April 26 2017 01:11 PM

Broad Art Museum's 'The Transported Man' is Marc-Oliver Wahler's grand entrance

A lot of people already think contemporary art is a trick. Marc-Olivier Wahler doesn’t argue the point — he runs with it. In a museum-spanning exhibition opening Saturday, the new director of MSU’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum drops that common complaint in his hat and pulls out an elephant.

“Appearance, disappearance and reappearance is the basic narrative structure you find in any story, from the Bible to Batman,” Wahler said. “An artwork is the same.”

“The Transported Man,” Wahler’s first big gesture since taking over as director in July, is the first exhibition to take over the entire museum since it opened in 2012.

Ranging from everyday objects like a working bug-zapper (Mexican artist Fernando Ortega’s “Fly Electrocutor”) to not-so-everyday ones like an upside-down elephant (Daniel Firman’s “Nasutamanus”), “The Transported Man” is a panoply of razzle-dazzle, wit, surprise and philosophy that’s pure Wahler. The exhibition takes in over 50 artists, ranging from the Renaissance to the present, through Marcel Duchamp, Charles Ray, Piero Manzoni and Ugo Rondinone to emerging artists.

With a broad diversity of input, from high frequency sound to a morbid bar of soap and a precariously perched pachyderm, the exhibition bristles with mental hooks to grab onto.

“You might not know much about contemporary art, but you know about nature or science or philosophy, and those are entry points,” Wahler said.

In Ugo Rondinone’s colorful “Clockwork for Oracles,” 52 windows surrounded by newsprint evoke the passage of time. Firman’s balancing elephant, which arrived at the museum last week, messes with your mind along several axes. If Ortega’s bug zapper catches a fly or spider, the whole museum will go dark for a couple of seconds. Some of the more notorious objects in recent art history will be on hand — literally. “Mani Pulite,” or “Clean Hands,” by Italian artist Gianni Motti, is made of soap, sodium hydroxide and — get ready — the liposucted fat of Silvio Berlusconi, the scandal-prone former prime minister of Italy. (“Clean Hands” is the name of the investigation into political corruption in Italy in the 1990s, when Berlusconi was prime minister.) The fusion of the political and personal can’t get queasier than that.

What mad alchemy turns these diverse objects into art? Setting them in a museum with little cards next to them is just a provocation. The rest is up to the viewer, Wahler said. The signature piece of the exhibition gets that point across with dry wit. Piero Manzoni’s “Base Magica — Scultura Vivente” (“Magic Base, Living Sculpture”) from 1961 is a pedestal with two dance-lesson-style footprints painted on top.

Climb up onto it and voila! You become a sculpture. “The Transported Man” is out to demonstrate that all art is just as participatory, if only in your mind.

Wahler based “The Transported Man” on a magic trick invented in the 19th century, described by science fiction writer Christopher Priest in “The Prestige.”

The book was made into a Hollywood movie in 2006 by Christopher Nolan.

“Two magicians are competing for the best trick,” Wahler said. (They are played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale in the film.) “One is coming up with a trick that sounds like you can’t go beyond that — the magician walks on stage, opens a door, disappears and reappears immediately at the other end of the stage.”

Wahler does just that in a one-minute promo clip for the exhibition on the Broad’s web site.

“How is it possible? And the whole story begins.” Restoring a flourish of fun to the self-important world of contemporary art is one reason to embrace trickery. But there is more to the trick than meets the eye.

To Wahler, the three parts of a magic trick make a neat analogy for what goes on in your mind when you look at art. In the first part, the pledge, the magician shows you an ordinary object. The second part, the turn, “implies the disappearance of what was previously there,” Wahler said. The third part, the prestige, is the “impossible feat.”

“You take for granted the first two stages,” Wahler said. “But actually, what you see first when you see a painting is pigment on canvas, disappearing in front of your eyes and reappearing as an artwork. It’s very important that people are aware of this.”

The process isn’t unique to art.

“Take a book, — you add the value, because you read it and you’re into it,” he said. “If it becomes boring, suddenly the book is only paper.”

Wahler doesn’t like the notion of a museum as a citadel or shrine of received knowledge “It’s not about not tricking people and telling them with authority, ‘You are going to see this,’” he said. “People should be free, not brought to specific interpretation.”

Such fluidity was hard to swallow in the early-20th-century days of painter and conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, who famously declared a urinal to be art. Duchamp tried to disavow art when he got older but kept getting dragged back in.

“He would say, ‘I’m not an artist anymore. I’m playing chess, I’m an engineer, I don’t do artwork,’ but everybody was seeing what he was doing as an artwork!” Wahler said. “People weren’t ready then, but boundaries between disciplines and ways of seeing things are blurring. The time is coming where we are going to be ready to see things in between. We’ll be able to move the cursor close to ‘artwork’ or close to ‘only object.’ It’s about freedom.”

“The Transported Man” public opening 6-8 p.m. Saturday, April 29. FREE. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, 547 E. Circle Drive, East Lansing. (517) 884-4800, broadmuseum.msu.edu (Exhibition on display through Oct. 22)