With the opening words “By art is created that great Leviathan,” Thomas Hobbes launches readers into his seminal work of political philosophy, Leviathan, in which he imagines the State as a great aggregation of the masses into a singular societal body. Drawing its title from Hobbes’ treatise, LA-based artist Glenn Kaino’s exhibition at Kavi Gupta Gallery’s Elizabeth Street location indicates an ambition for superstrata-level political commentary. Despite the impossible loftiness of this reference, the exhibition nevertheless offers a complex, wry, and upward looking political statement in its various contemplations of global instability, alternative models of societal organization, and the political possibilities embedded in representation.
The exhibition is built on the conviction that the act of representation is a deeply political one, and thus one freighted with serious weight and responsibility. From this foundational position, the exhibition opens onto larger themes of global unrest and new modes of mass vocalization. A collection of nondescript chunks of street rubble is key to a number of the sculptures. Gathered from zones of violent social upheaval around the world––fragments from the streets of the Syrian civil war, anti-Erdoğan protests in Istanbul, and eruptions of popular anger in Athens, among others––these hand-sized bits of revolutionary weaponry are used in a striking variety of ways. One with particular incisiveness is Don’t Bring A Gameboy To A Gunfight, where the artist and a network of online collaborators have 3D scanned and printed the street rubble in fluorescent PLA polymer. Riffing on both the threat posed by 3D printed firearms and the political apathy of Richard Long-style poetics, the work’s combination of joyfulness, critique, optimism, and uncertainty characterizes the complexity of many of the pieces that make up the exhibition.
One of Kaino’s go-to tactics in Leviathan is precariousness; he uses careful balancing to create self-supporting and seemingly unstable structures. These works operate by inviting the viewer to imaginatively project the outcomes of physically interacting with the work. For instance, Escala- is a system of ten scales suspended from a high ledge, balancing trays of shimmering, brightly hued candies. In this closed structure, a single disturbance would upset the carefully counterbalanced composition. Of course, the look-don’t-touch strictures of the gallery setting prevent any sort of physical interaction with the scales—a potential stumbling block for a work that seeks to explore ways of transcending systems of zero-sum reward. Yet, by encouraging viewers to inhabit a common inter-subjective space, the work allegorizes the process by which political possibilities are negotiated.
Many of the questions Kaino poses will be familiar to anyone who has contemplated the ability of art to enact political change. Indeed, they are fundamental questions that have been addressed in the recent past with manifestos for participatory art or socially embedded practices. These modes of working––the so-called social turn in art––argue that distanced contemplation of art is inferior to active participation, which is supposed to induce higher consciousness by virtue of the physical involvement of the viewer. Rather than participation for its own sake, however, Kaino’s work produces its own spaces of empathetic identification, where precarity and violence can be addressed by inhabiting new subjective positions.
In this way, the first work in the show acts as a summation of the experience. Titled Excalibur, the work is a slingshot aimed at the gallery’s entryway. The leather pocket of the weapon is embedded in the wall, while the wooden stick projects into the space and the rubber strap hangs loose, ready to be filled with potential energy. To pull Excalibur from the wall would be, as in the mythic tale of the sword in the stone, to assume the power of political sovereignty, but at the same time it would carry the risk of being in the line of fire. The stick, rubber strap, and sling furthermore turn out to be made entirely of cast and painted bronze—a symbolic act of transforming blank material into representational, iconic language. With force and precision, the weapon conveys the weight and responsibility of making art. A dense, interconnected mesh of recurring themes and provocations, Kaino’s sculptures in Leviathan only appear unstable. With their depth and diversity of meaning, their balance of playful humor and biting critique, and their ability to freshly pose fundamental questions about the utility of representation, these works are as solid and expansive as a creature of the deep.