B.C.-based conceptual artist Mowry Baden uses perceptual psychology, science, and architecture to engage viewers to participate in his art. The Vancouver Art Gallery is featuring a 15-piece exhibition of his works that will run until June 9th, 2019.
By Ali Pitargue
“Have any of you danced with a mop bucket?” asked Mowry Baden, standing before a small crowd of journalists touring his Vancouver Art Gallery exhibit. He was introducing his 2015 sculpture, Trisector—a stainless-steel carousel with mop buckets attached on three edges; the work can be described as ‘part playground, part industrial device’, occupying almost an entire room in the gallery.
“It’s a serious question,” he quipped. Baden—a retired art professor at the University of Victoria—scanned the room as if he was assessing a lecture hall of freshmen on their first day of class. “There’s one hand. Two. Three! Good.”
He shrugged. “Mop buckets have four wheels. If you get the water out of it, it becomes very mobile. Put a mop in and it makes for a great dance partner.”
Baden walked up to one of the buckets and gave it a light knock. It clanged. The bucket is actually made of bronze. It’s heavy and difficult to spin around the carousel. These buckets don’t dance.
Interacting with Trisector was a strenuous exercise, and this was the case for plenty of Baden’s works on display at the gallery. At a glance, it gives you the impression of being playful, but once you get up close, it induces stress and unease. The art’s concept is intrinsic in the viewer’s struggle. Aesthetics and pleasure be damned.
Baden’s work aims to invoke what he calls a ‘perceptual crisis’. He intends to compromise the viewer’s reliance on their sense of vision. This necessitates active participation on the viewer’s part, as well as stepping into an enclosure created by the art. What many spectators may dismiss as everyday objects like mop buckets are actually not what they seem. Once you are led to enter the art’s enclosed space, Baden encourages you to summon your impulse to touch and hear. And often, the experience is unpleasant.
The Visual Malaise of Conceptual Art
The first floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery is usually reserved for specialty exhibits that are considered the venue’s main attraction. This year, art history junkies all over Vancouver are scouring the VAG to get a glimpse of the masters—Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, and more from the radical band of French modernists selected for the presentation. Their visually-dazzling works are first to greet you as you enter the facility.
Second on the VAG bill is an exhibit from Governor General’s Award-winner Mowry Baden, this season’s artist showcase. When you ascend the stairs to the next floor, you will likely find yourself underwhelmed by what you see. It would require you to shift gears from soaking in Monet’s vibrant pastel colours, to getting displaced by the industrial ambience of Baden’s sculptures. From a distance, it’s as if Baden had scourged the back-alley of an abandoned factory and mashed some scraps together. Mechanical contraptions, cheap mattresses, and a giant wooden box—it makes for a dull sight.
But Mowry Baden’s art does not care about your sight. In fact, the less you rely on your sight, the better. Baden is not only more concerned about triggering your other senses, but in order to truly engage with his art, he requires you to stop believing everything that you see.
Mowry Baden’s art devalues the role of the idle spectator. Instead, he attempts to stimulate the viewer psychologically by inviting them to interact with his work. He maps out an experience for the participant, and as a result, it elicits impressions that are more defined by what the viewer thought or felt, than what they saw.
“The value of the work lies in its potential to disrupt,” says Grant Arnold, the curator of Baden’s exhibit. “Even if very subtly and for a brief period of time, the habitual perceptions and misconceptions that shape the way we understand ourselves and our place in the world.”
Such is the case with most conceptual art. While previous artistic movements aim to invoke visual awe, conceptual art is more nonchalant about ‘wow’ factors. Renaissance and romanticist art movements place great importance on the splendor and grandeur of a depicted scene, often designed to grab you at first sight. Conceptual art, on the other hand, cannot be appreciated just by a fleeting glance. The subjective nature of art prevents contemporary pieces from being elevated on visuals alone. The idea and concept of the piece takes precedence, and that requires deep contemplation.
For this, we can thank a key influence of Baden’s, the French artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp helped pioneer the Dadaist movement—an artistic wave that sheds light on all kinds of nonsensical phenomena in the modern world. In the 1910s, Duchamp launched a series of works that set art critics aghast in the early 20th century; he called these works the Readymades.
With his Readymades, Duchamp took mass-produced, ordinary objects and elevated them on a pedestal. He would take a bicycle wheel, mount it on a wooden stool, and call it art just because he liked watching a wheel spin in one place. And most notoriously, in 1917’s Fountain, he turned a men’s urinal on its back and signed it himself with a false name. With this in mind, we could say that Duchamp is the ultimate poster-child for detractors of contemporary art, particularly those who dismiss it as conceptual hogwash. Otherwise, Duchamp argued that everyday objects can become art as a result of an artist’s intent to reposition and re-modify them. He said that this is an antidote to simplistic art trends that aimed to showcase purely ‘retinal art’.
Whether or not you subscribe to Duchamp’s philosophy, plenty still have, and numerous successors piggybacked off his ideas. Mowry Baden is one, and he takes it one step further. Visually banal, the effectiveness of Baden’s art hinges on integrating multiple senses and encouraging interactivity.
