Mowry Baden: What is this Art Nonsense?

Imagine this: you’ve walked into a dark room, which the signs warned you to only enter one at a time, and felt your way up to the end of the small walkway. From either side, speckled white lights shine; you can feel the light slide over the peripheral of your eyes. There is a faint mechanical whirring behind the walls. After a moment alone in the dark, something shoots past you, ricocheting off the walls and down the sloped floor you cannot see: a ping-pong ball.

It’s a little terrifying and a whole lot weird, this installation piece by Mowry Baden called Ukulele. It is one of many such installations in this exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, simply titled: Mowry Baden.

Baden is a Victoria-based sculptor whose works primarily focus on kinaesthesia, or the physical, tactile awareness of the body and its motion. What this concept means for his sculptures is twofold.

One: they’re mostly interactive.

Two: a lot of them look pretty weird. Mundane-weird. Like, does-this-even-count-as-art? weird.

There are sculptures that look like forks made out of Astroturf and mop buckets cast in bronze. There’s Hopper Tender, a huge steel boot-shape which feels imposing on the outside and yet cave-like and intimate on the inside, with the walls letting in thin stitches of light. There’s even an installation that is a seatbelt bolted to the ground.

The interactive nature of Baden’s sculptures can be amusing, such as the piece that had an orange “ARTWORK OUT OF ORDER” sign taped to it. But it also brings up a discussion that is ever-occurring in Western culture: What makes good art? What constitutes art in general? Can you really call it art if you staple a seatbelt to the ground?

The simple answer is a cop out — yes and no.

Most criticism of modern art comes down to this: it is hard to understand. It’s not something you can look at and see the aesthetic worth in right away. Its understanding is inaccessible, sometimes purposefully so. I agree. Modern art has consistently kept systemic barriers of race, class, gender and more.

But, for an exhibition — modern art or not — Mowry Baden is pretty accessible, at least in terms of the concepts Baden tries to express. His sculptures seem absurd at first glance, but even skimming the informational placards defines kinaesthesia and often other terms that are important to know from piece to piece. Around the outskirts of the room are pages of sketches and explanations straight from Baden’s sketchbooks, where he writes with a straightforward, blocky hand.

Don’t get me wrong. There are accessibility limitations to Mowry Baden. The two walk-in installations are likely not built to fit wheelchairs or other mobility devices. The entire concept of kinaesthesia is complicated when people with disabilities interact with sculptures built for the abled. Just walking around the exhibition for an hour both made me dizzy and gave me a headache.

But these facts don’t necessarily make Mowry Baden less accessible than any other modern art exhibitions or even gallery spaces in general.

Like all art, Baden’s sculptures respond to the experiences we bring to them. Come looking to be frustrated and you will be frustrated. Come looking to understand and you might. That’s all art is. An attempt. It doesn’t always succeed.

As I head out, I pass a group of school-age children laughing as their friend slides around on what looks like an exercise ball stuck through an egg-shaped sheet of plastic. (It spins in a certain way when you lie on it, but is motionless otherwise.)

Hatred, adoration, art, not-art, whatever. Out of all of the exhibitions I’ve ever been to, all of the galleries, Mowry Baden is the one where I’ve heard the most laughter.

That’s worth something, in my art.

Mowry Baden will be shown at the Vancouver Art Gallery until June 9, 2019.