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New work by Mowry Baden like a breath of fresh air

What: Toroidal Yodel Where: Deluge Contemporary Art, 636 Yates St. When: Opening Friday, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Continues to Oct. 8 Mowry Baden’s new artwork, Toroidal Yodel, shoots doughnut-shaped slugs of air at the viewer.
Mowry Baden works on his exhibit Toroidal Yodel at Deluge Contemporary Art.

What: Toroidal Yodel
Where: Deluge Contemporary Art, 636 Yates St.
When: Opening Friday, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Continues to Oct. 8

Mowry Baden’s new artwork, Toroidal Yodel, shoots doughnut-shaped slugs of air at the viewer.

Toroidal is simply a reference to a torus, or a ring-shaped object. As for yodel, it’s just a whimsical notion. The sole sound Baden’s contraption makes is a thumping “bang!” each time air is expelled.

If you’re a Victorian, you know Baden’s public sculptures even if you don’t recognize the name. His most famous in this city is Pavilion, Rock and Shell, outside Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre. Baden also created the bed-shaped artwork Night Is for Sleeping, Day Is for Resting at the fork of Douglas and Blanshard streets.

Baden’s sculptures can be provocative (“obstreperous” is the word he uses). Night Is for Sleeping, Day Is for Resting can be interpreted as a death’s-waiting-room dig at Victoria’s retirement-haven status.

The city-funded Pavilion, Rock and Shell — an assemblage of metal pieces and granite — triggered considerable public outcry from those who prefer sculptures of distinguished citizens perched on horses or bronzes of Emily Carr and her monkey.

Toroidal Yodel consists of four small metal tables and a white object resembling an arched door. The concept is simple. You put your hands on two of the handprints on the tables and air-doughnuts shoot out from a hole in the door. You feel the blasts on your hands. They come from 10-inch speakers.

Baden likes to watch people interact with Toroidal Yodel. In an interview at Deluge Contemporary Art gallery, he invited me to try it out. It took a while to figure out what was happening. And feeling the blast of air-doughnuts was startling.

Afterwards, the 80-year-old artist, dressed in a green plaid shirt, suspenders and black jeans, imitated my reactions to Toroidal Yodel. It was like a seeing a mime of a bewildered caveman.

“There was something pretty primitive about it. I watched you. It was over in a second. But it was a precious second,” Baden said, grinning.

A major figure in the Canadian art world, Baden has an international reputation. Toroidal Yodel was constructed (with help from circuit designer Steve Bjornson) using financial support from the Canada Council and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. The latter is a special honour — the Guggenheim receives thousands of applications annually.

Baden has long been interested in the kinesthetic experience — art that requires the viewer’s physical interaction rather than passive observation. Toroidal Yodel cannot be truly experienced until we engage with it.

The work offers an element of surprise. Getting shot with air-doughnuts is an unusual experience, especially in an art gallery. In addition, the viewer isn’t sure when the invisible volleys will happen.

Baden said his aim, in part, was to avoid creating a work that was predictable or “predigested.” Art that merely confirms pre-conceptions is dull. “If somebody serves you an experience that’s immediate and abrupt and primitive, you’re grateful,” he said.

So what’s it all about? On one level, Toroidal Yodel can be viewed as a commentary on the technology tsunami that’s enveloping society. Baden said when one places one’s hands on his steel tables, they electronically vibrate in a familiar, cellphone-like manner. Yet what happens afterward is decidedly unusual, jogging the viewer out of complacency associated with the cellphone ritual.

One thing that influenced the creation of Toroidal Yodel was Shirley Turkle’s book Alone Together. A social guru featured in the New York Times and The Atlantic, Turkle suggests devices such as cellphones and laptops — although communication devices — may serve to disconnect humans from one another. Technology, suggests Turkle, is shaping our behaviour more profoundly than we realize.

Baden believes that since the invention of the mobile phone, the empathy level of the ordinary citizen has “tanked.”

“I don’t think it’s good,” he said. “But I could be just an old fart, looking at this from an advanced age, saying this is dreadful. That people collide with each other in the street while looking at their cellphones — maybe that’s good, but I don’t see it.”

Although some aspects of encroaching technology worry Baden, he keeps a sense of humour about it. Recently, his son-in-law sent him an email saying his daughter found a Pokémon character in Pavilion, Rock and Shell. Baden jokingly replied that he had an arrangement with the Pokémon character to rent the space. Instead, the character had become a freeloading squatter.

“The cheek of it,” said the artist, laughing. “The cheek.”

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