Chicago: Daniel G. Baird

Apr 1, 2019 / by Michelle Grabner / Artforum

A long, thin, rectilinear basin traced the perimeter of the gallery at the intersection of the walls and floor in Daniel Baird’s immersive allegorical environment ​ ​murmur, 2019. Occupying the position normally held by a baseboard radiator, the basin contained a submerged collection of pumps and hoses. Pushed up against the gallery’s outer wall, on the floor, was an absurdly long power strip whose glowing red light confirmed that a live electrical current was running through the attached tangle of black cords, enabling water to travel from a holding tank up to ten spigots, most mounted on the right-hand wall. In the dimly lit space, the continuous rhythm of this domestic-scaled fountain, with its dripping water and hum of small aquarium pumps, was visually punctuated by these figurative fountainheads—nine of which were metal casts of replete daffodil blooms—distributed like musical notes above the shallow geometric reservoir. The tenth spigot, shaped like a human ear and titled Echo, 2019, also streamed water from its inner canal and was hung among the assembly of flowers.

From the entrance to this shadowy gray room, the monochromatic installation suggested dramatic stagecraft. Yet on close inspection, the numerous mechanical apparatuses weaving through the work revealed themselves to more closely hew to a structuralist aesthetic threaded with symbolic imagery. Without the symmetry or the in-the-round spatial orientation typical of public fonts, Baird’s fountain instead resembled an elongated narrative, unfolding from left to right. The ratio of the vast empty space of the gallery, with its severe spotlighting, to the intimately scaled physical components of the work resembled the proportion of a classic pictorial story line to its collection of poetic tropes. The perpetual sound of the fountain lent the water a unifying physical, cognitive, and emotional pull.

The daffodil—of the genus Narcissus, whose name references the eponymous Greek myth, of which murmur is undoubtedly a reinterpretation—was one of those poetic tropes. Baird further alluded to the lore by including alongside the aforementioned human ear a disembodied bronze hand, Vessel (Left), 2019. The life-size hollow appendage fantastically appears to be grasping the fountain’s outer edge on the left side of the installation. Located near the ground and close to the basin’s surface, the appendage suggests that a body is peering into the liquid and thus enacting Narcissus’s reflexive gaze into a pool. Some versions of the myth claim that Narcissus first rejected the love of the nymph Echo (perhaps evoked here via the ear) and then fell in love with his own unmatched beauty, which caused his death; a daffodil supposedly grew in the place where he died. Virgil and Milton further entangle the flower with the Narcissus story by contending that the daffodil’s corona contains Narcissus’s tears. Baird’s installation could be read as an active embodiment of this symbolism, as water poured steadily from each of the seven trumpets mounted on the right-hand wall. The transparent rubber hoses attached to the flower heads carried water upward and simulated the vascular function of a flower’s stem. The six bronze petals that flanked the corona of each blossom were large and flaring, hiding the spigots’ mounting apparatus.

In a statement addressing this new work, Baird claimed to be referencing “spring, birth, and the womb.” The daffodil, almost as culturally symbolic as the rose, is associated with these themes (and, further, with death and good fortune) in addition to being affiliated with the Narcissus myth. Yet Baird’s bevy of presentational strategies refreshed this lexicon of well-worn metaphors and avoided a clichéd illustration of self-love, instead highlighting the florid complexities intrinsic to all archetypal narratives.

— Michelle Grabner