Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Artist and the Exegete: Decoding Visions in Glenn Kaino's the Siege Perilous

Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Artist and the Exegete: Decoding Visions in Glenn Kaino's the Siege Perilous

Article excerpt

In 2002, artist Glenn Kaino created The Siege Perilous, a kinetic sculpture composed of an Aeron chair mounted on a steel and wood base and enclosed in a Plexiglass vitrine (Figure 1). Kaino's sculpture includes a mechanized component that intermittently spins the chair at a velocity such that viewers familiar with the Arthurian implications of its title may be able to discern its blurry outline-that of a chalice (Figure 2). For viewers initially unable to see the Grail, Kaino appends a textual explanation revealing the legacy of his perilous seat-both its contemporary political significance and its literary role in the Grail quest. Kaino's sculpture thus provides an object, a vision, and a decoder of both, demonstrating clear structural parallels to what I argue is its most similar medieval iteration: in the thirteenth-century prose La Queste del Saint Graal, no sooner does a knight encounter a strange object or have a perplexing vision than a label or a hermit appears to explain its significance. Relying on a similar structure, spectators may initially credit Kaino's explanatory text as the answer to the sculpture's riddle and therefore the end of inquiry; however, in both the thirteenth- and twenty-first-century versions, even those who discern the Grail image are denied a reading of the Grail's full significance. The final interpretation in both is leftfor the reader/ viewer. Medieval and contemporary art thus intersect via their foundations of unanswered questions underlying veneers of superficial answers. In this essay I argue that Glenn Kaino's The Siege Perilous cleverly uses the Arthurian tradition in order to comment on contemporary art and consumer culture: by aligning his chair and chalice with Merlin's seat and the Grail, Kaino points out the 'blurry' line between high and low, and between perceived and actual value in both contexts. Those viewers who discern the tensions between the intangible, unknowable Grail and seemingly graspable objects of power represented by the chair may proceed to overcome their reliance on qualified exegetes and to entertain their own readings for objects and images that have been emptied of their significance by contemporary aspirational culture.

Even a viewer well read in Arthurian romance may initially have trouble discerning the Grail in Kaino's The Siege Perlious. At first glance it looks like a dangerous place to sit simply because of its extreme velocity during its 'spin cycle.' To help his viewers with the medieval and political implications of his sculpture, Kaino displays the following text next to the piece:

The Aeron Chair is a powerful icon of the profligate dot-com economy of the late 1990s. It looks expensive. It is expensive. It was the chair that hundreds of start-up companies spent much of their investment money buying, a quick shortcut to the image of power and the aesthetics of success.

This particular chair spins up to two hundred revolutions per minute, in doing so transmuting its familiar appearance of high-tech ergonomics into a ghostly image of a chalice. Once up to full speed, the chalice shape can be seen only for a few seconds until the chair slows, transforming yet again by resuming its original form.

One image of power appears here in the abstracted image of another. The Siege Perilous refers to the mythological chair created by Merlin the Magician for King Arthur, in which only the last honest person, the finder of the Holy Grail, is able to sit.

Everyone asks if you can sit in the piece. If you think you're that person, go for it.1

Although he declines to go into detail about the specific medieval roots of his project, Kaino reveals the interconnected nature of the chair and the chalice in literature, permitting the casual viewer to 'see the Grail' and its connections to the Aeron chair as an image of power. Those who linger over the sculpture and its accompanying rhetoric, however, may discern the strange tension between the 'aesthetics of success' Kaino claims the chair represents and the fact that Merlin created a chair not for such profligate gains but for 'the last honest person. …

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