It is no accident of history that the first Earth Day, in April 1970, came so soon after color photographs of the whole earth from space were made by homesick astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission to the moon in December 1968. Those riveting Earth photos reframed everything… Humanity’s habitat looked tiny, fragile and rare. – Stewart Brand
TINY & RARE: LIVING PAINTINGS
In the middle of the night, under the glow of blue light, two bushy, greenish-purple Galaxea Coral extend thread-like, milky white tendrils in the direction of a giant mauve Montipora, which spreads like a log fungus between them. Bearing high-density stinger cells on the tips of impossibly long “sweeper tentacles,” the Galaxea burn the Montipora’s outside edges white and dead, marking the far boundaries of their territory and preventing any possibility of future encroachment.
In the next tank over, a dozen or so Acan Brain Coral are ever so slowly multiplying across the center of the island-like slab of “land” they inhabit. Each is a dazzling cluster of lozenge-shaped polyps in nature-defying color combinations—hot pinks and electric blues, lime greens and lavenders—that looks as if painstakingly sculpted out of chenille pipe cleaners. Mounding, swelling, and densely abutting, together they evince nothing so much as a living map, with the contours of each territory defining and defined by its neighbors. Meanwhile, all around the perimeter of the island, like parkland at the periphery of a city, are grassy expanses of Green Star Polyps claiming evermore space via the emission of a purple, polyp-containing ooze.
Rising above this contest for space is an elegant, pale pink, saucer-shaped Pagoda Cap Coral resembling an ear cocked to the sky. Growing tall rather than wide, this graceful coral is in fact playing the long game: it will survive and flourish through an agile and passive-aggressive approach, casting a death-inducing shadow over the coral below that will slowly but surely deprive them of light.
And so goes the drama playing out in the ten coral-inhabited landscapes at the heart of Glenn Kaino’s Tank, in which more than a hundred species engage in ongoing battles for survival, space, and dominance: advancing, retreating, attacking, reacting, and destroying parts of one another as they go.
It is easy to miss these conflicts entirely, however, and instead get lost in the stunning beauty and ravishing spectacle of Tank’s exquisite coral compositions, which Kaino aptly describes as “living paintings.” (And, indeed, much of the more dramatic coral action occurs out of sight, as the coral feed and fight primarily at night.) Everything about the manner in which the “paintings” are presented—from the low, proportionally scaled, vitrine-like zero-edge tanks in which they are displayed, to the short stands upon which they are set and lifted, as if rare artifacts, or fine jewels—directs us to view them as precious things. This installation presents the opposite of an aquarium environment: it is framing device and spotlight presenting these extraordinary objects for delectation and contemplation.
Kaino has clearly accorded extensive consideration to the formal attributes of these works, which have been growing under scrutinous care for more than a year now. Like a savvy landscape designer, he undertook elaborate research and closely collaborated with a team of coral experts in order to gain an intimate understanding of the behaviors, growth patterns, and colonizing habits of each species, so as to arrange and harness them to specific, strategic, and highly imaginative effect. The resulting—and ever-evolving—living artworks enthrall as abstract plays of color, texture, line, shape, and movement, and as specific environments into which we can readily project ourselves. Like bonsai trees, the coral formations are living things that also resemble miniature versions of much larger living things, and the worlds inside the tanks suggest scale models of real or imaginary landscapes, provoking a fantastic field of associations—from Hudson River School paintings to scenes from science fiction films. And then, too, is the close resemblance of some of these compositions to maps, with patchworks formed by coral pushing and pressing against one another in an instinctual quest for space.
The best views are from above. And so, with no wall to separate us, we put our faces close to the glassy surface of the water, and peer down onto these tiny, fragile landscapes. As we do, we feel at least a partial urge to reach down through the water to touch. We could pluck a fantastic Acan from its home and put it in our pocket; or, with an aggressive sweep of an arm, we could perhaps destroy one of these coral colonies completely. Existence, for the moment, is in our hands.
GHOSTS OF A WAR MACHINE: TANK HABITAT
In time—maybe months, maybe years, maybe a decade, depending on the ocean's moods—an alien expanse of raw steel will be encrusted with algae, tunicates, hard and soft corals, and sponges, sprouting life everywhere like a giant Chia Pet.
