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Mowry Baden Reels In PCMA Visitors

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Yi Zhang

“Can I touch it?” visitors asked museum guard Erin Hoey SC ’16 at Pomona College Museum of Art's Mowry Baden: Dromedary Mezzanine, a new installation donated by the artist to the permanent collection. Whereas most artists would be furious with finger oils damaging the integrity of their pieces, the colossal art piece by Mowry Baden PO '58 demands audience participation. Viewers are asked to step up onto a platform where they can rotate a crank to turn the front wheel, which moves the entire machine in a circle. 

PCMA senior curator Rebecca McGrew highlighted Dromedary Mezzanine’s ability to engage the viewer in a physically immersive experience. 

“Because they require the viewer’s bodily participation, Baden’s interactive works demonstrate his interest in a physical and perceptual exchange between the viewer and the work of art," she said in an email to TSL. "I would also say, very simply, that it is more rare than not to be able to interact with an artwork in a museum setting.” 

Baden served as an assistant professor and the acting chair of the Pomona art department from 1968 to 1971. 

“He was instrumental in helping establish Pomona College as a key site for some of the most avant-garde art in the country in the late sixties and early seventies," McGrew wrote. 

According to his website, Baden asks his “viewer to enter the object (or the space) and have an experience that is visceral, internal, and sensorially cross-circuited.” Baden's work generally establishes kinesthetic intimacy with those who want to thoroughly experience his art, bringing viewers into a physical position that forces them to pay attention to every detail of the piece.

Yet Baden's emphasis on kinesthetic intimacy and audience interaction can pose a challenge for some viewers. 

Hoey, who was instructed not to provide guidance to visitors regarding the piece, said, “Most people give up really easily, and they are often very uncomfortable with touching the art piece.” 

The piece features steps that lead to a platform control center, where viewers can turn a crank attached to the front wheel. The perpendicular alignment of the front and back wheels appears to drive the machine in endless circles, taunting visitors as they try to move toward tents hung from the ceiling on opposite ends of the room. The difficulty of guiding the machine is an important part of the viewer's interaction with the piece.  

Art major Sana Khan PO ’17 said that her understanding of the piece would be enhanced by discussing it with other students. 

“It would be cool to talk about this piece with our friends who are in engineering classes and get their perspectives on how the machinery works,” she said.

Khan's acknowledgment of the seeming disconnect between the art and mechanics of Dromedary Mezzanine points to the piece's interdisciplinary nature. Its physical multi-dimensionality may engage physics or engineering students differently than art students; each person’s interaction with the Dromedary Mezzanine alters the piece. 

McGrew discussed Baden's enduring influence. 

“Baden is interested in rewarding curiosity, and expanding what we think of art, and how we think of art," she wrote. "In my years of working with many different artists, Mowry has had the most lasting and significant presence.”

Dromedary Mezzanine will be on display at PCMA through April 13. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 12 to 5 p.m. and from 5 to 11 p.m. on Thursdays for Art After Hours. 

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