Two New Exhibitions at Vancouver Art Gallery Interrogate Perception

Cheap Sleeps Columbine, 1994; Photo Credit: Tara Lee

As spring break comes to a close, now might be the perfect time to catch two innovative exhibitions that are currently at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Mowry Baden and Displacement are intertwined exhibitions that really engage with visitors, questioning what they take for granted and assume to be true.

Running until June 9, 2019, Mowry Baden at the Vancouver Art Gallery focuses on the work of the Victoria-based artist from the 1960s to the present. This is the first survey exhibition of the prolific artist and educator (Baden taught at the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria) who specializes in sculpture and installations that involve the visitor in reconfigured versions of the everyday.

The multi-roomed exhibition features many pieces that require active participation, inviting visitors to touch, turn, play around with, and sometimes attach themselves to Baden’s creations.

A quintessential Baden work involves nothing more than a Seatbelt (1970), a deceptively simple artistic trick. One end of the belt is attached to the ground and the other is fastened around the visitor’s waist. Like the point of a compass forced to create a constrained circle, the visitor must consider both the limits and possibilities of their body: how it moves, leans, and traces its path again and again (although never in quite the same way). As Baden explains his works: “The payoff comes in the physical interaction.”

Photo Credit: Tara Lee

A running theme through much of Baden’s work (he attributes this to the architectural backgrounds of his family members) is the idea of enclosure, the structures used for shelter/shielding. Baden connects with this yearning, while also questioning and destabilizing it. What he creates are uneasy homes.

Ukulele (2011), for example, from the outside seems like an unfinished wood structure for inhabiting, save for the alarming racket that is coming from within it. Once inside, the visitors find themselves in a dark room, limited to a path through the space. Flashing lights disorient–and worse still ping pong balls ricochet around, invoking involuntary flinching even as they continually miss. “The body is seeking vertical,” explains Baden, as both the light and the balls “provoke instability.”

Baden explaining Ukulele; Photo Credit: Tara Lee

The other pieces within the exhibition perform similar destabilizing work, whether it is a gazebo of repurposed flowery mattresses (Cheap Sleeps Columbine, 1994), an acoustic work Shingle Beach (2018) with no apparent purpose in its shifting and contorting of the body, or the very reflective Calyx (2008) that inverts and encloses the viewer within its gaze, minutely adjusting itself to the dimensions of the one standing before it.

Shingle Beach; Photo Credit: Tara Lee

A concurrent exhibition is Displacement, also running until June 9, 2019, which involves work from the VAG’s collection and is in conversation with Mowry Baden. It brings together a diversity of artists, including Holly Ward, Myfanwy Macleod, and Sonny Assu, who work to “displace,” or shift the attention or sense of normalcy/complacency of the viewer in various ways.

Sweaters are familiar, unthought of things that are pulled out of drawers and put on in a rush. Winnipeg artist Aganetha Dyck in Eaton Triplets (1976-1981) spotlights them by displacing them doubly: first, shrinking them repeatedly in the washing and drying cycle until they become aesthetically doll-like, and, secondly, moving them into a gallery space where they are viewed, as opposed to worn.

Photo Credit: Tara Lee

Ken Lum’s piece Untitled (Red Circle) (1986) looks, at first, like an inviting red couch until the viewer realizes there is no point of entry, that the seating actually excludes the one who wishes to sit down.

Photo Credit: Tara Lee

Two particularly provocative contributions to the exhibitions are from Jayce Salloum and Sonny Assu. The former’s work Kan ya ma Kan (There was and there was not) (1988-98) is an excerpt from a larger body of work that examines the artificial/constructed depiction of Lebanon and its history. Formed like an archive, this mixed media installation forces the visitor to interrogate the truth, the veracity of documents, and the process of assembling meaning from scattered fragments.

Photo Credit: Tara Lee

Assu’s work Leila’s Desk (2014) speaks to Canada’s colonial past and present in its reclaiming of desks from residential schools, in this case a desk that Assu’s grandmother might have sat at during her time at an “Indian Day School.” The box of Lifebuoy soup on its lid connects to a “Dirty Indian” racist prank that she experienced when she attended public high school for the first time. Assu displaces this desk to the Gallery where the visitor can reflect on histories of mistreatment and prejudice within Canada.

Photo Credit: Tara Lee

Overall, both exhibitions are interactive and engaging journeys that dismantle assumptions and easy answers.

Further information can be found on-line.

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