– Stephen Harrigan, “Relics to Reef,” National Geographic2
“Tanks Take On New Role as Artificial Reefs to Attract Fish,” published in the New York Times in December 19943,reported on the New Jersey launch of Reef-Ex (Reef Exercise), a joint military program in which old battle tanks—in this case, a batch of M-60s that had served in Vietnam—were being dumped into ocean waters as a means of creating artificial reefs.
A cooperative effort among the Department of Defense, the National Guard, and federal and state environmental organizations, the program was designed to solve the costly problem of what to do with thousands of huge, obsolete army tanks4, while simultaneously providing much-needed, long-lasting habitats for fish and reef dwellers. As these fish and coral transformed the tanks into thriving underwater ecosystems, they would in turn attract more fishing, scuba diving, and tourism dollars to the shoring states.
Successful in accomplishing its goals, Reef-Ex endures: South Carolina recently celebrated 17 years of participation in the program, with the Department of Natural Resource’s dump of 36 M113s into coastal waters near Beaufort, SC. “It won’t be long before these recently dropped vehicles will be covered with long puffs of soft corals, sea sponges and barnacles and used by a variety of fish to provide food and protection,” said DNR representative Robert Martore in the Army Times.5
I think of my practice as conceptual “kit-bashing” . . . using the parts of different model kits to make something new, sans instructions. I draw from a diverse set of materials, ideas and systems of knowledge, putting them together in ways that should not succeed but somehow do.
– Glenn Kaino6
In the Reef-Ex program Glenn Kaino found a readymade “bashed kit” of sorts, and in its effects the core idea that would drive him to produce Tank: “I wanted to create a living artwork that would represent the poetic paradox of some of the world’s tiniest organisms reclaiming instruments of some of the largest.”7 Just as coral in the “wild” go about their work encrusting the exoskeletons of retired military tanks dropped in ocean waters just off American shores, so the coral in Tank’s ten vitrines march forward in their colonization of translucent resin-cast fragments of the same, recreating, at a micro-scale, the process—rather like magic—of disappearing the ghosts of outmoded military machines long since replaced by more sophisticated equipment and methods of combat.
Tank’s coral grow on casts that Kaino created using molds taken directly from a decommissioned M-60 Main Battle Tank8, the massive body of which he mapped and drew upon in order to home in on particularly resonant areas relative to both formal attributes and associated functions: a hatch, a spoke, a hinge.9 The surfaces of the sculptures are further etched with scratches accumulated by the M-60 over years of use in battle, as well as with marks from the process of the M-60’s own making—itself a casting process, and the tank itself a kind of sculpture.10 Within the installation, the casts function both as stand-ins for the actual M-60 (whose steel surfaces provide an amenable habitat for coral in the ocean, but would be toxic to coral in tanks the scale of those in the gallery), and as evocative objects speaking of memory and loss, secrets and stealth.
(Re)creating the Reef-Ex paradox in the form Tank, Kaino holds it up for contemplation and sets us on a course of free association and philosophical rumination about both the action playing out across the surfaces of these casts, as well as in the ocean, and what these have to tell us about ourselves and our world in metaphorical and tangible terms. On one level, the coral at the heart of Tank may be seen to represent—in a poetic, crystallized sort of manner—a fundamental assertion of hope, renewal, and the will to live: the possibility of growth in the wake of death, of regeneration following destruction. Through the actions of tiny, non-rational beings seeking home, man-made refuse of war is productively repurposed, its previous function inverted. Stripped of its armaments and recontextualized from land to sea, the steel exoskeleton of the tank becomes an oasis-like surface for coral to grow. Providing a host of captivating hiding places for a diversity of marine life to settle and coexist, what once housed and shielded human bodies as they fired away at enemies has become a protective and conducive habitat for building new ecosystems.
And yet as these coral attach, transform, and (ultimately) decompose the tank, they (re)enact—on a micro scale—the colonizing impulse that drove and fed the creation of the very surfaces on which they are acting. They wound and kill one another in their pursuit of more space to occupy, asserting the borders of their territory and protecting themselves from other species operating likewise, reliant on their own brand of chemical weapons and strategies of warfare to do so. Over there, a branchy Acropora has been entirely consumed by Green Star Polyps, with just a few shrinking branches remaining visible under a sea of grassy green.
