Whether building a surveillance tower in a corporate office, constructing the top of a mine shaft on a wooden deck, or creating a bridge out of castoff lumber in a white-cube gallery, Canadian artist Cedric Bomford—often working in collaboration with his brother, Nathan Bomford—is becoming well-known for large-scale installations that engage and provoke. With one installation recently wrapped up in Nanaimo, another currently up at MOT Projects in London, and an exhibition of photographs just about to open at the Esker Foundation in Calgary, there’s growing interest in his work. Here, the BC-bred, Winnipeg-based artist talks about Prague subways, Berlin checkpoints and the power of overlooked structures.
Q: You work in photography—such as the prints that are being exhibited at the Esker Foundation in Calgary this winter—but are also well known for large-scale, collaborative sculptural installations like the one currently on view at MOT Projects in London. How would you describe the connection between these practices?
A: I’m not exactly sure! They play off each other a lot. My practice right now involves a kind of moving back and forth between photography and installation.
The photos at the Esker I did in Prague 10 years ago. And somehow, still, they are the backbone of my practice; they keep coming up.
One of the structures that we built in London is loosely modelled one of the photos I shot in Prague, and the installation I built at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien in 2010 had a direct structural relationship to some of the photographs, too.
Q: So maybe the photos at the Esker are a good place to start. How would you describe them?
A: They are black and white photos of the air vents for the Prague metro system. The Prague metro system is so deep underground that they need these huge ventilation shafts get air in and out of the tunnels. These structures are the heads of the ventilation shafts, and they are amazing structures; they show a lot of imagination.
When I shot these photos I was still studying [for a BFA in] photography at Emily Carr [University], and I was really interested in the Bechers’ images of water towers and gas tanks and so on. In a way, I was trying to occupy their process of looking. So I was using the camera in a very programmatic way: always shooting from the same height, shooting with the same light. All the conditions are the same as much as possible to give a kind of objective comparison.
Q: And why do you think you have returned to these particular photos or structures so much in your sculptural practice?
A: It’s likely due to a bunch of factors I’m trying to tease out right now.
Most of the time, actually, when I’m doing an installation, I don’t have a pre-set idea of what I’m building. I will have some loose general ideas of what I’m interested in, but often I will get to an exhibition site and not even know what materials are going to be there. Quite often, the installation might not look like it’s finished when people get there. And that’s because it isn’t. The installations emerge through an active process that is a bit more like sketching than like following a plan.
That said, I think I keep coming back to those photos because they’re a nice, small group of images and things that encapsulate most of the ideas I’m interested in. They’re really imaginative structurally—like, their formal qualities are brilliant, and there is so much variety. At the same time, they are utilitarian and overlooked in their environments.
I am really drawn to the everyday structures we have around us that we don’t really see very much—the things that become scenery on your commute. That’s a pretty productive territory to mine: the overlooked dynamics within everyday life. I’m also interested in the power structures that exist in architecture, and these are often overlooked too.
Q: Can you give some examples of how interest in overlooked everyday structures have played out in your installations?
A: Well, the tower at Red Bull Projects in Toronto is an example. You certainly don’t see towers like that everywhere in Canada, but they do exist in certain parts of the world like Berlin where border checkpoints used to be.
Sometimes you are forced by an environment or an architecture into a kind of hierarchical relationship. Often that can be through a slight change in elevation. Obviously, in that tower project there was a substantial change in elevation. But in some of the other projects I’ve done, the viewer might just get placed a bit higher in relation to someone else.
Putting viewers on different elevations establishes a different kind of relationship for a gallery. Normally in a gallery everyone walks on the floor and looks at objects. Very rarely are you to forced to acknowledge your relationship to other people in the space or other objects in the space.
Q: I’ve noticed that viewers—including myself—do enjoy the chance to walk on the art. Why is it important for you to make objects that allow for that?
A: Well, I’ve been thinking lately that because I’ve established that protocol of allowing people to walk on and through things—and well, I’ve been thinking about how to deny that. Now, I’d like to prompt people to think, “Why can’t I go on that?”
I mean, play is good, but I hope the structures are threatening enough that people realize it’s not all fun and games. And I’ve got to kind of keep it fresh. I don’t want to just be “the guy who makes big wooden things”!
Q: I hear you! Often, your installation process is collaborative—and often, that collaboration happens with your brother Nathan, as well as your father. Can you talk about that a bit?
A: Mostly I work with my brother, and my dad comes in from time to time. All three of us come at things from a different point of view; three individuals never see straight eye-to-eye on anything. But all of us think in somehow complementary ways.
For one thing, when you have to work on location in a defined time before you have an exhibition, you can cover a lot more territory a lot quicker when you have three heads working at it. Some of that productiveness comes from misunderstandings. My dad will suggest one thing and I will misunderstand and go and do something else. Then he will say, “What are you doing?” And I’ll say, “Well, I did something better!”
Also, all three of us now live in different places and really enjoy coming together for installation time. Installation time is my favourite time, when all you have to do is work. It’s immediate and it’s physical and you are making it up on the spot, but at the same time, that’s what you’ve been thinking about for the last few years.
Q: Not everybody’s family is so adept with building techniques. Was building or construction part of your family activities growing up?
A: My dad is a retired engineer and when we were kids he was always, always, always building stuff in the garage. He’d be prototyping things for his work, or other things. Once, he built an apparatus to sail his canoe.
My brother has also worked in building, and I’ve learned a lot from him. I’ve also had many project assistants and they’ve all taught me something too. So now I feel fairly confident that I can build something that will stand up. But when I started doing large installation work, I wasn’t always sure about that.
Q: So early on, did you also allow people to walk on things you had built? Or were you concerned they wouldn’t be structurally sound?
A: Well, the project that got me started on all this happened while I was doing my MFA in Malmo, Sweden. In my studio, I built a platform so I could put my computer next to a window which was pretty high up the wall. Then I built a loft I could sleep in. Then I built a tower in my studio, and it went out of control. There were people all over that thing all semester long!
Basically, my transition from photography to installation happened in the course of one week when I had three studio visits that addressed those first projects—which I hadn’t considered pristine works of art or anything—and those visits turned everything I was doing on its head. It was a critical moment for me where all of a sudden I was like, “OK, I don’t have to make photos.” That’s a revolution, coming from Vancouver!
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Well, I’m still trying to figure out the difference between or the relationship between photography and installation. It’s the core of my whole practice. I think that relationship is something that is emerging over time, and I’m excited about what’s coming in the next few years—even if I’m not quite ready to talk about specifics yet.
This interview has been edited and condensed.