Inside — and outside — the silver box

Marc-Olivier Wahler shares his vision for MSU’s Broad Art Museum

Newly minted Broad Museum director Marc-Olivier Wahler will roll out a comprehensive program of new exhibits and projects that reach far outside the museum walls, beginning in April 2017.
Photo Courtesy the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum
Designer birdhouses, punk rock, luminescent organisms, rare isotopes, worm eating and virtual reality are a few of the sugarplums dancing in the head of Marc- Olivier Wahler, the new director of Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum.

Since Wahler took over as director in July, he has been quietly surveying the scene and plotting a comprehensive program of new exhibits, events and projects that will roll out in April.

Wahler sat down with City Pulse Nov. 17 to share some of these plans and talk about his overall vision for the Broad.

“Our main focus is to think about the museum of the future,” Wahler said. “We don’t have answers, but we are testing things like a research lab.”

Hardware and software

Wahler’s boldest gambit will be to push art out of the Broad’s iconic silver grillwork until it oozes across MSU, through the surrounding community and into parts unknown.

“Instead of telling people, ‘Please come to our museum,’ we go to them,” Wahler said.

The most conspicuous — and fun — part of Wahler’s outreach plan is to enlist 50 of the world’s top architects to design birdhouses and place them throughout MSU and the surrounding community this spring. He also plans to put an outdoor “museum of mobiles” in a highly visible spot outside the Broad Museum.

Wahler also plans to open two new spaces tied to the Broad Art Museum, both of them within walking distance across Grand River Avenue in East Lansing. One space will be devoted “90 percent” to art from the former Kresge Art Museum, which has mostly languished in storage since the Broad opened in 2012. (See related story here for more details.) The other space will showcase young artists and host various art-related activities.

The outreach will go even further, beyond the physical world. In the spring of 2017, the Broad will add a “virtual third floor” full of digital art, accessible only on computer screens.

“We will work with an architect as if we really are building a new space,” Wahler said. “Once he builds the space, we (will) invite artists to intervene in this space with its constraints.”

All these plans, especially the virtual addition, confront or transcend the Broad’s most obvious asset — its angular, cutlery-shelled building, designed by Zaha Hadid. As the Broad enters its fifth year, the shock and awe of the stainless steel shark is wearing off, and Wahler feels that it’s time to think outside of the Zaha box.

“If you’re talking in the language of computers, we focus on the software,” Wahler said. “We want the software to operate on this platform” — he pointed to the silver-winged museum shell outside his office window — “but we want it to operate everywhere, international, regional.”

After living with the building for a few months, Wahler has come to view it as a mixed blessing.

“I find that it scares people,” he said. “It’s very intimidating, which I can understand. Our effort is to propose things where people realize (that) it might be scary, but it’s a challenge they want to tackle. Once we are in, we discover things that are amazing.”

Habitat for humans

Another linchpin of Wahler’s plan is to make the Broad itself more desirable as a “habitat” for humans.

To that end, more varied and experimental food, including a menu of “nutrition of the future,” will be added to the Starbucks café. The café will also house a huge vending machine with 3D printing capability —Wahler called it a “supermachine” — designed by artists and engineers at MSU.

Inside the galleries, a series of new exhibits will blur the boundaries between art and reality. Wahler is eager to fuse cutting-edge MSU research, especially in science, with art and see what kind of combustion takes place.

He has already invited Swiss artist Gianni Motti to collaborate with physicists from MSU’s Facility for Rare Isotope Beams. Another artist is working with MSU scientists on a project involving fireflies, crickets and bioluminescent bacteria.

At Wahler’s behest, a curator from Mexico visited MSU in the fall and met with the food service department, entomologists and the Bug House “to see if we can invite a chef from Mexico City specializing in Mayan food, which is bugs and worms, and see how we can collaborate.”

It's a trick

Even the more traditional exhibits inside the museum will run a wide gamut.

The Broad’s first big show in April, “The Transported Man,” will include over 50 artists ranging from the Renaissance to today. The show is based on the phases of a magic trick: an object appears, disappears and reappears.

“What you see first when you see a painting is pigment on canvas, disappearing in front of your eyes and reappearing as an artwork,” Wahler said.

