Crossing the Thresholds of art with Michel de Broin

Michel de Broin has

Montreal’s Michel de Broin makes the ordinary extraordinary. He uses the most quotidian of items to make us look differently at things we otherwise hardly look at at all.

De Broin is best known in Ottawa for his sculpture Majestic, set out back of the National Gallery of Canada. He salvaged steel light poles that had been torn up by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and arranged them into what looks like the skeleton of a big polyhedron — 12 metres big. It speaks to how even our strongest steel can be flattened by nature’s wrath, and how empathy for others helps to heal us. When lit up in the darkness Majestic is marvellous to behold, in its own way a quiet symphony of salvage.

Now there’s another de Broin in town, in the ground-floor lobby gallery at 150 Elgin St., below the offices of the Canada Council for the Arts. Its title is Thresholds, and it’s an assemblage of doors removed from decommissioned subway cars that were used on the Montreal Metro system since 1963.

Again, he’s made art that prods us to reconsider the banality of the ordinary, the ubiquitous technology that we use every day, just like the screen you’re reading on and the keyboard I’m typing upon.

Michel de Broin. Photo: Peter Simpson

“We have no idea how much engineering is involved in everything around us,” de Broin says, as the dozen or so doors clatter open and shut while two technicians work on the relatively archaic mechanisms. “The moment when you take something that is used by society and try to transform it and produce something, you realize how complicated it is.” (Add the extra challenge of connecting 1960s’ door hardware to a modern controller with microprocessors. “It’s like connecting a steam machine to a computer.”)

The technicians succeed and the doors go quiet, waiting for a passerby to walk through. I step up and immediately date myself by thinking of the opening sequence of the TV series Get Smart, in which Agent 86 walks through several sets of automatic doors on his way to the underground headquarters of CONTROL.

The pop culture reference is not out of bounds. De Broin’s 2003 installation Superficial was a giant sculpture covered in mirrors and set in a French forest, like some sort of special effects device for the alien hunter movies Predator. His sense of humour can be topical, as in 2017 when he built a soccer pitch bedevilled by walls for AXENÉO7’s Endless Landscape exhibition in Gatineau, and titled it Make Soccer Great Again, and it can be delightfully absurd. In 2002 he built a convoluted bike path and an adjacent yellow sign with an accurate pictogram of the path, as if the sign could be helpful with a path so hopeless.

De Broin too remembers the Get Smart sequence, and smiles and says, “There are many ways to think of the experience.” He runs his fingers along his neck and refers to the muscles that push down food, and the other muscles and processes that push that sustenance through our bodies. He also mentions the feeling of standing between two mirrors, and seeing your own reflection as infinity.

Or, he says as I step up to the plate (literally, there’s a sensor plate beneath the floor panels), seeing the doors open and close around you feels like being in a film where you can see each individual frame moving past you.

I found the greatest sensation in being aware of the doors being aware of me. A door automatically opening is nothing new, but stack them together and the effect becomes more pronounced, as there’s always a door closing immediately behind you and another door opening in front of you. Getting to the end was both a relief and a pleasure.

Standing outside the installation and watching it work is somewhat hypnotic. Each door has its own motor with a metal arm attached, and they

open and close, again and again, for hours and years, each metal arm bending back and forth, back and forth. It’s like watching an oil derrick pumping on the horizon, or like being lulled by slow-moving metronome.

On the lobby wall next to the doors is a light box with de Broin’s large photograph of the Metro’s Jean Talon station. Three large, blank advertising boards dominate the brightly lit space, and without ads the boards could be mistaken as abstract expressionist paintings. How sad to think they’d be covered in ads.

The photo complements the subway doors, for obvious reasons, and the light box makes it even more effective. The illumination recreates the bright, institutional light of such a practical public space.

Thresholds continues to June 9, and is free to see in the lobby at 150 Elgin.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.