Glenn Kaino: In the Light of a Shadow
April 4, 2021–September 5, 2022
by Max Gruber
Viewers were led by gallery attendants into a vast hall shrouded in darkness. A grave silence coated the space, broken only by anticipatory coughing, shuffling, and the knowledge that the resonant sound of Glenn Kaino’s installation was about to begin. Short, brilliant infusions of light emanated from above, each flash punctuated by jolting percussion. The pulsating light gradually revealed an imposing form, fragmented yet lithe, lying just out of reach. And then, suddenly, it was gone. Small objects lined a wooden walkway, their forms impossible to discern in the darkness. Light projected outwards from both sides of the path, unveiling the shapes and materials of the forms. Sculpted shards of wood and stone cast shadows on the walls, eliciting the feeling of a primordial stasis, of a calm before the storm.
Los Angeles-based conceptual artist Glenn Kaino’s In the Light of a Shadow addresses social justice movements and their protests across time and space. The wooden shards and stones that make up Kaino’s shadow-play reference various protests from around the world. Some of these sculptures are even 3D-printed replicas of specific events. In this installation for MASS MoCA, on view through September 2022, the artist takes aim at two “Bloody Sundays,” one in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 and the other in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1972, drawing on the legacy of these violently repressive episodes to explore broader themes of protest, exploitation, and resilience. Kaino draws on the solidarity and community present in these movements as beacons of hope for humankind. By using abstract forms in combination with iconography from specific historical movements, Kaino is able to center episodes of resilience and joy that emerge from episodes of oppression in a way that transcends their original contexts, placing them in dialogue with a pantheon of social justice and civil rights movements across history.
The light projection moved further down the walkway, its shift heralded by a sonic wave of heavy, industrial noise and new shapes on the wall. These shapes were figurative, depicting human forms in myriad scenarios: fighting, watching in horror as a figure falls backwards off a precipice, or marching in a large group alongside a military/battle tank. Others were triumphant, even iconic, as some figures holding a flag and musical instruments struck a defiant pose, while two others raised their fists in solidarity in a gesture that recalled the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics. Just as the drama of the visual material waxed, so too did the music, as a bombastic horn section began to swell, filling the hall with a palpable charge, as if the audience’s own energy was being invoked in the scenes playing out in front of them. As viewers’ silhouettes joined those projected on the wall, their movements became enmeshed in the work, their forms both subsumed and implicated in the piece’s investigation of humanity’s capacity to incite violence and to liberate the oppressed.
The piece’s universalizing imagery—wooden shards with recurring slogans of social justice such as “si se puede,” “climate action now,” and “end detention now”—is contrasted by moments with pointed historical associations, as the horns are succeeded by a children’s chorus singing “We Shall Overcome.” This song is repeated by a group of Irish voices, reminding viewers of the evolving role it has played in social justice and labor movements across the globe, not just in the United States.1 That two movements as different as these might be united through song speaks to the transnational nature of Kaino’s project and the importance of sound in conveying these emotions.2 Here, the artist successfully toes the fine line between the indictment of past injustices and the eulogization of liberation movements throughout time.
Further down the hall, projections of ships that look like Spanish galleons, an ominous nod to the colonization of the new world, implicate viewers in their imperial mission as their shadows dance alongside the rigid masts of the ships. Just as viewers found themselves walking alongside civil rights activists and protestors at the beginning, so too would they embark on ill-fated conquests in the name of empire. Finally, light fills the hall, and viewers encounter a warped mirror at the end of the walkway riddled with bullet holes, prompting an eerie moment of contemplation. The mass above the center of the walkway is bathed in light, finally visible as a ship in the shape of an ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail. In fact, it was modelled after Lord Mountbatten’s Shadow V, the fishing boat on which the infamous member of the British royal family was assassinated by the Irish Republican Army in 1979. The warped hull and self-destructive imagery of the ouroboros is a statement both on the unsustainable condition of imperialism and humanity’s suicidal march toward climate annihilation. Withering yet defiant, the snake which eats itself symbolizes our monstrous appetite for control and the palpable symptoms of environmental and social disease that follow. And yet, Kaino’s piece draws its power from the warmth of community. The small forms which hang from the ceiling and surround the ouroboros, though activated individually by light projections, appear as a murmuration of starlings, each taking wing and in dialogue with the other, careening towards a utopic future that centers hope, life, and the resilience of the human spirit.
Max Gruber is a Master of Arts candidate at the Williams College / Clark Institute Graduate Art Program. His research and criticism have dealt with Latin American and global contemporary art, photography, visual culture, and socially-engaged art.
1. Originally a gospel song which was adopted by the American Civil Rights movement, “We Shall Overcome” was also adopted during The Troubles in Northern Ireland and has been present in a number of social movements across the world. Freya McClements “Derry and ‘We Shall Overcome’: ‘We plagiarized and entire movement.’” The Irish Times. Accessed December 17, 2021.
2. The artist collaborated with David Sitek of the band TV on the Radio to produce the sound for the piece.