NORTH ADAMS — “Hey Chris, can you trigger the heartbeat?” says Glenn Kaino, calling into the inky blackness of Mass MoCA’s cavernous Building 5. Then it starts: A rhythmic, primal thud, followed by the strains of a mournful dirge. A swarm of stones rises into view, suspended midair like an array of cosmic debris. A dark path disappears into the chaos. Above, a wreck of shattered planks splits and scatters into a swoop of pale light that rises and falls with the beat. Thump. Thump. Thump. I could feel my rib cage rattle.
It was early April, and Kaino and his team were sweating the final details on “In the Light of a Shadow,” a vast showcase of the Los Angeles artist and activist’s worldview that might finally match the scale of his ambitions. Or not, according to Denise Markonish, Mass MoCA’s senior curator and director of exhibitions. “Glenn is the only artist who’s ever asked me ‘Can we make it bigger?’” she laughed, standing in the football field-size space that is Building 5. As a remedy, Kaino installed a reflective surface at the path’s far end, an illusion that doubled its length.
Kaino, 48, is slight, with spiky salt-and-pepper hair and an up-tempo air that belies his intense work ethic. Over the past year, he’s turned the Broadway show he produced into a film for Hulu (“In & Of Itself,” a collaboration with the artist and magician Derek DelGaudio) and released the “With Drawn Arms” documentary he co-directed (on gold medalist Tommie Smith, the sprinter famously allied with the Black Panther Party whose raised fist at the 1968 Olympics gave the movement international visibility). During and in-between, Kaino made this — just the largest and most complex exhibition of his work, ever. When I asked if the scale of the Mass MoCA space gave him pause in the midst of a busy year complicated by pandemic logistics, he shrugged it off in good-natured fashion. “It was terrifying!” he said. “But I think you have to be a little terrified to do this space effectively.”
For any artist, Building 5 is both a terror and an opportunity: A showcase for new work at a scale that can’t be matched anywhere in the country. For Kaino, it’s a chance for priorities to converge. At its heart, “In the Light of a Shadow” is a history lesson with an urgent message, present to past. It bundles together a lifetime of thinking — about activism, resistance, injustice, and the slow march of progress.
How slow? “In the Light of a Shadow” seems to suggest cosmic time. That eddy of stone could be the flash-frozen millisecond of an explosion or the swirl of ancient galactic rubble adrift across ages. Neither is wrong. Flashpoints cool. But they also leave behind chaos, and an unending urge to make sense where often none can be found.
For all its cosmic presence, “In the Light of a Shadow” ties together two very specific movements, and two men bound by the lingua franca of resistance. One, the late Congressman John Lewis, was meant to walk this very path with Kaino this spring, though cancer had other plans, claiming his life in July at age 80. The other is Irish republican Gerry Adams, leader of the Sinn Féin party, who brokered the 1994 cease-fire between the Irish Republican Army and the British government.
Shooting the documentary on Smith, Kaino wove the athlete’s history into the contextual backdrop of the civil rights movement, which led him to interview Lewis in 2018, at the time one of the era’s few surviving giants. That’s where “In the Light of a Shadow” began. But it seems endless, as resistance needs be. (That constellation of stones is handmade, sourced from crises around the world.)
“In the Light of a Shadow” weaves together episodes from Kaino’s own history: As a graduate student in the late 1990s, he found himself at a dinner in Santa Monica, Calif., for Adams. And Kaino’s first career, in the music industry, had him working for producer Jimmy Iovine, putting him in touch with U2′s Bono more than once.
The singer’s tireless activism around Irish independence lit a slow-burning fuse. Years later, Kaino would build “In the Light of a Shadow” around two Bloody Sundays: The 1965 march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala., led by Lewis across the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the 1972 killings in Derry, Northern Island, where British soldiers shot 26 unarmed protesters, killing 14. (The U2 song “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” from 1982, captured the Republican fury of the moment, with the conflict still hot and raging.)
