At MassMoCA, Art and the Struggle for Equality

This article is part of our latest special report on Museums, which focuses on reopening, reinvention and resilience.

NORTH ADAMS, MASS. — “Fire up the ship!”

It was late March, and out of the darkness in a museum exhibition space the size of a football field at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MassMoCA, the artist Glenn Kaino shouted to his technical team to illuminate part of his new installation and to start the accompanying soundtrack. There was brief scurrying, and then strobes flashed and dramatic music commenced.

Above a lit walkway going down the center of the 20,000-square-foot hall known as Building 5 hangs a sculpture of the Shadow V, the boat carrying Lord Mountbatten that was bombed by the Irish Republican Army in 1979, killing him and three others.

But the boat, made of steel and wood, has been curved into a version of an ouroboros — the snake that eats its own tail — forever crashing into itself. It’s surrounded by a sprawling constellation of thousands of rocks hanging from thin wires.

The boat is part of the long-term exhibition “Glenn Kaino: In the Light of Shadow,” which opened in April and remains on view until September 2022.

As visitors pass through the installation, they experience a multimedia performance that includes a shadow play on the walls of the long exhibition hall: Each person’s own shadow eventually gets added to the work as they go through, inserting themselves into the tableau.

“Part of this is the visitor asking, ‘Where do I fit in?’” said the Los Angeles-based Mr. Kaino, 48, who was here for several weeks in late March and early April to fine-tune the installation.

“Now it’s an exercise in editing,” said Mr. Kaino, who has the energy of a friend who can’t wait to show you something cool. “We’ve tightened it up — it was a 42-minute performance, but now it’s 29 minutes.”

“In the Light of a Shadow” comes at an ideal moment when museums are tossing out the old rules about what can be shown and how.

It makes a connection between the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, up to and including Black Lives Matter, and the continuing conflict over Northern Irish independence from the United Kingdom, particularly the three-decade period of violence known as the Troubles.

“The thread is that the struggle for equality is universal,” Mr. Kaino said, noting that he wasn’t equating the causes.

One connection: both movements have an event known as Bloody Sunday in their history. In Selma, Ala., it came in 1965 when state troopers attacked marchers who were walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In Derry, Northern Ireland, it came in 1972 when British troops fired on Roman Catholic protesters who were objecting to British internment policies toward Irish nationalists. Thirteen people were killed.

Another part of Mr. Kaino’s installation is a circular, barred space resembling a cage or jail cell that, when successive bars are tapped with a baton (which visitors can wield), plays a melody from U2’s 1983 hit song “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” which refers to the Derry incident.

Nearby is a video featuring Deon Jones, an activist and performer singing the same song; Mr. Jones, who also works in Mr. Kaino’s studio, was shot by police with a rubber bullet in Los Angeles during a 2020 protest of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier that year.

“It’s about creating these intersectional vantage points,” Mr. Kaino said of the exhibition. “I didn’t want to make a show that celebrates protest, or that decorates protest.”

Mr. Kaino, who said he considers himself a “third-generation Conceptual artist,” is a multimedia maker and then some; he even had a previous career as an executive at both OWN: The Oprah Network and Napster 2.0.

A creator of sculptures and installations of all stripes, he is also a student of magic who produced and helped create the magic-themed theatrical show “In & Of Itself,” featuring Derek DelGaudio, which was also turned into a film.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that “In the Light of a Shadow” relies on theatrical elements like lighting, music, video and, with its reliance on shadow play, a certain visual sleight-of-hand.

“The intention is to treat the subject matter very seriously, but also to give it a sense of awe that makes it travel, emotionally,” Mr. Kaino said. “I try to engage difficult ideas, and I try to make work that has multiple avenues of accessibility.”

Mr. DelGaudio, a friend who has performed magic alongside Mr. Kaino, said, “The sheer amount of things he generates is staggering.”

His interest in social justice also led Mr. Kaino to make a documentary, “With Drawn Arms,” about the Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter Tommie Smith, who famously raised his fist during the medal ceremony of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. The gesture was in protest of civil rights injustices.

He has worked with Mr. Smith for years, making artworks related to the raised fist, one of which, the sculpture “Invisible Man (Salute)” (2018), is on view at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Denise Markonish, the MassMoCA curator who has been working with Mr. Kaino on the exhibition for several years, said that Mr. Kaino’s versatility made him “extraordinarily difficult to contextualize, and he’s built his career on that. It also gives him incredible freedom.”

But, she added, “he’s the consummate craftsman — everything is thought through.”

The Los Angeles-based art collector Arthur Lewis, who owns some of Mr. Kaino’s work, said that, given the prevalence of good ideas out there, it was in the conversion to something tangible where the artist excelled.

“Glenn can have a thought, and turn it into an idea or experience,” said Mr. Lewis, who directs the fine arts division of United Talent Agency and the UTA Artist Space.

And he noted that Mr. Kaino knows how to get to the emotional core of any topic. “Glenn and I have a joke that he can always make me cry,” Mr. Lewis said.

Ms. Markonish traveled with Mr. Kaino to Ireland and Northern Ireland in 2017, where they went to research and talk to people who experienced The Troubles.

She said that his pairing of Irish independence and American civil rights was an intellectual connection made by leaders in those movements. The theme is also explored in the catalog for “In the Light of a Shadow,” in an essay by the writer Brian J. Dooley.

“They’re different, but they’re allies,” Ms. Markonish said.

Mr. Kaino was raised in and around Los Angeles as “a fourth-generation Japanese-American kid,” he said.

Growing up Asian-American is “complicated,” he said. “You’re not white, you’re not Black and there’s no centralized dialogue around civil rights or identity politics, though there’s a growing one now.”

Not seeing images of himself in the wider culture made him feel “alone,” he added. “I decided at a very young age to make art and to create a diverse world around me, because there were parts of my story everywhere.”

As an artist, Mr. Kaino’s ideas have certainly proliferated: One of his next ventures is a project at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, scheduled for 2022.


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