PHOTOS by Henry Chan
Cindy Baker has been occupying OCAD University’s Anniversary Gallery for three days. The space itself is a small glass room with a carpeted floor inside a slightly larger room with white walls. Offering two spatial perspectives on the work, the context is odd but appropriate. From a hallway, you can look through a set of open doors to watch Baker in her aquarium. Or, you can enter the gallery and inhabit the space with her. Both offer a radically different encounter with the work.
It is difficult to write about this kind of performance because the experience of it is so largely informed by what the viewer brings to the work and their willingness (or not) to engage with the artist in the absence of a clear prompt. In light of this, I go to visit Baker on a few occasions. This time, I decide to first take a look from outside the glass box. I am greeted by a charming 7a*11d mediator who introduces the work to the curious who stop and peer through the open doors. From a distance, I watch Baker lying in her bed, alone in the room. Two people discuss the work with the attendant, reflecting on their relationships to the themes of sleep and unproductivity. Despite how on topic their discussion is, I get the urge to leave them and enter the space. I recognize that this desire is partially protective, partly demonstrative. For some reason, it is bothering me that we watch from the comfort of the hallway. It feels disproportionately safe for the work today.
I enter the space and sit close to the door, next to the puddle of pills. I can’t tell if the quantities are dwindling but they are definitely getting more scattered. I scan the room for more changes. Her cane has not moved but her suitcase, in the opposite corner, is ajar. I think she is sleeping. I quietly wait.
Last time I was here, Baker was lying on the ground on her comforter next to a body-sized round mattress. Although it felt a bit staged and awkward, I engaged Baker in some small talk. I couldn’t help it, I know her. When I finally settled, she stood and walked to the mattress, pulling the blanket onto the foam stage. She lay her chest onto the soft surface and loosely tangled herself in the comforter as she lowered the rest of her body. Face down, she caressed and gripped the edge of the mattress. The movement was dreamy and sensuous. Her nails were painted to match the pattern on the comforter. Nice detail. People came and went while she lay there, few staying for more than a couple of minutes. Then, as Baker was rolling very slowly amongst the fabric, a group of students showed up. They sat uncomfortably along the walls and watched, never saying a word as Baker went though a series of actions for them, a settling of sorts. She raised and walked around the edge of the mattress, then on the edge, foam buckling with each soft step…. She swallowed a selected handful of pills with some water…. She took her cane and poked it into the mattress, letting her weight balance on top of it… She lowered herself like before and lounged languidly… Though still casual, the movements seemed more playful than before. I left her with the crowd.
This visit, sleeping is the only action I encounter. Careful not to wake her, I reflect on the vulnerability that is tangible but that I did not expect. When a person comes in, looks around and leaves, I wonder if I am accompanying Baker or watching over her. Either way, I do not leave her side until the hallway is empty, bound to some sort of responsibility I find difficult to shake although I can’t totally understand it.