Artists in a Post-George Floyd, Mid-Pandemic World

Aruna D'Souza, New York Times, May 14, 2021

Two new exhibitions at Mass MoCA created over the past year offer insights into our new normal.


Two shows that recently opened at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art are keyed to our new normal: One came into being during the most restrictive moments of the pandemic; the other, though long planned, shifted its focus as these past, momentous months unfolded. Conceptually, both address the questions — personal and political — that are on many minds at the moment.


Glenn Kaino, a Japanese-American artist based in Los Angeles, began planning his installation for MoCA’s football-field-size Gallery 5 five years ago. He intended to draw a connection between two distinct “Bloody Sundays”— the civil rights march in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, and the protest in Derry, Northern Ireland, on Jan. 30, 1972.


As time passed, the pandemic imposed limitations on the planning and execution of the piece, and the protests following the murder of George Floyd last spring added new context for the work.


The centerpiece of the show requires a slow, choreographed procession down an elevated boardwalk in the darkened gallery, with music and lights cuing viewers to move or stand still. Sticks and stones — the paltry weapons wielded by the Irish resisters — and found postcards hang from the ceiling or are raised off the floor by thin rods. Theatrical lights cast their shadows onto the wall, transforming the objects into birds, drones, sailing ships and meteorites by turn.

A wooden boat looms over the walkway — an allusion to the assassination of Lord Mountbatten by a faction of the I.R.A. in 1979. It is twisted, resembling a snake eating its own tail. Projected silhouettes flashing and rippling across the walls recall the murder of innocents by their oppressors. Puppetlike protesters carry signs — “Civil” “Rights,” “Association,” “Black,” “Now,” “Climate Action” — as if the language of revolution has been broken down into its most basic components.


The astronomical imagery, the circular boat, the loop of protesters from different eras fighting for different causes: Taken together, the installation offers up the idea of political uprising as an inevitable part of the human condition.


This may feel fundamentally true after last year’s protests in Minneapolis seemed like a repetition of those from Ferguson in 2014. But Kaino’s thesis is also seriously depressing: People are not forced to fight for change because it’s written in the stars, but because those in power will not loosen the death grip on their lives.


At the end of the spectacle is a mirror in the shape of the masonry wall in Derry where the British army massacred Irish protesters. As the lights come up, a crowd of viewers sees a rippling, distorted reflection of itself — turning this accidental grouping into a potential for future resistance and protest.


In a separate room, a video made in 2020 centers on Kaino’s longtime collaborator, Deon Jones, who was shot in the face with a rubber bullet by a police officer while taking part in a peaceful protest in Los Angeles. Interspersed with photos of Jones in an emergency room and archival footage of the Selma and Derry events, Jones sings “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” In the video, he stands inside “Revolution” (2020), a round, cage-like sculpture that fills the space.


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