A recent exhibition of works by west coast sculptor Mowry Baden presents three sculptures, three drawings and five maquettes. The sculptural works are the central elements of this exhibition and continue this artist’s longstanding concern with one of the most difficult practical challenges in the realm of art making: that is, the aim of incorporating the viewer’s bodily participation in the work. He makes work for people to walk in, sit on, lie on, pedal or perform with. Like much contemporary sculpture, the critical context for Baden’s work is its relationship with architecture and social space. Since his approach is influenced by the phenomenological perspective which emphasizes the primacy of perceptual experience, his sense of both bodily and social space is based in the nation of “lived space” and intersubjectivity. (Many of his works involve the experience of a viewer being viewed while viewing.)
The three sculptural pieces in this exhibition incorporate a common material theme – the use of mattresses. In two works, the mattresses in question are more or less standard, commercially available models, while in the third, the mattresses are custom-made miniature versions, perhaps one-half scale. This mattress theme sets the tone for the show; comic and unexpected, there is an air of the ridiculous which undermines the authority and distance which usually accompanies the gallery situation. This use of the everyday counters the conventional ordering of art into “high” and “low” and this is related to the overcoming of a “high” art prejudice: for we know that “high” art is not to be walked on or played with and Baden anticipates that many viewers will do both with his works. Nevertheless, the seriousness of the works is maintained by their formal sophistication, their technical competence and their artistic wit.
Of the three sculptures, one struck me as being perhaps the more precise both in its operations and as a representative of Baden’s concerns. This is the 1994 work titled I Can See The Whole Room. Located by itself in a small room, this piece includes a typical mattress resting on a metal bowl which is larger than the mattress and so protrudes over its sides. An aluminum framework positions a sheet of glass over the area usually occupied by the headboard and pillows. There is space between the glass and the mattress. The foot area of the mattress is covered with a protective clear plastic strip and it is this more than anything which signals an invitation to test out the mattress, to lie on/in the sculpture. This means sliding in under the glass at which point we discover that the glass is half-silvered so that it reflects while maintaining transparency. Of course, the mattress rocks on its bowl, setting up a complex set of perceptions regarding the room, its stability and our familiar ways of defining inside and outside. The reflective/transparent surface locates my reflection in the room and the room within the reflected image of myself. And this unusual set of relationships is further complicated by the fact that movement of the whole can be orchestrated from the lying position on the mattress.
This work explicitly invites bodily interaction on the part of viewers. This bodily interaction is of at least two sorts: one in which I become involved as the observer of another person “trying out” the work, and another where I try out the work myself. In both roles we are potentially subject to being the object of the other’s gaze, although it does seem to privilege one side as observer and one as observed. This is likely due to the body positions, one vertical and one horizontal. Horizontal because the nature of the work invites us to recline on the mattress which is a central physical part of the work. For a strong appreciation of the work it is essential that we participate or take up the positions indicated by the work. This seems not unlike the demands made by most work although here the invitation, or prescription if you like, is foregrounded because of its unconventionality and because participatory art has a history of difficulty based on our cultural predisposition for the “stand back and look at it” attitude. It is this distance and privileging of the passively contemplative stance in art that Baden’s works ask us to re-consider. These interactive works are also eventually reflective, however, in the sense that the experience must be integrated into some consideration of the phenomena revealed and conceptualized according to issues of context. For example, in I Can See The Whole Room, the explorations of the room/sculpture eventually might lead to my relating my perceptual experience of this one room to architecture’s role in social organization, or to the relationship of my (present) perceptual experience to learned or sedimented orders of organization, embedded in what Maurice Merleau-Ponty would call my habit body.
Baden’s artistic impulse is optimistic, utopian and critical in the sense that it delimits our metaphysics (the West). His work’s function seems to be, in a general sense, to destabilize our habitual (dualistic) environmental relationships in such a way that we must be present, that is, in the lived, creative present, making sense of perceptual phenomena “as they are,” rather than through the mediations of our learned responses. So the work is always experience oriented and points toward critical authenticity and responsibility as an ethic.
In a text available from the gallery are comments of Baden’s which I found helpful but potentially misleading. Baden says, “My idea of a good sculpture is one that operates in the present.” He also remarks:
Rooms are good for evoking the present because they close out the rest of the world. They are what they are, and when you put a sculpture in a room and the sculpture is about perceiving the room as it is, than you have an experience that is confined to the present.
For me, the use of the term “present” could be misleading, suggesting the culturally prevailing notion of the present as it would be defined in the context of measurable, “scientific,” or Aristotelian time, a succession of isolated instants in linear sequence. I do not think this is the sense of “present” Baden’s works propose. Rather, I think that the present his works rely on is that of experienced temporality, a time which is identical with embodied subjectivity itself and which spreads and emerges according to the subject’s praxical involvement in circumstance, a time in which any moment is potentially filled with or connected to every other moment. The present of the isolated instant is the time of alienation, the time of industrial culture, and this would not at all be consistent with the sense of time as lived time implied in these sculptures.
Baden is at moments a romantic, longing for a time when art and science were one. His dedication is to the alchemist’s ideal of an interaction between the two domains. If Constructivism was for Baden a formative milieu, his works undertaken with the ambition of healing the mind/body split add a corrective to Constructivism’s rationalist bias. If Baden’s sculpture asserts the importance of the “present,” it is not the present that is understood within the culturally dominant notion of objectified time as a linear succession of instants but, rather, the present defined as “a process of beginning over.” This radically experiential tendency also contributes to the particularly practical, pedagogical spirit of Baden’s works.