Starting in 2013, Los Angeles-based conceptual artist Glenn Kaino has had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with a man whose act of protest had long inspired him. “Bridge” is Kaino’s 100-foot long construction featuring two hundred casts of former American track and field runner and Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith’s arm, which he raised as a human rights salute during the National Anthem after taking gold at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Kaino’s work will be installed as a part of a larger exhibition at the High Museum in Atlanta in fall 2018. We spoke with the artist to learn more about how his collaboration with Smith came to be.
On the podium of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico, African American medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos went from being top-performing athletes representing the United States to legendary activists with a simple yet powerful gesture. The photograph of Smith and Carlos with their heads lowered and their leather-clad fists raised is one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, and Kaino tells Colossal that it is one that he used to have taped to the side of his iMac.
A friend of Kaino’s noticed the picture and referred to Tommie as “Coach Smith,” revealing that he knew the former athlete from his days as track coach. The friend set up the meeting, and Kaino soon found himself at Coach Smith’s home in Atlanta, watching tape of the race in slow motion as Tommie broke it down almost frame by frame. “I didn’t have a pitch,” Kaino said of the way he finally approached the topic of collaboration with the gold medalist and his wife, “but I did have an observation.” He noticed that Tommie Smith’s home was like a “time bubble,” with memorabilia and references to his career and to his most famous moment. Kaino says that as someone who was born after the salute, the image has always been symbolic, but for the Smiths it was personal. “You shook my hand with that arm, you brush your teeth with that arm,” he said to Tommie.
Through the conversation, Kaino convinced Tommie to collaborate on a project that would remove the icon (the arm) from his body and help him see the salute the way that others do. Back in Los Angeles, after experimenting with what Kaino believes to have been the arm of an Aquaman figure, they got to work casting Smith’s arm and clenched fist. He used the cast to create hundreds of fiberglass arms, which he then painted gold and hung from wires to form, according to the artist’s website, “a golden path leading forward from the present but connected to the past, a spectacular reconciliation of a historic record, an individual memory, and a public symbol all renegotiated in an infrastructure of time to creates stories of the now.”
As for connecting the past and present, it is interesting to consider Kaino’s work and Smith’s salute as it relates to Black athletes today, like Colin Kaepernick, who are criticized for publicly protesting similar issues 50 years later. Kaino tells Colossal that he is working on a documentary to tell Smith’s story that goes deeper than the one image that everyone knows. For those who want to see “Bridge” in person, the exhibition, titled With Drawn Arms: Glenn Kaino and Tommie Smith, opens in Atlanta, Georgia at the High Museum on September 29, 2018. (via Artnet)