As the Smith documentary wrapped up, Kaino felt a confluence emerge. “This was inspired by knowing the complication of everything that must have been going on inside the head of Gerry must have been going on with John Lewis,” he said. At Mass MoCA, you can take the long, long bridge disappearing into the mirror as a general metaphor for the endless march to freedom, though it’s hard to see a bridge in this context without thinking of Selma.
The splintered mass suspended above is more particular — it’s meant to evoke the 1979 murder of Britain’s Lord Mountbatten, whose boat was obliterated by an IRA bomb minutes after leaving dock in Ireland’s County Sligo — but it dissolves into a white-hot mass of generalized, cyclical resistance. Each of the charred planks is emblazoned with protest slogans from all over the world; and the boat bends back on itself, melting into a ring of light that Kaino designed to evoke an ouroboros — the snake eating its tail, an ancient symbol of the cycle of destruction and renewal.
It’s a jarring image, freighted with the murder of Mountbatten and three others, including his grandson. It’s also a counterweight to the Derry killings around which the show is ostensibly based. (The work’s mirrored surface is marred by dents, representative of rocks thrown by protesters moments before they were gunned down.) And it’s Kaino’s way of saying he’s not taking sides. “It’s not my goal here to decorate or judge revolutionary activity,” he said. But there’s an undeniably generative sense to the chaos, of destruction blasting new paths toward clarity. Look closely and you’ll see some of those stones fitted with tiny sails, blown by capricious winds ever onward.
The parallels between the two movements — unarmed protesters, brutalized by police and military — have clear resonance here and now, after a year of nonviolent resistance being met with tear gas, billy clubs, and rubber bullets. And so they knit together, in this dark and fractured space, in dramatic fashion. Beyond the bridge, upright metal pipes form a vertical ring, like a cage. A suggestive xylophone mallet prompts an audio interlude; strike each, walking clockwise, and you’ll play a riff from U2′s “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” On a nearby screen, Deon Jones, a young Black man who is one of Kaino’s studio staff, appears inside the cage, voicing the lyrics with gospel verve. (The song is used in parallel with “We Shall Overcome,” a hymn adopted by both the civil rights and Irish liberation movements.) In context, U2′s angry song transforms into a spiritual rite, a tie that binds two past resistance movements to the present day. Jones’s performance is intercut with his own cellphone footage from a Black Lives Matter protest in LA last May, where he was shot in the face at close range with a rubber bullet.
Bleak as it is, the performance has clarifying power. It’s not about Selma, or Derry, or Minneapolis, but their place along the greater arc of history. The power of the song lies in its refrain: “How long must we sing this song?” It was written for a moment long past, but it retains power because it’s a question without answer. History likes to resolve in chapters; “In the Light of a Shadow” contends that the past is always present — or to borrow a phrase, not even past.
Kaino, like any of us, holds out hope for better days. On a mezzanine level with a view of the main gallery, a garden blooms: Tropical and desert plants growing side by side for the duration of the exhibition, testament to the persistence of life and the potential for harmony in difference. It’s a reminder of transformation as the product of slow time, not immediate upheaval. How slow? In a pair of plexiglass cubes nearby, fist-size stones sit on a glass surface. Underneath, pinpricks of light mist together in languid clouds, or erupt in a flash before vanishing. They’re the stray building-blocks of the universe — protons, electrons, alpha particles — made visible in a vat of frozen alcohol vapor.
You can think of them as echoes of the big bang, reality itself exhaling. The universe, it turns out, is restless — furtive, jittery, ever-changing. Cold comfort, maybe. But unrest is a natural, perpetual state, whether cosmic or right here on the ground. How long, indeed.
GLENN KAINO: IN THE LIGHT OF A SHADOW
At the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 1040 Mass MOCA Way, North Adams. Through Sept. 22, 2022, 413-662-2111, massmoca.org