“The use of common materials and found objects tends to counter the conceptions of genius and mastery that are often tied to the production of art,” explains Arnold. “The familiarity of these materials can also be a way of drawing the viewer into the work.”
The most recent of Baden’s works is a small mechanical installation entitled Shingle Beach. A metal handle is affixed awkwardly on a black, circular disk that causes it to travel on top of a steel platform. When the disk moves, it creates a sound reminiscent of waves crashing on a shingle (or pebble) beach, hence its title.
Like Duchamp’s Readymades, Shingle Beach is composed of mass-produced industrial scraps. Interestingly, its handlebars are stabilized by what are commonly called ‘suicide knobs’. These now-recalled suicide knobs were formerly used for one-handed steering of an automobile. The knob is placed on top of a car’s steering wheel, but they became lethal when drivers’ clothing started getting caught in them, obstructing the driver’s ability to maneuver the car.
However, it is worthy to note how the physical representation of the object alludes to a deadly hazard, but the sound it creates evokes calming memories. Baden musters a sensory dissonance between sight, touch, and hearing.
“There’s no instrumental logic to what you’re doing,” says Grant Arnold. “[Shingle Beach] is an experience that might exist for itself. It’s not something that has a beginning or an end, where it takes you from one point to another point and achieves a particular goal. It just is.”
Machines are constructed with a desired purpose. They are carefully blueprinted to produce some sort of output to improve a process. Baden, in contrast, built a machine that serves no utilitarian value. The only purpose to it is to make your senses clash, and in the end, it produces an experience.
The Enclosed State of Mind
Above all else, Baden aims to summon an individual experience in the viewer. In particular, he attempts to invoke a feeling of enclosure, or the feeling of being en-wrapped by a defined space. In architecture, ‘enclosure’ is synonymous with the slang term, ‘building envelope’—it refers to any structure in a building that separates internal from external space.
“I’m the son of an architect, and I’m the father of one,” Baden tells the crowd. “So architecture runs deep in the family. Not surprising that I get [the skill], and that so many of my works involve this. To make a private space—you could make a work that shelters or shields.”
Alongside Trisector, the other centerpiece of the Baden exhibition is called Ukulele. A separate room at the edge of the gallery space is dedicated to the installation, but the room could not contain the cacophonous sound of ping pong balls bouncing off its walls. Baden titled this piece “Ukulele” because of this. The sound the structure makes bears resemblance to a ukulele his parents gave him as a child; the ping pong balls hitting the facade sounded like tapping the body of a small guitar.
When you enter to viewing space, you encounter a large wooden box where participants can step inside. What you will be pleased to find is how the interior of this unsightly crate is the closest thing the exhibit has to a visual feast.
As you enter the box, you step into the darkened room and the inside seems more massive than how it looked from the outside. Steadily, you make your way across a narrow walkway, where you rely on your sense of touch to feel the railings. The only light source comes from a projector emitting polka-dotted rays on the walls.
“Then ping pong balls kind of come shooting out from the darkness towards you,” explains Grant Arnold. “They won’t actually hit you, but it’s a little bit like being in outer space and watching comets and meteors fly by you. You’ll actually have a fairly instinctual response, flinching every once and a while, but you know they’re not going to hit you.”
For the viewer, this provokes a form of kinesthesia, or an awareness of one’s body position and movement. This kinesthesia is enhanced if the viewer is in a state of enclosure, both physically and mentally. For Ukulele, the space allotted for your enclosed state is larger than what the viewer would presume. This would have required a willingness to interact, and in doing so, the art activates the viewer’s other senses in supplement to their sight being overwhelmed. This exercise cancels out preconceived notions of what was inside the wooden box.
Other Baden works in the exhibit draw upon the theme of enclosure. Most notably, Cheap Sleeps Columbine and Marsupial work to cocoon the viewer in an enclosed space. The enclosure, in these cases, is a form of refuge.
Overall, this kind of practice argues that in order to maximize one’s propensity to consume art, it would be better to do so in an isolated and meditative state of mind.
Concept Over Aesthetic
Culture critic Morse Peckham once said: “A work of art is any perceptual field which an individual uses an occasion for performing the role of art perceiver.” With a piece like Trisector, the viewer not only assumes the role of an art perceiver, but their participation is integral to its effectiveness. They approach the mop bucket with an intent to dance with it, where they assume total control over an everyday object, but it turns out the object is more intimidating than they thought. They realize an object’s true value and fortitude through an anticlimactic way that strips them of pleasure.
The provocation of discomfort and confusion is the bread and butter of Mowry Baden’s art. Similarly, to his predecessors like Marcel Duchamp, he rejects tradition of aesthetic impression (or “retinal art” as Duchamp aptly worded it). There are plenty of naysayers that scoff upon the mental gymnastics required to consume contemporary art, but the absence of visual niceties opens up an alternative trajectory that is just as philosophically-salient. In contemporary artistic eras, visuals don’t cut it anymore. Artists these days stand out because they allow the concept to wield the intent of their art.