Interview with Glenn Kaino: Now you see him...

When Kaino thought the art world was getting too obsessed with money, he retreated into the realm of magic


Glenn Kaino is one of an up-and-coming generation of Los Angeles artists. The 39-year-old’s “kit bashing” sculptures (a model-makers’ term for using non-matching items to create a one-off object) and his engagement with the world of theatre and magicians are unified by the idea of taking seemingly disparate elements to create new, imaginary “worlds”. Until recently, Kaino was known for his conceptual sculptures—including works depicting one kind of animal masquerading as, and made out of, another. Following a two-year break, he had a solo show in September 2010 at LA’s non-commercial space, LAX Art, in which he introduced a new body of work informed by magical performance. Since then, his career has gained momentum. In January next year, Kaino’s latest series of works will be displayed at Honor Fraser, his first commercial gallery show in Los Angeles in ten years.

The Art Newspaper: How did the shift from sculpture to performance come about?

Glenn Kaino: In 2008 I was at Art Basel Miami Beach and the market was under severe pressure. I felt the dialogue was not about art but about art’s relationship to the market. At the end of the weekend, I told my gallerist at the time: “I’m going to suspend my practice and I’m going to start hanging out with magicians.” For ten years, I had done a magic trick at the beginning of studio visits as a litmus test of people’s belief [in embracing the unknown as explored through magic]. Half the people loved the trick and the other half tried to figure out how it worked—I never had a good meeting with the ones who tried to figure it out.

In 2008, I went back to neophyte magic status and started from the beginning, from how to hold a deck of cards. I learned that in the world of magic, there is a belief system. Magic revolves around the agency of the unknown, and secrecy. With the unknown, we can create imaginative worlds that don’t exist. Unbeknown to me, that has driven me the whole time. If you look at much of my past work, it is about creating conceptual worlds from which I create languages to articulate ideas that can’t be written about.

Your exhibition “Safe/Vanish” at LAX Art in 2010 was pivotal in your development as an artist. What was this project about?

It was an experimental lab exploring my work using magic. I had a series of performative events over the course of one year where I “captured” secrets from people in the attempt to create a sculpture that had no physical form. The safe in the gallery was merely a proxy to hold the secrets and keep them secret. The actual work of art is the collection of secrets. Conceptually, I sought to expand notions of form and the creation of value around an art object without any physicality. The secrets were the value. This was the first application of my new knowledge of magic and power of secrets.

After that exhibition, your career took off. Why do you think that was?

Two things: [my] growth as an artist and [my] interest in magic unlocking all the other work. For years I resisted identification and looked to references from the technological, scientific and cinematic worlds. When I diverted my attention from things that could be actively resolved to systems of faith—not in religious terminologies but in terms of a belief or unknown quanta—it rounded out the system and made it whole.

In an art landscape dominated by market perception and validation, I seek to provide an alternative. People are afraid of the unknown, things need to have an exact meaning. Creating a magical world, in which the idea of the unknown is pleasurable, recontextualises everything. We live in a moment of crisis and my contribution is to recontextualise the role of art and the artist. I’m trying to have people think about the world differently after engaging with my work, for them to reconsider the magical existence of things. I’m more enthusiastic and energetic about my work now; I feel it when I wake up in the morning.

Do you think that sharing this belief system of magic and the unknown counters some of the cynicism created by the art market?

Absolutely. Things need to have prices and the market function isn’t going away. So, what alternative systems can simultaneously be in place, which allow the world to flourish and function, despite the reliance on capital? I’m working on a project for the 2011 Art Basel Miami Beach’s Art Public [section] called Levitating the Fair. I’m building a 20ft by 20ft replica of the 1939 World’s Fair, with 80 planks sticking out of it. With a group of volunteers, we will hold it in the air for 24 consecutive hours. The idea is for us to have a collective delusion while still being in a context of understanding that there is a market. My project is elevating the fair in a metaphoric and practical way. I’ll be doing a magic trick with 200 people.

Your next solo show is at Honor Fraser in January 2012. How do you reconcile creating work which is meant to provide an alternative to a market-driven art world, for a commercial gallery?

I’m not rejecting the system, it’s just a matter of making sure the work’s set of considerations aren’t singular. At the opening, I will perform a piece called Suspending Sales, where I levitate Honor Fraser so she can’t sell my work. Many sales usually happen during the opening, but she won’t be able to move. In one room, there will be a nomadic art venue, where we show different artists and their identities are kept secret until after the show. In another room, I am hosting a show for the artist Cesar Garcia, entitled “The Mistake Room”. I’m not trying to subvert the market, I’m just trying to complicate things.

How much of your artistic practice is affected by living and working in Los Angeles?

LA is a diverse set of worlds. I was born and raised in LA, my family is from a pocket of Japanese and Mexican communities in East LA. My mother speaks Spanish and English, my grandmother understands Spanish, and we eat Mexican food at Christmas. The city is an interconnected matrix of languages and its geography has been very influential in my “world building”. The Magic Castle, which is the academy of magical arts, is the only place [of its kind] in the world, and it’s near my house. Fortunately, when I had this idea or instinct to pursue an aggressive and rigorous study of magic, the resources were available.

Which artists have influenced you?

I have a dynamic set of influences and look to a lineage of artists who have morphed form and shape. So, obviously Duchamp, who went from painter to sculptor to chess player—you could never identify him. Also, David Hammons and, from the older set, Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol. I have been very influenced by West Coast conceptualism—Mike Kelley, Jason Rhoades, Paul McCarthy, Chris Burden and Karen Carson—more than by artists in New York. I joined Rosamund Felson’s gallery when I was young because of Paul McCarthy and Jason Rhoades.

Why have you waited ten years to have a solo show at a commercial gallery in LA?

My last show was at Rosamund Felson in 2001, I haven’t been engaged in LA since then. In that time, I’ve had solo shows in New York, San Diego and San Antonio. There wasn’t really a support structure for artists in LA, collector-wise and enthusiasm-wise. There is a momentum in LA now, and the growth has been incredible. The city has always had great artists, but they had very few venues, which created a limited market place. Because of the economy of Hollywood and the fracture, both geographically and culturally, from New York, there wasn’t the same commitment to cultural and social production. There was a commitment to big parties, Hollywood movies and driving fast cars.

In February 2011, you orchestrated a magical performance entitled A Walk Through China in which you cut the actress and model China Chow in half. What was that project about?

LAX Art wanted to inaugurate their new annex space in Hollywood so I thought, what a great opportunity, let’s cut China in half and you have to walk through her as the ribbon-cutting of the space. We wanted to inaugurate that space with the belief system that, if you don’t believe she’s cut in half, don’t walk through and don’t go in the space, because you’re not welcome.