Note: This essay was produced in collaboration with the artist for his solo show Leviathan at Kavi Gupta Chicago, on view through December 20, 2014.
In Glenn Kaino’s series “Now Do I Repay a Period Won” (2014), each piece begins with a pristine mirrored metal surface shaped into abstract geometric forms that have then been deformed, presumably dented from the impact of an unknown and unseen projectile. Rather than shattering the mirrored steel, this violent attack creates a circular indentation that appears smooth and liquid, calm and resonating; a poetic contradiction to the means of its inception. The dents interact dynamically as one scans the visual plane, rippling into one another fluidly within the reflected image of the world.
The dents bend space as the mirror ingests it. Their curved shape mysteriously captures and projects more panoramic space than the flat reflection; a larger world implanted within the indentation. In “Of Other Places,” Michel Foucault writes of the post-modern phenomenon of the heterotopia as a real space of “otherness” that functions both in the physical world and simultaneously within our minds. He uses mirror-space as a heterotopic metaphor – its duality is expressed as both a real object that shapes the way you see yourself and your context; but yet the reflected image does not exist as a real place. The heterotopic is placeless space that distorts all other places by its very existence.
Time also becomes skewed in these distorted planes because of its relationship with space; these works embody a mutated space-time. With a miniature replication of the world reflected in the dents, microcosmically repeated and compressed inside the macrocosmic linearity of the smooth steel surface, a different mode of nonlinear time is implied – mirror-time. The passage of time inside the dent paintings, inside these heterotopic mirrored spaces, is elliptical, nesting, reversible. Roland Barthes first proposed mirror-time in his analysis of Robbe-Grillet’s “The Erasers.” He describes this circular plot device as being when the beginning of the story involves “men and objects in an itinerary at whose end they are left almost the same as the start. It is precisely as if the whole story were reflected in a mirror which puts on the left what is on the right and conversely…” The mirror-time of these paintings is exponentially intensified – not only are they reflecting space from left to right and right to left, but within the reflection are infinitely more complex reflections of upside-down, repetition, and ripple.
We return urgently to a more traditionally linear understanding of place, of time, and of history when it is revealed that the dents are made from real rocks collected from the streets where protests against state power occurred in numerous countries around the globe. But these rocks are ghosts, simultaneously present but absent; the activation of the history of their effort in constant play long after their expiration. The complication continues when one learns that the shapes of the mirrors themselves are taken from the silhouettes of broken windows and doors from American Embassies that have been attacked around the world.
Questions immediately arise given this new understanding – what were the circumstances of these attacks? Who were the people involved, and what political agency did they have? When and how did these referenced attacks occur? We cannot know these unknowable conditions, because they do not exist in real space within the paintings. We do learn that these works reference sites of both recent and older conflicts, including Benghazi, Damascus, Yemen, Turkey, Cairo, Athens, and Sudan. All likely involve uprisings against instances of power, against capitalist irresponsibility, and against tyranny. And all repeat, as history repeats itself, in these areas of the world. Roland Barthes says of mirror-time plots, “Of course, for the return to be significant, the point of departure must be singular.” There is a murder mystery to these works. An attack occurred, in this case the violent act of a rock hitting polished steel in an artist’s studio, but this is conflated into all attacks, into an imaginary of transformation through place-based political protest.
In their work Economic Imaginaries, JK Gibson-Graham write about the mutability of seemingly immutable forces of power: “In the place-based imaginary, every place is to some extent “outside” the various places of control; places change imitatively, partially, multidirectionally, sequentially, and space is transformed via changes in place.” The distortions in the ersatz mirrored embassy windows are both a reflection and re-imagining of the space around it, bending space by mutating place. This embraces Foucault’s heterotopia, but also assigns political agency to those doing the bending, and this speaks to the transformative power of protest in creating new social imaginaries. Rather than a singular act of tearing down the system, though, this is a more subtle, ongoing, circular practice of continual struggle – a struggle to “transform subjects and places and conditions of life under circumstances of difficulty and uncertainty.”
The rock does not shatter the steel, nor destroy it, nor dismantle it – it transforms it from something intentionally fabricated to something altered. The violence of the act bespeaks struggle, and frustration, and even desperation. It is uncertain how rock and steel will interact, how the result will shape the mirror-world.
JK Gibson-Graham go on to assign masculine and feminine orientations to these imaginaries – not social imaginaries, they posit, but rather two ways of expressing transformative politics. The male orientation embraces positivity, something wholistic like Empire, of which “it is the project of politics to dismantle and replace.” The female orientation starts with a negativity, “disarticulated places and empty subjects,” around which the practice of politics involves “articulation and subjectification.”
These works embrace both of these orientations in constant and uneasy tension with one another; the shape of the steel reminiscent of Empire, a positivistic instance of power staking ground within foreign territory — just as seemingly monolithic, just as impenetrable. The violent attack on the surface is meant to dismantle, to replace this power, but this is shown as a futile act. Instead we are left with these beautiful distortions, which articulate the space, the conditions, the surfaces in a way previously invisible or opaque to us. This is a metaphor for a new vision of politics: “Politics in this vision is an ethical process of becoming.” It is never fixed and always unexpectedly molded, requiring a constant process of recalibration – of our own subjectivities and relationship to place, space, time, and power.
 Michel Foucault, “Of Other Places” March 1967, http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/foucault1.pdf
 Roland Barthes, Critical Essays , Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1972, p. 22.
 JK Gibson-Graham, “Economic Imaginaries,” excerpted from JK Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 6.
 Gibson-Graham, 7.
 Gibson-Graham, 8.