Artist Mowry Baden has made a name for himself by challenging the definition of sculpture and otherwise forging his own path, but he also sees art as a relatively unchanging practice.
“Art is an extremely conservative activity,” Baden said, at his home just off West Saanich Road.
“You know, we don’t really add very much. We do the same thing over and over again, generation after generation. It looks different, it takes different forms, but really, the same deal is going on.”
And yet, he said, what each of us knows about life and existence can’t be shared without it.
“It’s locked up in you and it’s locked up in me. We can’t bridge that — except through art. Then, suddenly, we both know what we both knew all along. And it unites us. Without art, we’re stranded in our isolation.”
Baden, 78, is the kind of person who leans in and takes long pauses, seeming to choose his words before releasing just a few at a time. An old journalism trick is to let a silence linger — the person you’re interviewing is sure to fill it. Baden let a full 12-second silence hang in the air without flinching. He has a bookshelf lined with Beckett, but he also drops words like “bummer.”
Baden was born in California and moved to Victoria in 1979, teaching at the University of Victoria for 25 years. Some of his artwork has drawn the ire of observers uncomfortable with abstraction, as with his publicly commissioned sculpture Pavilion, Rock and Shell, at the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre.
But on a broader stage, Baden has received accolades.
Early on, his work was included in an exhibition called New Talent at the Museum of Modern Art in 1960.
Most recently, he was one of only two Canadian artists to be recognized with a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, valued at $55,000 US.
Baden was happy to receive it.
“Well, it never happens to anyone, so it’s pretty exciting,” he said.
Connection and isolation are some of the big themes that seem to run through the sculpture proposal that won him the fellowship. Like most of his works, this as-yet-untitled one incorporates its audience as active participants.
But for the first time since 1970’s Seat Belt, this one will involve two participants, instead of one.
Although still a working idea subject to change, Baden’s plans involve seating two participants in chairs facing one another. Invisible vortices of air — like simulated smoke rings — will be pointed at each person, giving the sensation of touch. It will feel like a moth on your cheek or a light touch through your clothing, he said.
Essentially, Baden’s idea is to have two people have the same experience, but without the usual “same-thing props.”
“A same-thing prop would be, let’s you and I go to the movies. Or let’s listen to the same piece of music. Or let’s eat the same food,” he said.
“In this case, the same thing is a haptic experience. It’s a physically felt experience, where something that’s external to both parties touches both of them identically.”
Still in the research phase, Baden is consulting two robotics experts to learn about vortex construction. Alex Rothera works for Disney Research in Italy, while Sidhant Gupta works at Microsoft and the University of Washington in Seattle. He expects to complete the piece in a year’s time.
Baden compared the creation of the vortex to the composition of music.
“It’s kind of adaptable to the same parameters that you would expect to find in music. You have attack and decay. You have frequency and infrequency. You have more thrust or less, bigger or smaller,” he said.
“I’m not interested in it really unless one can make it a variegated experience, you know, one that evolves over time the way a piece of music does.”
Although the haptic — or felt — experience is at the centre of the sculpture, an extra layer that interests Baden is that of language.
“I want both parties to experience the same thing, but they don’t know it,” he said.
“I think they could probably zero in on it using language, as a counter-check, which in itself is interesting. Don’t you think?” he said.
“They start gossiping and comparing notes. ‘This happened to me. Did it happen to you? Did you feel that?’ It’s this language layer that can lay over top.”
There was a time, early in his career, when the only participant in Baden’s sculptures was himself. Now, observing how people interact with his pieces is key to his understanding of the work.
“It’s essential. It’s a laboratory,” he said.
“I used to be the laboratory. I’d just use my own body and I started out by making experiences that were just for me. And consequently, they were somewhat limiting in terms of the audience that they could reach,” he said.
His studio, located down a garden path at the back of the house, feels part-workshop, part-lab. Baden introduces some of his other pieces — a steel and rubber work called Russian Thistle, recently returned from a show at Toronto’s Diaz Contemporary, looks like stacked trollies. Pushing it from one end gives you a difference sense of momentum from pushing the other.
Toying with sensory perception is a common thread in many of his works. On his desk is a box-like construction. When you put your hands in it, a mirror angled on top of your left one reflects your right, confusing the brain about which hand is moving.
A piece of headgear by artist Catherine MacLean — which gave inspiration to the pair’s collaboration on Tender Trepanation — gives a mild sense of vertigo or drunkeness.
Baden watches attentively for reactions to each piece and brightens when he hears how someone else experienced the work, responding with affirmations such as: “Yes, that’s very good. Very, very good.”
After making works for himself, Baden said he reached a point where he could design works for a broader population.
“And then, of course, you want to watch very carefully and see exactly what they’re doing. If they talk about it afterward, you learn a great deal, too,” he said.
But not everything can be taken at face value.
“You can be bamboozled, because language is a slippery thing. Oh — and people lie, too. People say things for effect, which really are over and above or separate from the physical experience they just had. So it’s pretty rich.”
It’s part of a lifelong preoccupation with involving the whole viewer, Baden said. Not just the aloof viewer, who enters the gallery with her hands tucked behind her back, studying a static object, whose thoughts are unknown. But one who, when set in motion, you can learn a “great deal about.”
And what does he hope participants might get if they sit in a chair and feel the vortex? If anything, he hopes, a heightened sensibility.
“I’m pretty sure it won’t be overwhelming or, you know, physically strong. It will more likely be quite subtle. So I think that attentiveness — or maybe an unusual level of attentiveness — might descend on the sensitive viewer, who comes to it with a pretty well-developed state of curiosity,” he said.
“I always think the most profound experiences are the ones that occur within. Don’t you?”