Since opening more than a year ago in a second floor office space on a busy shopping strip of Toronto’s Queen Street, Red Bull 381 Projects has been a source of repeated surprises. The first surprise was the drink company’s decision to found and fund a contemporary art venue—though Red Bull has founded similar galleries in Australia, the Netherlands and, most significantly, Austria, this was the first such commitment in Canada. The second (and more pleasant) surprise was the calibre of programming that the space has hosted, much of it courtesy of resident curator Nicholas Brown.
Now, with the opening of a site-specific installation by Vancouverite Cedric Bomford, the gallery continues to impress by yet again doing the unexpected: turning over their space to an artist for a transformative, critically minded architectural intervention.
Built from discarded construction materials—some of which were salvaged from vacant spaces in the building that houses the gallery—Bomford’s TOWER BLOCK is an impressive assemblage of ladders, bleachers, old billboards and even a hockey penalty box that dominates the two-storey office-atrium-cum-gallery. Much like The Office of Special Plans, an installation Bomford built with his brother Nathan and father Jim for the Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibition “How Soon Is Now,” TOWER BLOCK was constructed over a lengthy, deliberate creative process that prioritized the artist’s responses to the site and available materials. This seemingly paradoxical combination of careful research and intuitive construction, of thorough material sourcing and impulsive design, has yielded unique results. Bomford’s tower is an unapologetic examination of the political implications of looking and surveying while also operating as a playful, tactile and thoroughly embodied sculptural installation. It is an artwork for the mind that does not neglect the body’s vital role in experiencing a piece.
The provisional materials that Bomford employs, along with the viewing windows built into the eponymous central viewing tower, immediately invite the viewer to crawl and climb through the structure, at first evoking childhood tree houses and snow forts. Rather than being sealed off by velvet ropes or stanchions, Bomford’s installation invites and even demands our direct physical participation. And while the artist’s materials appear to be sturdy, the haphazard configuration of the structure and narrow planks that lead to the top also suggest precarity—and, perhaps, a need for liability waivers.
From the viewing station’s central and elevated position, however, these misgivings are amplified as more sinister forms, such as guard towers and panopticons, are suggested. Perhaps most unnerving is the unusual vantage point Bomford’s tower provides the viewer. From his seemingly playful structure, one can look down on the pedestrians outside who are unaware of the surveillance as well as see across to the ultra-modern corporate offices used by Red Bull for their regular meetings and day-to-day office work. It is the first time in the gallery’s history that an artist has drawn such explicit attention to the corporate underpinnings of the organization by, as Brown puts it, “encourag[ing] the viewer to physically occupy different scopic positions.” By offering new and unconventional ways of looking at the space in which it is housed, TOWER BLOCK helps to reinvigorate the critical potential of artistic interventions and seems a fitting exhibition for a gallery on the eve of another promising year of programming. (381 Queen St W, Toronto ON)