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Wednesday, December 19,2012

'The Gift,' exchanged

Broad Museum kickoff project ends with an exchange of big faces and big ideas

by Lawrence Cosentino
On a wet Sunday afternoon in mid-December, while kids waited in shopping malls to issue their squeaky capitalist manifestos to Santa Claus, an alternative gift exchange was under way at Michigan State University’s Eli and Edythe Broad Museum.

Dozens of people waited in line to shake hands with German conceptual artist Jochen Gerz and bring home a large, framed picture of a stranger as “The Gift” — Gerz’s über-democratic, latently anti-fascist community art project — went into its final phase.

Eric Gaines of Lansing walked away with a stern black-and-white portrait of a woman he’d never seen before. He couldn’t wait to get home and put it on his dining room wall.

“There’s something that’s been up there for years and I’m happy to take it down,” he said. He kept stealing glances at the face he held in his arms. “I’m glad it’s someone I don’t know. I can look at it as an object of art as opposed to a family member. It would be strange if it was a large picture of myself.”

A large picture of Gaines is out there somewhere, but who knows where? Weeks earlier, he sat for an unsmiling portrait by an MSU student photographer trained by Gerz, as did everyone else in the line Sunday.

“I didn’t want cheese,” Gerz said.

Eleven hundred eighty-two people sat for a portrait in the run-up to the Broad Museum’s Nov. 9 opening. The faces — from big shots like billionaire Broad Museum donor Eli Broad and MSU President Lou Anna Simon to scruffy undergrads hauled off the street — were hung in the halls of the museum until Sunday’s gift exchange. Every portrait is reproduced in City Pulse this week starting on the next page. 

The exercise generated a lot of real smiles, countless photos of people holding photos and much discussion about what “the gift” in this set-up really consists of.

Gaines thought it over as he speculated where his face would end up.

“It’s kind of eerie, but I realized that they won’t really have a picture of me,” he said. “It’ll just be a picture of some guy.”

Linda Sutton, a Lansing attorney, lit up when Gerz handed her a glamorous portrait of a woman whose mascara could be seen from 40 yards away.

“I’m ecstatic,” Sutton said. “It’s going to be in our office lobby. People will wonder what the hell I’ve got this up for.”

Earlier that morning, before the hubbub began, Gerz stood alone in the hall of portraits, looking a bit overwhelmed. 

“There is a kind of unusual nudity about the faces,” Gerz mused. “I feel like I’m almost too close.”

At a public discussion that morning, Gerz and Broad Museum curator Alison Gass lined “The Gift” up with Gerz’s other “anti-monument monuments.”

Beginning in 1986, in Hamburg-Harburg, Germany, Gerz erected a “disappearing monument,” against fascism, a 12-meter-tall obelisk coated with lead. People were invited to sign the obelisk and “commit themselves to remain vigilant.”

Guilt over Europe’s bloody past and a horror of repeating it drives Gerz’s art, but he harbors no illusions that art will change the world. As over 70,000 signatures climbed up the Hamburg obelisk, it was gradually lowered into the ground, until it completely disappeared in 1993. Some people drew swastikas on the column and one man shot it with a gun. All of these public “statements” were preserved. “In the end it is only we ourselves who can stand up against injustice,” a marker on the ground reads.

Gerz is working with the people of Bochum, Germany, to erect another non-monument. The preserved ruins of Christ Church — devastated in World War I and converted to a “Heroes Memorial Hall” in 1931 — has a list of the war dead, along with a more sinister roll call: a list of “enemy states of Germany” (including the United States) that reads as a blueprint for World War II.

“Where did fascism come from? Where did Hitler come from? I never understood it before like that,” Gerz said. “A list of enemies of your own place, cutting you off, politically, spiritually, mentally, from everybody around.”

As a counter-list, Gerz invited the town’s inhabitants to contribute their names, which will be inscribed in stone inside the church and on the square. Each person named had to make an unspoken and unrevealed promise.

“Europe is not to speak with one voice, but many,” the invitation reads.

Sunday morning, looking at the hall of faces at the Broad Museum, Gerz put “The Gift” squarely in line with these anti-monument monuments. He senses a similar desire in America to come to grips with a bloody past, and was impressed that a Museum of the American Indian was erected in Washington.

That morning, Gass and MSU Professor Stephen Esquith bandied some of the issues raised by “The Gift.” They talked about blurring art authorship, redefining reciprocity, rescuing art from the museum and getting over the art world’s obsession with overvalued objects.

Gerz seemed uncomfortable explaining his art and, even worse, sitting and listening to other people’s explanations. But his unease turned to joy when he started handing out pictures and schmoozing with recipients. Gerz sees “The Gift” as a mystery box that can never be unwrapped completely, but he made it clear that whatever it is, it’s not a call to unity.

“It’s democracy,” he said, looking at the rows of equally sized heads lining the hallway. “But it’s not two parties, it’s a hell of a lot of parties. We shouldn’t try to become one because it’s a small step to dictatorship.”

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