Glenn Kaino’s 'Burning Boards' Candle Chess Performance Illuminates the Possible at the World Chess Hall of Fame

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

On Monday night, as 512 candles were lit in an upper room of the World Chess Hall of Fame, 16 strange games of chess began. In artist Glenn Kaino’s vision of the classic game of conflict and strategy, there are three ways the game could possibly end: The pieces are unrecognizable; they’re unplayable or they’re immoveable—they’ve fallen over or gotten stuck to the board. Unusual, yes, but Kaino’s version, played with burning candles instead of traditional pieces, is anything but ordinary. Instead, it’s inspired by a quote from philosopher Martin Heidegger: “The possible ranks higher than the actual.”

Glenn Kaino's candle chess performance art at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis

“To me, my work has often been about using art and activities and objective form with art-making to try to create and solve irreconcilable problems,” Kaino says, who explains he constructs this situation to “allow different types of imaginaries to happen.”

The moment the game starts, the game also begins to end. The burning pieces not only add a sense of urgency as players resort to manipulating their burning, shrinking pieces with tongs, but a game that is about ruthless dominance becomes one of cooperation: Opponents become partners, having to band together to play out the game, rather than let the inevitable flames get the best of both of them. As Larry List, Guest Curator at the WCHOF, said as he was introducing the game, it’s a “mixture of speed-dating and Mortal Kombat.”

“I will say that for this particular work, every time we’ve performed it, I always forget how incredibly intense it is, no matter what level of chess player you are, because the fire becomes a meditation in a different way,” Kaino says.

Glenn Kaino's candle chess performance art at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis

The game he organized last night is the third performance of “Burning Boards” since it debuted at the Whitney Museum in NYC in 2007 (the second performance was the following year at the Orange County Museum in California). It’s always 16 boards, one for each century of chess, making the performance a group effort, and it’s always members of the chess community (coaches, champions and enthusiasts) who are paired to play against members of the arts community (designers, professors and curators). Kaino played against the current World Chess Champion, Norway’s 23-year-old Magnus Carlsen, who is gearing up to defend his title in November.

“The difference between 2007 and now is seven years but, you know, we live in a time of crisis,” Kaino says. “It just really resonates how much this work – which is about creating something that’s ostensibly about conflict and making it about collaboration – might intuit into our souls something about how we might rethink the notions of conflict and imaginary and hopefully come to some sort of collaborative conclusion.”

Read more about Kaino’s visual works on show at the WCHOF, as well as other current exhibitions, including an exhibit showcasing the product designs of architect Michael Graves.

Images courtesy Austin Fuller

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