You probably have been in a museum and seen a painting with eyes that seem to follow you around the room.
If you visit Glenn Kaino’s current exhibition at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, that feeling won’t be an illusion.
One of the six works in the exhibit, the sculptural L’ènetènafionale, features a crescent moon with an eye that responds to viewers in its area. If a single person enters, the eye looks that way. If two come in, it looks back and forth.
And if it has an audience of three or more, the moon opens its mouth and sings a little song especially created for it, while an automaton of the French clown Pierrot looks on and moves its head and body in enjoyment.
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“It’s basically a very short theatrical performance that we directed and choreographed,” Kaino said in a recent interview at the museum. “It took several months just to get the audio recorded. There was a tremendous amount of work that went into making that piece.
“But the way I would like for this piece to work is that, when people go in there, they don’t see any of that. They experience a performance and an engaging idea.”
Kaino, 43, is a native of Los Angeles who continues to live and work there. The exhibition of his works is being presented as a part of the Modern’s Focus project. Each arts season (roughly Labor Day to Memorial Day), three solo exhibitions of works by contemporary artists are presented.
A single work is selected from each exhibition (the artists do not know which one) and they are judged by a panel called the Director’s Council. After all three exhibitions have been presented, the panel selects one of the works to be acquired for the museum’s permanent collection.
Among Kaino’s works on display, the L’ènetènafionale is sure to attract plenty of attention, because it is hard to ignore a moon singing to a clown. But don’t work too hard trying to understand exactly what the moon is singing. While the tune may be familiar, the words are in something Kaino calls “lunar French.”
“It is a performance of the first verse and chorus of The Internationale,” said Kaino, referring to the famous socialist workers’ anthem. “The first several months [of developing the piece] were devoted to conceiving the language and translating the song into that language.”
And the reasons for using that newly minted tongue is where this seemingly fun and trivial work becomes quite complex.
“This work is the second step in a longer process where I am looking at natural systems and finding instances where natural systems will mimic what we attribute to human colonial behavior,” Kaino said. “Different variations in accents are markers of different territorial expansions. When British English comes to America, over the course of 350 years, it becomes American English, for example.”
Kaino said his work looks toward a future when humans will colonize the moon and other planets.
“When we do go to Mars, there will be a different accent,” he said. “So why wouldn’t there be a different accent on the moon?”
But words to a song were not the only challenges in creating this piece. Like a lot of contemporary art works, it is both a work of art and a working machine (what the museum calls “an animatronic installation”), with a number of motors and servos to make it come alive.
“Over the course of 10 years, I’ve built a studio to respond to that manner of art making. We have a very collaborative team of engineers and builders who can achieve a lot of different goals,” Kaino said. “We ambitiously create circumstances that push our abilities.”
For L’ènetènafionale, which was created in 2015 specifically for this exhibition but given a test run in Miami, Kaino also used a wide variety of media. The list of materials used in the work reads “wood, aluminum, brass, Xbox Kinect, electronics, starch and French moon accent.”
But such a diverse range of building blocks is a trademark of Kaino’s style, which he calls “kitbashing.”
“It is an old model makers’ term,” said Kaino, explaining that it refers to the practice of taking a traditional model kit and assembling its parts in unconventional ways to create a unique work. “It is a way to describe my affection for putting disparate materials together.
“Soon after I started to work with that physically and formally, I realized that it could also be applied to ideas and processes.”
Kaino stressed that he does not just throw pieces together randomly.
“I work with [his studio team] at a high level so that we are not just doing it because it’s decorative. I work with different materials for very specific reasons,” he said.
So Kaino’s works in this exhibition, which include an ice sculpture that freezes and melts daily, are born of high-minded ideas and plenty of sweat in the workshop.
But it must not be forgotten that L’ènetènafionale is also funny.
“My goal is to ask big questions that are appropriate for our times. But, the most important thing is to have access points into the work. Humor plays a large role in it,” he said with a smile.
Focus: Glenn Kaino
- Through April 17
- Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell St., Fort Worth
- 817-738-9215; www.themodern.org