Michel de Broin, cross-disciplinary visual artist (born 1970 in Montréal, Québec). Michel de Broin has mounted many individual exhibitions on the international stage, notably at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec and at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, and has participated in several group exhibits. He has created public works of art for the cities of Rennes (Revolution, 2010), Paris (La maîtresse de la Tour Eiffel, 2009), Toronto (Overflow, 2008) and Montréal (Revolutions, 2003), among others. In 2007, he received the Sobey Art Award.
In 1995, Michel de Broin completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Concordia University, Montréal. Two years later, he obtained a master’s degree in Visual Arts from Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).
One of the underlying themes of Michel de Broin’s work is entropy: dysfunction within or resistance against established systems. Through his installations and hybrid objects, de Broin distorts the primary function of utilitarian objects in order to deliver a paradoxical and dangerous result that disrupts both the internal logic of these objects and the preconceptions that surround them. In the installation Revolution (2010), a deformed staircase twists into a complex knot, running counter to its standard function of climbing upwards. In Blowback (2013), the mouths of two cannons are joined, creating a system of self-destructive exchange that implicitly criticizes the reciprocal nature of war-based armed destruction. Works such as Bleed (2009) and Leak (2009) instill great discomfort among spectators, as de Broin brings electric elements — an electric drill and a power outlet, respectively — into contact with water. His installation entitled Anxious Stability(2014) creates anxiety by defying the laws of physics: a column of bricks, supported by only a small hydraulic cylinder and a few thin metal beams, remains improbably balanced and reaches the ceiling of the exhibition space.
In his multidimensional project Dangerous Substance (1999), de Broin attacks various urban and historiographical conventions. For his photographic series Danger Proof (1999), he illustrates an artistic intervention, driving through Montréal with an enormous black cube on the roof of his vehicle. He humorously reappropriates the image of the black diamond — symbolizing dangerous substances — that appears on road signs. Later, this same black cube appears in a gallery setting, in The Content Overflows the Context (1999), completely filling the white wall of the installation space. While de Broin’s activity driving around the city humorously defies the road signagesystem, allowing its symbols to be reappropriated, the use of the black square in the gallery — a space that is as regimented as the road — recalls the critical discourse of 20th-century Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, who wanted to do away with the order and hierarchies of the visual art world.
Through certain installations and sculptures that reverse the purpose and/or processes of everyday objects, Michel de Broin engages at times in ecological and social criticism, specifically tackling notions of consumption and waste. The installation Blue Monochrome (2003) consists of a dumpster converted into a jacuzzi. The complicated pump system calls to mind the purity of the water filling the dumpster, which itself symbolizes overconsumption and waste. Luxury, comfort, hygiene, and relaxation are set inglaring opposition to notions of filth and waste in this critique of the capitalist system, responsible for technological production that creates an illusion of cleanliness and well-being while simultaneously polluting and destroying. The title, which refers to the work of artist Yves Klein, is a sardonic nod to the legitimizing power that often comes with referencing great figures of authority.
Similarly, de Broin presents works tinged with cynicism and irony. In Keep on Smoking (2005), the artist modifies a bicycle by incorporating into it a small generator that creates smoke when the pedals are in use. The hybrid machine thereby subverts both the ecological purity of the bicycle, as a non-emitting means of transportation, and the propulsion feature of a conventional generator. Of course, the final product is still functional, but it also becomes the source of many paradoxes. For Shared Propulsion Car (2005), de Broin empties an old Buick of its internal components (motor, electrical system, transmission) and installs a pedal system so that four passengers can move the structure forward, reaching speeds of only 15 kilometres per hour. Both of these sculptures critique the constant search for optimization and performance, pushing spectators to reflect on the function of objects and structures around them as well as on the productivist dynamics that are inherent in today’s system of technological creation.
Holes and Empty Spaces
Despite the omnipresent references to technology in his work, some of de Broin’s pieces have carnal, sexual dimensions, with many works containing or evoking ambiguous orifices. In Ironie (2002), a rectangular plexiglass container houses a phallic-shaped latex membrane that swells, retracts, and then repeats the movement in the opposite direction. The repetitive movement, in spite of its mechanical and industrial nature, recalls sexual intercourse. In 2002, for the piece entitled Hole, the artist installed a smooth white toilet bowl on the back wall of a camping trailer. The cavity in this work — which is just large enough for a person to slide into and penetrate the object — is both fascinating and troubling.
The concept of the hole is exploited in a completely different way in Black Whole Conference (2006), an installation composed of 74 chairs linked together to form a colossal sphere. The chair legs point towards the outside of the sphere, creating a spiny bubble that evokes a microscopic organism magnified to an extreme size. The centre is protected and inaccessible, thereby reversing the chairs’ function. The sculpture Tortoise Cube (2012), exhibited at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art(MASS MoCA) as part of the group exhibit Oh, Canada (2013), has similar features. Made of picnic tables assembled into a spiky cube, the sculpture recalls the tortoise military formation performed by Roman soldiers, who would gather together and use their shields to form a protective shell over the battalion. While the building materials speak to a typically North American family activity, the final image oscillates between, on the one hand, inviting spectators to physically explore the work and, on the other, conveying an organized system of defence and strategic resistance. The object is itself and, also, its opposite, transformed from a utilitarian tool into an autonomous defensive weapon.