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Wednesday, October 31,2012

Roll call of humanity

Broad Museum project assembles photo mosaic of Lansing faces

by Lawrence Cosentino

The Mona Lisa wouldn’t qualify — too smiley. But you might.

Michigan State University´s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, set to open Nov. 10, is pre-infiltrating the city again, this time with a project that’s part Andy Warhol and part P.T. Barnum.

This week, the museum put out a call out for all citizens to lend their faces to a conceptual work of art by German artist Jochen Gerz, “The Gift: Lansing, Michigan,” in cooperation with the MSU Arts Department and City Pulse.  

As the project snowballs, Gerz hopes there will be hundreds, even thousands, of large-format black-and-white photos of people from all walks of life, rotating on a wall in the new gallery. (The faces of the day will also be posted at lansingcitypulse.com.)

“You slowly see a bigger picture of what is called ‘your place,’” Gerz said. “You will say, ‘I thought I knew my place.’ And you don’t.”

But no smiling is allowed. This isn’t your high school yearbook. It’s more like the scroll of humanity we send to Alpha Centauri before the big meteor hits.

“We want your natural essence,” MSU art student Rebekah Zurenko said. “Your face when you’re not making a face.”

Early subjects had to be coaxed a little.

Monday afternoon, Silver Moore, a journalism major and intern for MSU’s LGBT Research Center, was walking home from class when MSU photography student Lindsay Emerson gently accosted her. About 15 art students are involved in the project, with MSU photography prof Rebecca Drolan supervising.

“Would you like to help us out?” Emerson chirped. “We’re doing a project, taking pictures of people.”

“Sure.”

Moore walked into the makeshift studio inside the old Barnes & Noble space, 333 E. Grand River Ave., and sat on a stool. 

From behind the camera, Zurenko asked Moore what she had for breakfast. She had to stop smiling to answer.

“I had a muffin.”

Click.

“Just the top. I don’t like the bottom.”

Zurenko clearly relished the challenge of catching everyone’s “essence.” 

“Ask them questions, get that look of thought,” she said.

When Emerson asked the breakfast question to an excessively smiley subject, the smiles didn’t stop. Zurenko stepped in.

“What would you have for your last breakfast?”

Click.

During a lull in the traffic, Zurenko put me on the stool. It felt like getting my driver’s license photo taken, with cosmic overtones. 

“It looks like you’re thinking,” she said. “What is the origin of the world? How did it come to be?” She must have been kidding.

In the rotating “Gift” exhibits, faces will line up without regard to wealth, rank or any other category. Billionaire philanthropist and Broad Museum donor Eli Broad, architect Zaha Hadid and MSU President Lou Anna Simon will appear alongside the hardhats who built the museum and anyone from the community who would like to get in the picture.

“In the 1600s, it would have been all the rich people who could afford to have their pictures taken,” Zurenko said. “This is taking people off the street. You’re documenting a set of people.”

In walked two sweatshirt-clad freshmen, jostling and laughing nervously.

The more gregarious of the pair, Chris Poff, was excited to be on his way to pick up a pre-order receipt for the computer game “Assassin’s Creed III.”  

Zurenko calmed them down with her secret weapon, “the monkey story,” which we’ll omit for the sake of decency. She tuned in on Poff’s wavelength right away.

“You like ‘Assassin’s Creed,’ do you play Skyroom?” she asked. He relaxed.

“No, it’s too — [click] — confusing.”

“I heard you can have three wives. It’s a lot of work in real life.” 

Poff and his buddy, Cole Gibson, asked to be photographed together. Zurenko indulged them, even though the photo would be outside Gerz’s guidelines.

During a lull, Zurenko showed me the faces of the day. 

“This guy was a ham,” she said, clicking through the images in her camera. “He was on his way home to take a nap. This guy was a physicist from Spain, doing a project for the university.”

In black and white, framed exactly alike, the faces took on a strange weight, like an official roll call of humanity.

The creation and hanging of the portraits will be a centerpiece of the Broad Museum’s opening weekend and a dramatic statement that the museum — and its art — will be open to all. It’s not a bad publicity stunt, either.

“The idea, from the beginning, is to say to the people who are living here, ‘We are trying to do something different,’” Gerz said.

The titular “gift” comes after the project is over. All participants are invited to come back when the piece is taken down and are given a photo to keep. The final binding thread of “The Gift” is that you get someone else’s photo, not your own.

“You become the guardian of a stranger,” Gerz said.

An official stamp on the back of the portrait will notify the world that you possess a piece from the collection of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum.

And who knows how long “The Gift” will keep on giving? Five years from now, you may find your own framed portrait at a stranger’s garage sale.


“The Gift: Lansing Michigan”
Photo project by Jochen Gerz for the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum
Times to be photographed
Noon – 3 p.m. through Nov. 7
333 E. Grand River Ave.
East Lansing
(the former Barnes & Noble)
Nov. 10-11 in tent adjacent to museum
East Circle Drvie
MSU campus, East Lansing

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