The record for the world’s largest disco ball belongs to the Belgian impresario Raf Frateur, who, according to Guinness World Records, raised a mirrored orb 7.35 metres in diameter at a nightclub in Antwerp in 2007. In the disco universe, this must have been a night to remember. Yet Frateur’s mirrored ball was eclipsed—albeit unofficially—only two years later by the Montreal artist Michel de Broin.
During Nuit Blanche in Paris on the evening of October 4, 2009, de Broin unveiled a 7.5-metre disco ball, covered in 1,000 mirrors and held 60 metres in the air by a crane in front of the palatial French senate building in the Jardin du Luxembourg.
Powered to revolve by motor, La Maîtresse de la Tour Eiffel (2009) was spotlit from below by air raid–style searchlights that set vast shards of reflected light dancing across the sprawling sculpture gardens and onto the facade of the senate building, and, most impressively perhaps, created a shifting starscape that could be seen across the night sky.
The work was immensely popular. The line-up to enter the garden lasted more than two hours and, by de Broin’s estimate, at least 100,000 people saw the work up-close over the course of the night—not to mention the countless others who would have seen the sky lit up from anywhere else in the city. The mayor of Paris was on hand and later sent de Broin a personal letter of congratulation. Requests to show La Maîtresse in other cities— from Winnipeg to Rio de Janeiro—haven’t stopped coming since.
For all the glittering spectacle and public-art frenzy surrounding the work, de Broin remains down-to-earth and pragmatic—if a little poetic—in accounting for his mirror-ball triumph. “Paris is known as the City of Light. But because of the light, we don’t see the sky,” he says. “It is also a city of philosophical movements, like Les Lumières. Philosophers started to think while looking at the sky, but now there’s too much light. I wanted to recreate the sensation of the sky. We need to see the stars. That’s how we start to think.”
The inclination to talk about the tensions between light and dark, inside and outside, the personal and the universal—all mixed with a philosophical edge, a utilitarian humour and an abiding concern for public engagement— came up time and again when I met de Broin in Montreal this past August. Now 41, he had recently returned to the city after spending much of the past six years in Berlin, Paris and London. This summer, he was renovating a house in the Mile End district, a property once backed by a clothing sweatshop, which de Broin has redesigned into a spacious two-storey studio complex.
The months ahead would be busy. Soon, he would be off to install a major new public-art project, which would be presented in parallel with the second edition of the Prospect New Orleans biennial opening in October. After that, it would be back to Paris for two exhibitions and to England for another. De Broin had just learned that he’d won two new large-scale public commissions—one for the new Sheridan College campus in Mississauga and another in Berlin near the Reichstag federal parliamentary buildings. Shows in Brazil and Turkey and an appearance in the “Oh, Canada” survey exhibition at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, were also in the offing. He was living the life of an artist in demand.
Things have moved with growing momentum since the late 1990s, when de Broin first emerged as a leading light on the Quebec and Canadian contemporary-art scenes. From gallery shows to major public-art projects, he has made a name for himself by reimagining the common denominators of everyday life in absurdist and often subversive terms. In Entrelacement (2001), a knotted bike path leads riders on a dizzying maze-like trajectory. In Blue Monochrome (2003), he transformed a garbage dumpster into a luxury hot tub for adventurous gallery audiences. In Black Hole Conference (2006), he reconfigured mass-produced office chairs into a looming, spherical test of board-room hierarchies. And, perhaps most famously, in Shared Propulsion Car (2005), he converted a classic gas-guzzling Buick Regal into a pedalpowered road vehicle that landed him in a Toronto courtroom, defending the distinction between a bicycle and a motor vehicle. (He won the case.)
De Broin’s art sets the world around us askew. His works act as what we might call perceptual resistors—objects that both rely on and reject existing systems of thought and expectation. They are and are not what they seem, and it is in this logic-defying middle ground that meaning rises to the surface. “For me, it’s poetic when you have resistance and power working together creating ‘heat’ that escapes from the system. It’s a kind of spiritual moment where much of my work begins,” says de Broin. “It’s the thing that escapes out of the system that shows there is a possibility to go beyond what is given.”
That underlying drive to take his practice beyond what is given might explain de Broin’s reasons for moving to Europe just as his Canadian art career was hitting its stride. He cites the ongoing strain of producing complex, technically demanding works on what were often modest artist-run centre budgets. On top of that, there seemed to be a lack of significant institutional interest (with the exception of a 2006 solo exhibition at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, where he produced a jet engine–like sculpture among other works based on conspiracy theories about the September 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon). By the early 2000s, de Broin was ready to “escape” to bigger possibilities across the Atlantic.
