Sobey Art Award 2021: Lorna Bauer
Lorna Bauer’s projects revolve around cultural figures who have integrated the natural with the built. In her work, she often evokes architectural sites or includes references to various cultural legacies. Combining photography and sculpture, her artistic practice presents a visual and physical exploration of concepts and experiences related to the sustainability of lived environments. Through her interest in the phenomenology of perception and the semiology of meaning, Bauer has lately turned to researching photographic mediation of the modern architectural heritage and landscape architecture.
In a number of her most recent bodies of work, Bauer seeks to define the liminal spaces of sites designed by the architect Arthur Erickson (Canada) and the landscape architect, artist and ecologist Roberto Burle Marx (Brazil). These works refer to collaborations by Erickson and Burle Marx with, among others, the landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander and the botanist and illustrator Margaret Mee, respectively.
Untitled (Erickson view #2) is one such photograph, taken at the former home of Erickson. From the vantage point of the garden – a liminal, public and domestic area – around the architect’s Vancouver home, this ghostly selfportrait, a simple reflection of the artist in a window, gives a glimpse of the interior of the house. The juxtaposition of the colourful vegetation with the out-of-focus yet structuring edges of the window encourages contemplation on the interior/exterior duality of the space. In this work, Bauer highlights the precariousness of architectural and environmental patrimonies. The glass, acting here as both a framing mechanism and an interface between us and the world, subtly modifies our usual perception of things and highlights the ocular processes at work. The composition blurs formal boundaries, tensions and connections between built and natural spaces, between culture and nature. In an interview, Bauer noted: “In Erickson View #2 you can see my camera and myself subtly captured in the corner, I was interested in capturing myself in the view, as I was then seven months pregnant. Although it is not overtly visible, I wanted to make a portrait of sorts capturing a moment in time in my period of productivity both artistic and biopolitical.”
At the same time, Bauer focuses on the work of landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx in a photographic series titled Sítio (2018). In his iconic project, the Sítio garden in Rio de Janeiro, Burle Marx – known for his respect for the natural environment – let the ecosystem guide his production. Recalling the Erickson–Oberlander dialogue, Bauer turned to the research of Margaret Mee, who studied and drew the plants in Burle Marx’s garden. During her many expeditions into the Amazon forest between 1952 and 1988, Mee observed the growth of a number of flower and plant varieties that Burle Marx had collected. To evoke Mee’s practice, Bauer put aside her camera and took up other visual media. Mee preferred to paint the species she was studying in gouache rather than confine herself to montages of photographic documents. Similarly, by diversifying her processes, methods and working materials, Bauer obscured formal boundaries, revealing the tensions and connections between the natural and the manufactured: “I am intrigued by the role of glass as a framing device and as a subtle insertion between a viewer and the world, ever so slightly changing how things are perceived. I am drawn to instances where this is highlighted most particularly in architecture, either by the use of tinted glass, glass blocks or mannered glass. By varying the focal points in my compositions, I blur the formal boundaries and observe the tensions and connections between the built and the natural, the garden as a liminal space, public yet domestic, a site of leisure but also labour. With this photographic work, I focused on the precariousness of our architectural and environmental heritage.”
Having chosen to explore new means of expression – other than photography – beyond a simple topographic study of interstitial sites, Bauer makes blown-glass objects that resonate with various aspects of the spaces she has visited. Though conceived as extensions of her photographic images, the objects are relatively autonomous. Echoing the images, these hybrid structures act as guideposts between different worlds, real and imaginary.
As her recent works show, Bauer is engaged intensely on a new stage in her art production. The Hand of Mee and the Moonflower (2018–19) offers what the independent curator Vincent Bonin calls a stunning “faceless portrait of Mee.” Taking an allegorical perspective, Bauer disperses hand-blown glass forms on a structure made of plaster. The extremities of these objects, set in steel butcher’s gloves, evoke at once fingers, seedlings and embryonic animals.
Indeed, these figures, “situated between anthropomorphism and biomorphism, also recall the transformation of plants in Burle Marx’s ceramics and paintings.” In his collecting activity, Burle Marx “strove to contain tropical flora proliferating outdoors within walls,” – unlike Mee, who went to see specimens in their natural environment. In Bauer’s work, as Bonin notes, the references to Mee’s gouaches are more explicit, especially in Bromeliad (Margaret Mee), a three-dimensional interpretation in glass and bronze of a flower painted by the botanist. Hung near the photographs of Burle Marx’s house, the bromeliad acts as an “epigraph to Bauer’s path through Sítio.” Bonin rightly comments that these glass objects bring us back around to Bauer’s photographs. Like her sculptures, the glass walls in her photographs point to an invisible material: “air, which first passes through our lungs,” an element essential to the “vitreous transition.”
Bauer’s current body of work is closely aligned with her series Sítio Bottles (2018–ongoing), produced in response to her research in Rio. This took the form of blown-glass vessels that were an embodiment of both the human lung and the overabundance of plastic water bottles that are strewn across the beach or populate urban scenes, and which are also used for numerous purposes such as suspended from trees filled for stray cats to drink from or as jugs for growing various orchid species. The vessels themselves are a visual metaphor for the blowing lungs that created them as a life form and form of life.
As mentioned, through her photographs, Bauer explores the questions raised by architects whose work extends beyond the edifice itself – integrating a landscape, a neighbourhood, a social context, a population. As an extension of her interest in this dialogue between architecture and natural landscape (and living environments), her current research on greenhouses, Not a Window, but a Mirror, intersects with her concern with the ambiguities of the lived space. Notably, her interest in glass re-emerges here. In this sense, the architecture of the greenhouse demarcates the tension between desire or possession and cultivation or care. Through these works, glass becomes a means of exploring considerations on presence, absence and memory.
If, in this new phase of her work, Bauer abandons photography as we know it, it is simply to grasp in other ways the oscillation between object and representation. Imprint, capture, moulding and trace … the scenography of Bauer’s exhibitions reveals that her images and objects, although different in nature, share a single logic. [Daniel Fiset, esse, Spring 2020]
The 2021 Sobey Art Award Exhibition, organized by the National Gallery of Canada and the Sobey Art Foundation, is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until 20 February 2022. The 2021 Sobey Art Award winner will be announced in November. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.