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Sunday, the first full day of the big new exhibition at MSU’s Broad Art Museum, the halls rang with a sound not often heard there: laughter.
Deflating humor is one of museum director Marc-Olivier Wahler’s tricks. Or is it inflating humor? Much of the mirth heard on a busy Sunday at the museum was provoked by Werner Reiterer’s sculpture, “Beginnings of Space Travel.”
It takes a few seconds for visitors to look up from the helium tank in front of them, follow the attached hose as it runs straight up, up and further up into rear end of a hapless, wide-eyed cat, buoyantly pinned to the ceiling.
“The Transported Man” is selective in its spectacle. The exhibition relies more on wit and surprise to push the mind into a new place, back to the first tremor of wonderment when art is born in the mind.
In contrast to the video barrages favored by founding Broad Art Museum director Michael Rush, “The Transported Man” carries no trace of the super-saturated digital matrix taking over the world and very little of the industrial age that came before it. It carves out a timeless, floating space, a world apart from the one we know.
The shock and delight at seeing animals in an art museum is one of Wahler’s favorite tricks. At an introductory talk for donors and special guests before Saturday’s opening, he did a live video interview (apparently) from the belly of a live alligator.
“The Transported Man” has its grand gestures — the grandest being Daniel Firman’s full-size sculpture of an elephant climbing a rope (or hanging from it) in the main gallery — but charismatic megafauna don’t carry the day. Parked next to the ersatz elephant is the real deal: Robin Meier’s “Synchronicity,” a Mylar tent on a bed of earth and grass where real fireflies will flash in synchronization with lights and music. The fireflies won’t arrive for a month or so, but the tent is already an earthy, twinkling refuge from the harsh angles of the surrounding museum — and the surrounding world.
Many visitors were visibly moved Sunday as they entered and exited the nocturnal hush of the tent, pulsing with cricket chirps (from real crickets) and flickering with deep rhythms of life.
But in a typical touch of wit, the exhibition also includes a bug zapper on the second floor.
Every impulse toward overkill and extroversion has been crammed into a colorsaturated western entrance. The hallway greets visitors with spaghetti-print floors and walls decorated with garish fabric wall hangings and carpets based on prints from the design magazine “Toilet Paper.” (The prints are also brazenly merchandised in the gift shop.)
Hanging elephant and hall of spaghetti notwithstanding, “The Transported Man” is an exercise in minimalism. It relies mainly on hints and nudges, doors and windows, portals and voids that your thoughts are invited to fill.
Ugo Rondinone’s wall of rainbow-hued mirrors suggests another world looking back at ours. “Nathaniel Knows,” a set of false partitions created in 2003 by Ryan Gander, opens into Oscar Tuazon’s “Rooms” from 2012. The room is empty, except for a tiny mouse hole where something has seemingly broken through the wall, with a glimmer of light and a green tendril poking through. Tony Matelli’s realistic intrusions of weeds and flowers seem to seep through the cracks of the museum, hinting that the building itself is a temporary illusion.
For all its contemporary art head games, there’s something quaintly old-fashioned about “The Transported Man.”
That doesn’t always work in the show’s favor. Wahler seems determined to hammer at the well-established point that you can plop anything in a museum and call it art. Maybe he thinks this news hasn’t reached Michigan yet. But we know! Half a century on, there is a maddening zone of dullness around works like William Anastasi’s “What Was Real in the World,” from 1964, a neat stack of concrete bricks. The same goes for Robert Gober’s piece of laminated plywood, Charlotte Poseneske’s galvanized ductwork that doesn’t hook up to anything and so on. This point was made long ago, and conceded by anyone who is ever likely to concede it — if only for the sake of moving on to something more interesting.
Thankfully, this exhibition does. In keeping with the magic-trick theme, eloquent hands and fingers are everywhere.
Anna Maria Maiolino’s 1982 “Ad Hoc,” a haunting Super 8 film of hands gesturing, goes with tinkling music that permeates the museum and will probably loop in your head all night.
In Jonathan Monk’s “Secondhand Daily Exchange,” from 2006, two hands cast in wax hold an object that is changed by museum staff every day. (On Sunday it was a silver pendant.) The hands are cleverly positioned next to the infamous “Mani Pulite” (“Clean Hands”), the bar of soap made with liposucted fat of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Despite the rendered fat of Berlusconi, “The Transported Man” will not please those who want contemporary art to respond to the issues of the day. The magician role Wahler assumes in his opening exhibition is a contrarian pose, defying the instantresponse culture of social media. Magician is a throwback profession, a relic from the pre-digital world of the village smithy and a bold apparition in a post-modern museum.
“The Transported Man” On display through Oct. 22
Noon-7 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday (closed Monday) FREE Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum 547 E. Circle Drive, East Lansing (517) 884-4800, broadmuseum.msu.edu