His first major museum solo show was presented at the Villa Merkel gallery in Esslingen, Germany, in 2002; in 2006, he spent a year at Berlin’s Künstlerhaus Bethanien as part of a Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec exhibition residency. By 2007, when de Broin won the Sobey Art Award—a pivotal achievement for any young Canadian artist—he had been abroad for nearly two years and had a number of solo shows at private galleries in Germany and France under his belt, and more in the works.
“My first solo show was in Germany and my first catalogue was produced in Germany. I could really feel that there was a certain interest in my work there,” says de Broin. “That’s the funny thing; really fast I became a ‘Berlin’ artist. I had great opportunities and made good friends. People there were really curious about my work and I could feel there was a good exchange. Of course, there are more opportunities in Europe because there is a bigger population, more money and more interest in art. But at the same time I could feel that this was not my place. I liked it very much, but I was always in a kind of struggle of whether I should stay or go.”
De Broin began to realize that his nagging uncertainty about fitting into the European art model might offer an explanation for his welcome reception there. “I think that North Americans have more space and less history,” he says. “It is probably something about being from a young country. People here are not afraid of making things without specialized training. I learn from trial and error, and don’t feel as much the pressure from history. I try not to have that stress; instead, I allow myself more freedom of creating.”
So, instead of worrying, de Broin moved from Berlin to Paris. In 2008, in an auspicious turn, he was featured in “Reciprocal Energy,” a solo show at the Musée d’art contemporain du Val-de-Marne, outside of Paris. His installation, which included a model proposal for a liposuction clinic/gas station designed to transform human fat into automobile-grade fuel (according to de Broin, “It makes really good diesel, more powerful than diesel made from petrol”) was a surprise hit. The exhibition’s curator, Alexia Fabre, booked de Broin for Nuit Blanche, where he would wow Paris with La Maîtresse.
De Broin has continued to think big. Before returning to Montreal, he completed a major commissioned project at the historic Couvent des Jacobins in Rennes, France, that looked back to Révolutions (2003), an earlier public-art installation that turned his hometown’s signature curved staircases into a towering, knotted sculptural mass. The new work, Révolution (2010), went a step further: viewers were invited onto a massive 40-metre-long raw-steel staircase that climbed and descended in a looping course in which notions of beginning and end, progress and result remain pointedly undetermined. “There’s something about it; it’s strange,” de Broin says of the experience of walking the stairs. “It’s like you are going up and down, searching for something…searching for yourself, in a way.”
De Broin’s latest work may well deliver another Paris-like coup. Created to show in concert with Prospect.2 New Orleans this fall, the work, Majestic (2011), is a monumental star-shaped sculpture constructed from a motley assortment of street lamps of various sizes and shapes, all savaged after Hurricane Katrina. Spearheaded by the Toronto curators Rhonda Corvese and Laurel MacMillan as the inaugural project for their The Third of May Arts Inc., the work was two years in the making and included, among other logistical challenges, a nail-biting session of online bidding for the street lamps. (Somewhat mysteriously, Corvese and MacMillan faced some hectic, last-minute competition.) The planned site also changed just as de Broin arrived in New Orleans in early September to assemble the piece. Majestic is located at 1013 Common Street in the Central Business District. “This is downtown New Orleans, very close to the French Quarter,” says MacMillan. “The site is a raw-looking vacant lot. Michel was specific that he did not want a manicured site; he wanted the sculpture to look a bit incongruous, as if it had somehow just landed there. It will definitely turn heads.”
In the end, the piece seems to be as much alien spaceship as urban history monument. Featuring an array of light beams projecting both into the sky and back in toward the star’s core, Majestic extends de Broin’s fascination with the illuminative possibilities of light and dark, while the light standards themselves attest to design changes wrought over the past century. Installed, as de Broin describes it, “between a half-demolished building in the centre of town in a wasteland full of garbage,” the work presents an unexpected jumbling of past and future as well as a very immediate record of hurricane devastation. For de Broin, however, Majestic is about more than destruction. “You could say it’s all about transformation,” he says. “It’s taking things that were lying down and energizing them by putting them together in a way that creates something powerful and new. Like a storm.”
Discover more art by Michel de Broin at canadianart.ca/debroin