice to take advantage of.”

While some are content with the mystery of this new stranger in their homes, John Buckler, a substitute teacher, and his wife Kate Smith-Buckler, a nurse, have wanted to know since the beginning whose photos they have. The portraits will start on their living room walls and then move to the basement when their bar is finished. They plan on using social media to figure out whose portraits they received.

“It’s not often you put up pictures of people you don’t know in your house,” he said. “I’ve never done that I guess, unless they came with a frame.”

Their portraits are of two older gentlemen, but that’s where the similarities end. The first one is a white man with almost perfect circular glasses and a black cap. Buckler said that he reminds him of his uncle, rocking a full beard and mustache combo that frames his face.

The second man doesn’t remind Buckler of anyone he knows, which has caused him to make up stories about the man with the graying hair and ponytail, especially in regards to what looks like a black eye under his dark bushy eyebrows.

“I’ve made up stories about him fighting dinosaurs and robots,” he said. Both Bucklers also hope to meet the people that have their portraits.

“We really hope we’re out to dinner sometime and someone just goes ‘Holy shit, you’re on our wall,’ then we can get to chat with them,” Buckler said. And he’s willing to reciprocate.

“If someone has a picture of a giant bearded man, please look me up,” he said. “We can grab a beer or a cup of coffee.”