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Dean Baldwin Bids MOCCA Adieu

Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, Toronto, June 26 to August 23, 2015

If you’re moving out of your apartment and know you’re not going to get your damage deposit back, you host a big, rip-roaring party and hand out crowbars and axes as party favours. Apocalypse is in the air and nobody walks out without a stain; it’s never easy to say goodbye.

Dean Baldwin was commissioned to create the final exhibition in the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art’s Queen West location, before they begin the move to their new, permanent home in Toronto’s Lower Junction area. Since September 2014 he has been cooking up a plan to make a grotto out of MOCCA, where visitors entering the reception area would find themselves faced with changing rooms. Turning the corner would reveal a dimly lit cave filled with saltwater—handmade stalagmites, stalactites and all. For this, Baldwin and the MOCCA team had planned to jackhammer the entire floor and then dig down about four to six feet, for a shallow and deep end. It got called off three weeks before the opening for a whole list of reasons, many of which were so obvious they almost make the longstanding entertainment of the idea seem absurd (see: wheelchair accessibility).

Instead of a grotto, Baldwin created the Queen West Yacht Club (Q.W.Y.C.), a fittingly tongue-in-cheek name for the landlocked finale. Given his history of convivial space-making, Baldwin seems the consummate host. I’m hard pressed to click through documentation of any project on his website without coming across some kind of cocktail. Yes, he’s a contemporary artist, but he’s also not not an event planner.

All of the walls in the interior space of the gallery have been torn down and a 1952 Nordic Folkboat, on its side, sits in the centre. Have you ever built a ship in a bottle? Much like that task, Baldwin and the MOCCA team sectioned the boat into a few parts, made a free cut across the drywall of the main entry wall, brought the pieces through and assembled it. If the hand-cut quality of the drywall being left as-is was the first acknowledgement that the space was sauntering coolly toward its own termination, then the second was the big dent the masthead made in the heating vent. MOCCA doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously, an attitude that other major public institutions in the country could take a hint from.

Baldwin found the boat, originally built in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, on Kijiji. A husband had been keeping it as a hobby project for years until his wife got sick of looking at it. It was romantically named “Hyggelig,” a Danish word that, according to Urban Dictionary, chiefly translates to: “Cozy, home-y, delightfully intimate, a genial moment or thing, often at home with candle lights and warm blankets.” The supplies that line the inside of the upturned boat call to mind Wes Anderson’s trendy, jejune sets in their fixation with things campy and camping: books, wine, whiskey, tools, canned peaches, marmalade, limes, coolers, rope, an oyster fork, sweet pickled onions, yellow mustard, lavender talc, aluminum foil, WD-40, a bucket, a gas lantern, maraschino cherries, canned tomato juice and a fire extinguisher, to name a few. The scene is replete with a radio tuned to a 24-hour short-band, bilingual Canadian station that broadcasts to-the-minute information about climate on the water.

Where the reception desk once stood, there is now a chalet whose surfaces wouldn’t pass the marble test to measure levelness. It’s not the first time this chalet has been erected (it was originally commissioned by the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in 2011) but, as Heraclitus said, “you could not step twice into the same river.” Every time Baldwin reassembles it, it’s something else altogether. It has all the trappings of a seaside shanty, and with each reincarnation, he adds a few more things; in saying this, he points to an olive-green fridge in the aesthetic school of Boler trailers and a cooking stove from the 19th century.

Baldwin remarked that harbours tend to collect things: debris from sailors, beach bums, booze cruisers, things that gulls transplant from dumps. The artist relishes in this spirit of leftovers and detritus. Discarded objects, removed from contexts where they were plagued by expectations to behave in certain ways, have, in their inanimate innocence, a weird way of relaxing us. Baldwin’s practice doesn’t even pretend to be interested in creating objects that call for reverence from the viewer—this is an object value tied to days of old, shrugged away with the arrival of Duchamp and flung further aside with the relational practices that sprung up in the 1990s. Baldwin opts for site-specific coziness and merriment instead, getting high on shared experience, comfortably aligned with Bourriaud’s “relational aesthetics.”

Baldwin’s projects are photo-ready and shareable. They call to mind those intricately curated social scenarios that make you wonder whether the host is more keen on the company of their friends in real life or about the potential sparks that might ensue—crowd-sourced affirmations of coolness. Those involved are seen as savvy enough to be comfortable with artful disarray, elegant in their calculated haphazardness. (“Does this beach have reception? Follow my Snapchat to watch this cork pop off.”)

These scenarios can undoubtedly be beautiful, but are they sincere? Curating social interactions, when expressed as such, sounds like meddling. When time spent with other people feels good, it feels very good—dare I say precious, or worthy of reverence. Shirking an interest in precious objects and instead looking to living people to make artful encounters, Baldwin can’t help but be somewhat formulaic. It’s hard not to think about the compromised possibility for natural outcomes and sincere engagement to arise from situations that manipulate certain pulleys and levers, so to speak: the expectations can be too rich. That being said, if someone is perceptive enough to understand which details in an atmosphere make people feel a certain way—and people like it—is there really any crime in such careful calibration?

I’m happy to give Baldwin the benefit of the doubt here. Perhaps it’s tied up in the faint sound of Semisonic’s “Closing Time” in my head, or the sensual haze that comes over the summer (and the way that the exhibition meets both those moods), but I do feel a soft sentimentality seeing this boat sitting alone in the room. “Is the boat shipwrecked, or is it taking a rest before its next journey?” This and other introspective questions to do with the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next bubble to the top.

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