By Meghan Holohan
Suspended a few inches from the floor, the pristinely white sculpture resembles a cross between a large model ship and a mutated porcupine. Like many of Glenn Kaino’s kinetic creations, A Plank for Every Pirate consists of familiar forms juxtaposed in unexpected, compelling ways.
Glenn Kaino, A Plank for Every Pirate, 2007; wood and paint, Courtesy of the artist and The Project, New York
Kaino is a deep thinker. This particular work, as he tells it, was inspired by the risks many of his friends have taken “advancing revolutionary ideas.” Progressive thinkers often sail ahead of society alone and alienated, he notes. And, in one sense, each plank in the sculpture represents the potential danger an unconventional idea might inflict, such as career suicide. At the same time, each represents the isolation that often comes as a result of challenging the
status quo and the expiration date of their efforts.
“The reason why I produce sculpture is to figure out the means to express ideas that I cannot put into words,” he says. “If I could explain it with language, I would be a sociologist or a writer.”
Visitors to The Andy Warhol Museum can check out a dozen of the conceptual artist’s large-scale installation pieces, created in the past decade, in Transformer: The Work of Glenn Kaino, now through August 31. The exhibition consists of everything from a rapidly spinning ‘aeron chair’ to a gigantic waterwheel made from oversized teeth and powered by a showerhead that runs a complex machine.
Much like Andy Warhol, Kaino not only straddles the bridge between art and business, but creates in mixed media and embraces a vast network of cultural references.
Fresh from graduate school in 1996, he and a group of friends started a firm designing web sites for prominent clients such as Walt Disney and Fox, and used the money for art projects. Kaino went on to serve as chief creative officer at music site Napster and executive vice president of creative at International Music Feed, a music video channel.
“When I make things that end up being commercial, it is always from the perspective of an artist,” he says. “I owe a lot to Warhol because he broke down the barriers between an entertainment-based practice and an art practice.”
Tom Sokolowski, director of The Warhol, identifies a connective thread between the artists. “He’s like Warhol in that when he comes to an idea, he thinks ‘how do I say it,’ not how do I paint it,” says Sokolowski.
Kaino creates sculptures as a way to grapple with modernity. Growing up and living in Los Angeles, he’s seen plenty of perfectly sculpted people. While watching the television show, The Swan—which gives two women radical plastic surgery and then has them compete in a beauty pageant—he was struck by the moment when the women first saw themselves in the mirror. When they gazed at their images, he says, it was as if they were looking at a stranger “A perfectly realized Blade Runner moment.”
Kaino produced a hybrid creature for the recent show One Way Or Another at the Asia Society in New York which began with a simple premise: What would an animal want to be if it could be another animal? What if a salmon wanted to be tough like a shark? What if a pig, depressed from knowing his fate as a food product, wanted to be something else, but haphazardly chose another game animal, a cow? So he created Graft, a series of animals who swap skin, complete with visible, dark sutures. An ostrich with python skin is a new work on view at The Warhol.
“It’s really about the transmutation of identity,” says Kaino, who is Asian-American. “Much of my work is about taking opposing forces and finding a resonance balance. These pieces are
some of the sad pieces—an animal who wants to be another animal and chooses plastic surgery.”
In honor of Pittsburgh’s 250th birthday, Sokolowski, through a grant from the Heinz Endowments, also commissioned the hip young artist, whose work appeared in the prestigious Whitney Biennial in 2004, to create a public sculpture melding the city’s past, present, and future. Arch, the piece’s working title, to be unveiled late this fall at the corner of Fort Duquesne Boulevard and 7th Street, is a temporary sculpture that resembles a giant Transformer in motion. But instead of being made of cars, it’s comprised of current and historical Pittsburgh bridges.
“I wanted him to do a piece about identity,” says Sokolowski. While Polish, Italian, Irish, and German immigrants make up a large part of Pittsburgh’s makeup, Arch represents the transition from the traditional population and economy of steel to new immigrants and technologies influencing Pittsburgh.
“I think Kaino’s work complements all of the things Andy Warhol talked about by using modern technology in art,” Sokolowski continues. “What is the most viable way of seeing the world around us?”
For Kaino, it might be a 12-foot sand sculpture of Oz nestled in an oversized miniature Zen garden. Or a popular website called Uber.com, which he co-founded.
“Uber is a platform for anyone to come in and build websites for free,” Kaino says. “It arms people with the tools to compete in the new communications landscape. We are trying to figure out a way to have people express themselves any way they want—personal, entrepreneurial—and not be prohibitive.
“At the end of the day, I’m interested in progress,” he continues. “One of the bigger questions always is how to chart progress in the world where anything goes: What kind of quanta and evidence can we create to mark our path?”