Los Angeles musician Deon Jones carries tenor over piano harmony — “How long must we sing this song.” He is singing U2’s Bloody Sunday, and he is standing in a ring of light. It streams through a column of bars, and when he touches them they ring like a marimba in the clear tones of the guitar line.
In his voice, a protest in Derry, Northern Ireland, comes together with a protest Selma, Alabama, and they become as present and as immediate as a night last summer when people across the country mourned the death of George Floyd and called for change.
Around the music, life-sized people form from shadows in scenes from nights and days like these. Stones from the sites of protests around the world are sailing like asteroids and wooden ships — and the vast space of Gallery 5 becomes a cosmos of magic.
Jones has worked for years with internationally acclaimed Los Angeles artist Glenn Kaino, and in early April, Kaino brings his new work, In the Light of a Shadow, to Mass MoCA.
“The whole composition is a spiral galaxy moving through space,” said curator Denise Markonish.
It opens on the same day Nolan Jimbo opens Close to You, a group show exploring kinship and intimacy in a divided world.
Kaino is known for film and music, shadow play and illusion. He creates microcosms with aquariums of colored corals, bioluminescent plankton, subatomic particles made visible in a tank of frozen vapor. Here at Mass MoCA, he invents an elusive macrocosm, a universe where shadows come alive — and they invoke moments when people choose to stand visible and hold their ground.
He is an Emmy awardwinning producer, and as a visual artist he has shown solo installations around the world in sculpture, performance and public works.
Early on, he described this work as a civil history of revolution, Markonish said. People keep asking her if he has just developed iIn the Light of a Shadow, because it feels so current.
She and Kaino have had this show evolving since January 2016. They met that winter at his studio, as she was setting up an exhibit here on wonder. She felt the themes in her show connecting and sparking with his interests in science and sleight-of-hand.
“The show is choreographed,” Markonish said. “It will propel you along.”
Protest in magic and shadow
Usually, shadow art sets an object as the center, intercepting the light. Here, she said, the shadows are the main stars. They will move through the space, and people can interact with them: “You can step in front of the light and add yours.”
They come from miniature figures. Kaino is working with a sculptor in Los Angeles, Lyndon J. Barrois Jr., who makes tiny forms and transforms them with light.
In the long gallery, shadow people take shape. They re-create scenes drawn from historical photographs.
“If you know the images, you’ll recognize them,” Markonish said.
She described a famous and shocking image from James ‘Spider’ Martin, the documentary photographer, of John Lewis beaten by police. Martin recorded protestors and troopers at the foot of the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965.
In this moment, Lewis was standing at the center of the American Bloody Sunday. He led more than 600 people across the bridge. They were setting out on a walk 54 miles to the state capitol, to the governor, to call on him to protect voting rights assured in the Constitution.
At the far side of the bridge, state troopers blocked the way. Lewis and his fellow leaders stood still. Police officers attacked them. Television press recorded the whole event on camera.
When U2 released their rock ballad in 1983, they were commemorating a Bloody Sunday in Ireland. Like Selma, it came out of a tension going back four hundred years. Ireland had been fighting British dominance since the early 1600s, and the Republic of Ireland had gained independence in 1920. From the 1960s into the 1990s, Northern Ireland split in conflict between nationalists who wanted Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland and unionists who wanted to remain under British rule.
On January 30, 1972, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association led a protest march against internment without trial. They were unarmed. British soldiers fired on the marchers, and at least 14 people died.
Voices rise in past and present
“How long must we sing this song.” As Jones sings the question, here at Mass MoCA, he recalls a night he lived through a few months ago.
On a city street last summer, he had come out to join the community in peaceful protest and mourning after George Floyd’s death. He is recording on his phone as police box in a group of people. “They will not let us leave.” He is standing with the phone in his hand, and an officer a few feet away fires a pistol shot. Then Jones is bleeding from a rubber bullet. He survived by a fraction of an inch.
The images of his experiences carry into the music, in a film by cinematographer Larry Fong and producer Butch Vig, and Jones is singing with Grammy winning jazz musician and pianist Jon Batiste and Wilco percussionist Glenn Kotche.
“I can’t believe the news today.
I can’t close my eyes …”
It has always part of the plan for the show to find a way to re-release the song, Markonish said.
“After that incident with Deon, Glenn called and said ‘I know who needs to sing that song.’ For Deon to sing it on the heels of being brutalized — the first time I saw the first cuts, you see the tears streaming down his face …”
She wept too, she said, when she first saw it, and she still does.
U2 performed the song as a power ballad with driving percussion. Deon sings over piano chords. His voice is deep and clear, present, in pain, intransmutable.
“Tonight we can be as one.”
Starships are meant to fly
Around the music, Kaino is creating shadow play from rock. He has often used stone in his work, Markonish said: “A rock on the ground is transformed when it is in your hand or in the air — it has potential.”
He has collected stones at the sites or protests around the world, from Cairo, Benghazi, Fergusson. Here he turns some of them into ships with square-rigged sails made from found post cards. Some come into contact with his shadow invocations of protesters in Tiananmen Square, in Derry, anywhere in the world.
They orbit one of the largest elements in the show. Kaino re-creates the Shadow V, a fishing boat the IRA bombed in 1979 to kill the former head of the British armed forces, Lord Mountbatten. The explosion killed or injured people in his family and the ship’s crew.
Kaino and Markonish traveled to Derry as he researched the show, and he sought to understand the history of Northern Ireland.
“We talked with a man who lost his father on Bloody Sunday,” she said.
Glenn has built the ship as an ouroboros, an endless ring. He has made it from burnt planks with words of protest, transparent with light. At the center of Kaino’s imagined galaxy, to a sound like a heartbeat, the front and back of the ship crash into one another.
He creates a suspended place and time, a place for belief and possibility.
In March, Kaino came here himself to create the shadows. Mass MoCA’s fabrication team has built unprecedented shows, Markonish said, but the museum needed Kaino and his team to create these effects themselves. They shut off the lights and covered the windows, and in the last two weeks, his team has been working in headlamps in the dark.
“Magic can stop the world,” she said. “It can speak to you in a visceral way without words — and ask you to believe in it. Nick Cave asked you that,” in his show at Mass MoCA in 2016, in his labyrinth of gleaming mobiles and light. “It’s powerful.”