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Just beyond the westernmost point of the Lansing River Trail, in a wooded grove, lies a piece of Iceland.
That is where Katrín Sigurdardóttir, the featured artist at MSU’s Broad Museum this winter, was born and grew up.
Two of Sigurdardóttir’s three works at the Broad are hard to miss — they’ll take up most of the museum’s first floor until March. It’s a bit harder to find the third one. You have to drive, walk or bike to the northwest side of town to Dietrich Park, near the Olympic Broil.
“The simplest way to put it is that I dug a hole in Iceland, I took some dirt out of the hole, and I shipped it to my studio,” the artist explained on a visit to the Broad last week. “I filtered and purified it into usable clay, formed it by hand into paving stones and I put them in a hole in the ground in Lansing, Michigan.”
A life-size photograph of the stones as they looked in Sigurdartottir’s studio, and a treasure map to the spot where they’re buried, are helpfully posted in the Broad Museum exhibit.
Most artists try to hook time like a fish; Sigurdardóttir rides it like a dolphin.
Embalming reality in the form of a perfect sculpture or painting is not her thing. The whisper of a cycle is the closest you’ll get to permanence in her work.
She didn’t fire the stones in a kiln, so time and weather (including unseasonably early ice) have already effaced the zigzag pattern of the stones, but you can still tell they are there.
“If you go to this beautiful site by the Grand River, you’ll see that the unfired clay has completely assimilated and taken on the form it had in Iceland,” she said.
To create “Namesake,” Sigurdardóttir made the earth move — literally — and calmly let it crumble through her fingers. In her main exhibit at the Broad, “Metamorphic,” memory takes the place of heavy equipment to do the endless conwwstruction work.
In the Broad’s airy main gallery, replicas of furniture and objects from the house where Sigurdadottir grew up are pinned by sunlight, like bones under the skin of time.
The pieces of furniture are both real and unreal. “They are put in crates and each time they move, they shatter,” the artist explained. “When the crate is opened, the construction of the past begins. It’s exhibited, it goes back into a crate, shatters again, and the construction of the past begins again.”
You can never go back to your childhood home, or even your ten-seconds-ago home.
The point is underscored by floor patterns under the room, based on photographs taken by international students of their far-flung homes in Australia, Kenya, Taiwan and Estonia.
Anya Sirota, an architecture professor at the University of Michigan, boiled the art’s elusive power down to “a desire for a return.” Sirota visited the Broad to check out the exhibit and join the discussion.
“It keeps cyclically tracing an impossible desire,” Sirota said. “It’s not nostalgic and it’s not Utopian. It’s something else and it’s very powerful.”
Another recent visitor to the Broad Wednesday, former curator Hesse McGraw of the San Francisco Art Institute, hadn’t seen “Metamorphic” since it was housed there two years ago. Hesse worked with Sigurdardóttir on the first round of “Metamorphic.”
McGraw has been tracking the work, as far back as its origins in Iceland, as it breaks and is pieced back together at every stop.
“It’s good to be home again,” McGraw said.
For McGraw, “Metamorphic” is more about anticipation than memory. What form will it take the next time it shatters and is rebuilt?
“It wasn’t my home,” he said. “I didn’t have that memory.”
A striking array of miniature houses, most of them incomplete or already crumbling, make up “Unbuilt Residences,” also on view at the Broad.
Sigurdardóttir built the models from blueprints of houses that were never built. She took the first one she built to the roof of her studio, threw it off and reconstructed it. She compared the process to drawing a picture, erasing it and drawing over it.
“As an artist, I’m constantly running into problems,” she said. “How do these collisions become a source of new information and new knowledge?”
She also admitted that it was “fun.”
A remarkable transformation took place when “Unbuilt Residences” and “Metamorphic” took over the Broad’s first floor in November. The enormous, mouth-like window at the west end of the gallery, a constant headache for curators, got to play a star role, as a literal window onto a room built of plaster and memories. Sigurdadóttir insisted on using the natural light, rather than covering the window.
“Rather than an artwork being placed in that space, the space itself became a part of the artwork,” Broad Museum curator Stephen Bridges said. “This is the first time I’ve seen that transformation happen.”
McGraw said the Broad is a very different space from the San Francisco Art Institute.
“The way the work inhabits this space is quite different from the way it inhabited the Brutalist architecture of the building at SFIA,” McGraw marveled. “It has a different weight, a different buoyancy.”
Sigurdardóttir was clearly pleased at working with Broad Museum architect Zaha Hadid, if posthumously.
“We’re so used to showing art in rectilinear spaces,” She said. “This building is like coming into a natural enclosure, like a cave. It’s a beautiful form, a beautiful place that has been created by a real artist, one of the most amazing artists of our times. I’m very happy with how my work sits in this space in dialogue with hers. That’s something I’ll always be thankful for.”
Free “Metamorphic,” “Unbuilt Residences,” “Namesake”
Through March 1, 2020
Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum