CAMBRIDGE — The first art you’ll see when you step into the Harvard Art Museums’ new Prescott Street entrance is big, bold, and contemporary.
Step onto a pedestrian bridge. To your right, Ai Weiwei’s “258 Fake,” a staggered grid of video monitors, flashes more than 7,500 still photos. To your left hovers Rebecca Horn’s installation “Flying Books Under Black Rain Painting,” one of the artist’s signature painting machines, with three books gently opening and closing. Both artists have global reputations.
That’s quite an opening salvo for an institution that has, in the past, shown a spotty dedication to contemporary art.
“We have not had much of a footprint for art of our time,” says Deborah Martin Kao, the Harvard Art Museums’ chief curator and acting head of the division of modern and contemporary art. Pointing to the museums’ mission as encyclopedic, she says, “It’s important to pay attention to art of our time, but also to find ways of connecting it to the foundation upon which it sits.”
Before the expansion, there were exhibition spaces in the Fogg Museum and Busch-Reisinger Museum dedicated to 20th- and 21st-century art, but Kao calls them “nothing, compared to the amount of square footage” now available for modern and contemporary art.
Ai’s mesmerizing video grid features photos from the Chinese conceptual artist and social activist’s blog. The Chinese government, which shut down the blog, arrested Ai in 2011 and held him for nearly three months. Each monitor captures a theme such as food, animals, architecture, and politics. The photos appear at four-second intervals. The rhythm creates a visual incantation, like the murmurings of disparate stories weaving together.
But don’t be lulled. Look to the title. Ai founded a company called “Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd.,” and “258” is his studio’s street number. In this work, Ai slyly examines how easily we take what we’re told — or see in photos — as the truth. And how easily history can be repackaged at the whim of those in power.
Horn is a canny choice for the odd space created by the pedestrian bridge, as the 70-year-old German artist makes work that is highly attuned to place.
Her piece hadn’t yet been installed during a recent visit. Lynette Roth, associate curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum, says Horn will activate “Flying Books Under Black Rain Painting” for the first visitors, Harvard students, on Nov. 5. The painting machine will spray black paint over the wall and the three books (Fernando Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet,” Franz Kafka’s “Amerika,” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” chosen for a university crowd).
“Then the painting remains and the sculptures have the memories of the motion,” says Roth. “The spray gun machine dances the dance that it dances, and the books fly like butterflies, opening and closing in their own rhythm, jolting the viewers out of passive spectatorship with motion detection.”
In addition, the exhibition “Rebecca Horn: Work in Progress,” featuring multiples, photos, and films, will be on view through May 10.
In the spring, the building’s Calderwood Courtyard will also host a major commissioned work by an artist whose name the museum won’t yet reveal.
On a lower lever is Jenny Holzer’s 1990 text piece “Untitled (C-4).” Here’s a snippet: “DISCARD OBJECTS FORGET TRUTHS DISSECT MYTH STOP MOTION.”
Other contemporary art includes Felix González-Torres’s blue text piece “Untitled (Portrait of Michael Jenkins),” as well as works by Kerry James Marshall and Robert Gober.
Ultimately, the new approach is signaled by the way Ai and Horn’s work, in the glass-fronted entryway, reaches to the street. “It looks out to the community,” says Kao. “We’re no longer a bunker looking to Harvard Yard.”
And why place contemporary art there? “In this moment,” she says, “we’re paying attention to art in our own time in a way we couldn’t before. It’s a good time to highlight that.”
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com.