Barely visible through an opening in one of the heavy, industrial-looking bases upon which the tanks in the gallery sit, is a crack of light leaking through a hole in the floor of the gallery. Through the hole, two hoses are pulled, disappearing into the basement below. These are the lifelines for the Tank system, connecting all of the tanks to the central “life support system” housed below.
This system was designed and built expressly for the project by a cross-disciplinary team of marine life experts, artists, and designers at Aquamoon design studio and aquatics laboratory, whose Chicago-based lab serves as “the Mothership” for the project, and who have, over the past 18 months, worked tirelessly to provide the ultimate environment in which these coral might thrive. The system strives to provide an environment that comes as close as possible to replicating the biology of the ocean, with water quality and other conditions such as lighting balances (combinations of blue light and white light custom mixed to respond to the needs of the coral species in each tank) and temperature constantly monitored and tweaked. Even prior to placing the very first coral onto the M-60 casts, Bob Van Valkenberg, principal in charge of animal husbandry was issuing a weekly status to Kaino, Grand Arts, and the rest of the project team, detailing all manner of news pertaining to the conditions of the system and progress of coral growth, including reports on particular threats to the system—such as invasions of Nudibranchs and Aipstasia, inadvertently imported with new additions of coral, which “if left unchecked can propagate to epidemic proportions.”11
’s subterranean support system aspires to replicate ocean conditions in many ways, here the vastness of the ocean is replaced by a far more knowable and controllable environment. As if in a hospital, the coral in this finite little world receive constant nurturing, and ongoing attention to any modifications that may best support coral health and maximize growth. Temperatures and light levels can be readily manipulated, and coral are occasionally removed and provided special care in isolation. And yet while the small scale and closed nature of this system allow for close-up and fine-tuned coral care, they also define and perpetuate its fragile nature, acutely limiting its capacity to absorb shock or adapt to change.
It seems worth noting that the nature of the coral themselves is paradoxical: even as they fight with other coral species, coral are engaged in a symbiotic relationship at the microscopic level as they are, in fact, animal-plant hybrids. Living within the tissue of the coral are Zooxanthellae—microscopic algae of the genus Symbiodinum (as in symbiosis)—which provide the coral the majority of nutrients they need to live as well as giving them their spectacular color. In turn, the coral offer the algae protection and the carbon dioxide they need for photosynthesis.
When the algae inside the coral do not get enough light, they die, leaving bleached white, calcified shells behind. In the “wild,” coral thus act as barometers of distress, being among the first species effected by changes to their environment. As water levels and temperatures rise due to climate change, and as water becomes murkier due to pollution and development, coral are dying at rapid rates, with the loss of reefs affecting marine biodiversity much more broadly. While there are efforts to mitigate the situation—such as growing replacement coral through aquaculture and building artificial reefs through programs like Reef-Ex—these are small-scale in relation to the size of the problem. Scientists predict that most of the world’s reef resources will be lost over the next century, an outcome, according to the International Coral Reef Initiative, that will “seriously affect the lives of 500 million people, of which 30 million are largely dependent on reefs for their livelihoods.”12
In addition to the many questions it poses, Tank is a meditation on scale: how where we stand has everything to do with what we (are able to) see, and understand, and how this perspective consequently shapes our actions and behavior. As Stewart Brand observes relative to seeing photos of the Earth for the first time, a shift in frame of reference—a significant zoom out, or zoom in—has the potential and the power to change everything.
With Tank, Glenn Kaino, in a sense, brings the ocean into the gallery. Like constructing a scale model, he reduces what is large, so that we can see it, understand it, feel it better. From a distance, the ocean is an abstraction—foreign, distant, and unknowable; tanks and all manner of things can be hidden in it, dumped and forgotten, out of sight, out of mind. Similarly, technological advancements fuel evermore “sophisticated” methods of warfare—with tanks housing vulnerable human bodies replaced by drones and smart bombs that facilitate technologized violence perpetrated at ever-greater distances from sites of conflict with ever-greater abstraction of human targets, like sweeper tentacles getting longer and longer. But here in the gallery, in close proximity to these tiny life forms, this sort of distancing is nearly impossible. As we lean over to peer through the water’s surface down onto Tank’s exquisite coral landscapes, projecting ourselves into them and catching our own reflections, perhaps we might share with the Apollo 8 astronauts a heightened empathy and a desire to protect a rare and precarious home.