Exposing the trickery of art, and freeing the viewer from an imposed hierarchy of interpretation, is a key part of Wahler’s approach.

“Boundaries between disciplines and ways of seeing things are blurring,” he said. “The time is coming where we are going to be ready to see things in between artworks and only objects. We’ll be able to move the cursor close to ‘artwork’ or close to ‘only object.’”

Other shows Wahler has planned for the Broad will further muddy up the mystique of art and art experts. A big show set for next year will feature two artists from Michigan, Jim Shaw and Mike Kelley, co-founders of 1970s punk band Destroy All Monsters. The show will not only include their “New Pathetic” art, created largely from everyday found objects, but also many of the things they collected and punk memorabilia from their Michigan period.

Next year, the Broad Museum will grow a virtual "third floor," seed the city with designer birdhouses and open new spaces across Grand River where historic art from the former Kresge Art Museum and work by emerging artists will be featured.
Courtesy Photo

Further into 2017 and 2018, Wahler plans to exhibit the work of important international artists who have never had a retrospective in the United States, like Roman Signer, a Swiss visual artist known for “action sculptures” that use everyday objects, Steven Parrino, a New York artist known for twisted and torn paintings with a nihilist sensibility, Paris-based conceptual artist Michel Parmentier and French visual artist Tatiana Trouvé.

Along with the bigger shows, exhibits featuring video art and emerging artists will rotate as quickly as every month, generating a “fast-paced, different type of rhythm.” Wahler hopes that a whirlwind of stimuli circulating inside and outside the museum will help overcome the Broad’s intimidation factor and sweep curious visitors inside.

“It’s like a house,” Wahler said. “Instead of having one big entrance, so big it’s intimidating, with a huge stairway, you can go around the house and have every type of entrance — doors, windows, whatever is good. And once you’re in the house, it’s yours.”

Mental hygiene

When Wahler isn’t plotting to permeate the world with art, he’s working on his fixer-upper house in East Lansing, which will soon house his collection of cowboy boots and Moto-bikes.

He dryly noted a pattern in the timing of his moves to the United States.

The last time he moved from Europe to the United States, in 2000, was to direct the Swiss Institute in New York, a cutting-edge contemporary arts center, after five years running an art center in his small home town of Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

“When I arrived in summer, Clinton was president,” he said. “A few months later, Bush was elected. Now it’s changing to something else.”

The 2016 election caused soul-searching in some art circles, but Wahler is a philosopher. He has his eye trained on a longer horizon.

On Nov. 17, the day we talked, the New York Times ran a story about the run-up to New York’s Whitney biennial. Scott Rothkopf, the biennial’s chief curator, said the bitter election prompted “questioning” and influenced the curators’ choice of 63 artists for the event, which opens March 17.

“The discourse turns to who we are as a nation,” Rothkopf said.

Wahler said “it’s hard to tell” what effect the 2016 election would, or should, have on the Broad.

“We have to be careful with art, especially contemporary art,” he said. “Where contemporary art, and art in general, can have a real impact is in developing your own way of seeing things without all this pressure of the media.”

Wahler is on a quest he admits is “almost impossible” — to provide a space where the viewer has complete freedom of thought. Letting the viewer in on the “trick” of art in “The Transformed Man” will be his first turn of the key.

“If you could really see a thing for what it is, then reality can stay reality, without all the filters that are imposed by our society, our ethic, our sociology, our politics,” he said.

Exhibits in the works at the Broad include a massive group show involving over 50 artists, collaborations with MSU scientists at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams and other fields of research, and a collection of art and memorabilia from former Michigan punk rockers turned artists.
Courtesy Photo

Wahler called art “a form of mental hygiene.”

“It’s what makes you an adult, in a way,” he said. “You make your own interpretation, your own way of seeing things.”

Wahler and his staff are more than happy to offer information and guidance and provide as many “keys” to the house as possible.

But once inside the house of art, the freedom of the viewer is almost sacred to him.

“The same object will have thousands and thousands of different owners,” he said. “That’s fantastic. That’s what art teaches us, and that’s why, especially nowadays, in our society, art is so important. I’m convinced that if everyone embraced what art proposes, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”


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