The Montreal Biodôme is in the last two weeks of exhibiting the fruits of its first artist in residence project. Canadian artist Richard Purdy has set up trOmbe, an art installation in its temporary exhibition space. However, “art installation” fails to adequately describe this surreal experience.
When contemplating a visit to the Biodôme, an “ecosystem recreation” (basically an indoor zoo) fashioned out of the city’s Olympic velodrome, the possibility of encountering a contemporary art piece isn’t typically what comes to mind. After an entertaining trip for some much-needed childhood nostalgia in my first year at McGill, I hadn’t returned to the space. The seemingly incongruous combination of visual artwork amidst the permanent ecosystem displays was too intriguing to pass up. With the tagline “With all your senses awakened, come and experience nature differently,” I felt compelled to see the installation for myself.
Upon arrival, I realized that my attempt to be clever and avoid the crowds by coming to the space in the morning was a big mistake. Hordes of excited school children swarmed the Biodôme, amped up on adrenaline, the excitement of a field trip, and the sweetness of a life free from midterms, exhaustion, and cynicism. While they screamed in excitement over each glimpse of an animal they managed to catch, I ventured forth in search of the installation.
trOmbe, at the end of the permanent displays, is an interesting experiment in the potential of an interactive art space. There is a large reflective pool of water, and fir trees and fake birds are hung from the ceiling above. Used to the “look and never touch” gallery mentality, the towels and benches around the installation were surprising – until I was informed by a helpful guide that people are supposed to take off their shoes and walk around in the pool. To enter the piece, I had first to pass through a sheet of rain (with the help of a provided umbrella). Flashes of lightning and rolls of thunder played, adding to the sensation of being in an alternate world. I had the strange sense that I was part of a storm, as my feet touched the freezing water, and I looked at the forest in the pool’s reflection. Every time I moved, ripples of water disrupted the image.
It was a pretty cool experience, and a unique idea. Installations that ask the viewer to participate are inherently more compelling than those in which you’re required, by the presence of a museum guard, to maintain a respectful distance. However, I found it difficult to be fully immersed in trOmbe. A huge school group walked through the temporary exhibition space as they entered the permanent installations – many of them shouting, pointing, and chattering loudly about why there was a person standing in the middle of a pool of water at the Biodôme (which is a valid question, in all fairness). Glancing up at the trees hung above, the illusion was disrupted. I hopped out of the pool, dried off my feet, and headed toward the exit. While the idea of the installation would be better served in a more cordoned-off area, perhaps the disruption of illusion is intended – at some point, you have to leave the surreal and return to the real life whirlwind of midterms, copious amounts of coffee, and late nights.