To know what our neighbor knows takes some doing. Reading the same newspapers and fitting our bodies to the same machines gives some comfort, but the isolation persists…. people try to explain to one another what happens inside the spectacle and inside their own bodies. This is more than a distraction. On a good day, the machine's authority dwindles. Only the impulse to tell the way through a crisis remains.
For a few days during the installation period for Mowry Baden’s exhibition at Diaz Contemporary, a mountain of cerulean blue wooden crates, each bearing a white stencil reading " WORKS OF ART " appears inside the gallery's street level garage window, all but completely obstructing the view into the room. This stack of boxes with contents so declared feels sculpturally analogous to a trailer for a movie. Portending the appearance of artworks, it supplants the curiosity of arty passersby with a glimpse that nevertheless maintains all its best kept secrets. Thwarted looky loos will have to wait for the crates to find their way into storage before a peek through the same window reveals the nature of what Baden's exhibition invitation describes matter of factly as Three Sculptures.
The works of art, uncrated are assembled into a triangular arrangement of ergonomically scaled floor standing sculptures. Each has the curious appearance of a hybrid form deriving at once from both a space station and a gymnasium. Materially all steel and plastic, with the odd ever so subtly humming, moving part, the sculptures gleam with a kind of retrograde future presence in the powdery white gallery space. There are absolutely no textual instructions or directions as to how these machines of dubious classification might be used or what they might do - confounding for a viewer/onlooker in the stand back and contemplate sense of the word. But a level of persistence in this state of relative uncertainty reveals that there is another, more tactile approach on offer.
One prompted to climb, for example using the toe holds in the conical metal base of Now Iguana, may find himself resting on an armature with a seat for the buttocks plus adjustable rests for the chin and pelvis in a limb dangling moment of suspended elevation. A second point in Baden's tripartite constellation is a piece called Prone Gyres. In this floor hugging work an arm supports a low platform in the shape of a truncated massage table. Operating a bit like a motorized lazy Susan, it allows a viewer to lie prone and use his or her own weight to propel the body through minor whorls of motorized gyres – an experience kindred to a ride on a lily pad engineered for a human being.
The invitation to climb is more pronounced in Baden’s larger and arguably more spectacular Tender Trepanation, (pictured above) which invites the viewer up a short flight of stainless steel steps to a platform where a cushioned, gently torpedo shaped seat scores cyclic patterns in the floor as it maintains its upright balance. Beside this a small table continuously rotates. On the table rests special white plastic tubular headgear - the proposal being to don the visor which is filled with water while sitting in the subtly gyrating chair. This "vision decentering" work proffers a very quiet phenomenal experience - an acute awareness of the spine balancing from the base of the tailbone with hips appended - all the way up to its cranial hinge. Sporting an absolutely beautiful grill of pinkish iridescent hexagons which hold the reflections of onlookers like elegant, gasoline rainbow mirrors to the future, Tender Trepanation also endows the seated viewer with the aspect of the psychic commander of a space deck.
It is an impressive reward, to be transformed via sculpture into nothing more nor less than a limb dangler, a lily pad surfer, the commander of a space deck … and one that doesn’t really lend itself to a mannered or self conscious contemplative step backward. Acting on the impulse to pick such a plum is more challenging for some than others. An artist at the opening tells me she can’t try out any of Baden’s works because, (dressed in a skirt) she is wearing the wrong clothes! Baden’s uniquely imaginative sculptures tinker like an existential thought project with the desire to maintain objective distance from art objects. And this tinkering effectively disputes the safety of that stance, pulling viewers beyond their acquired visual habits, through a state of initial skepticism or uncertainty into a proximity that is more akin to an embrace. In such a space, suppositions as to how to look at works of art and what constitutes sculpture often meet with deposition as the tactility of entrusting one’s weight to a strange armature engenders the awareness of other urgent things like say, balancing, breathing and the sound of one’s own heart beat.
"Three Sculptures" is on view September 9 - October 14, 2006 at Diaz Contemporary in Toronto.
All images are courtesy of the artist and Diaz Contemporary.