MOCAD is gearing up for its fall arts season with a twisted, whimsical holiday display

Sep 18, 2019 at 1:00 am
Kenny Irwin Jr. at work on his Robolights installation at MOCAD.
Kenny Irwin Jr. at work on his Robolights installation at MOCAD. Li Miller

Since early August, artist Kenny Irwin Jr. has been tirelessly working to transform the lawn of Mike Kelley's Mobile Homestead at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit into a winter wonderland — with a Detroit twist.

There are cone-shaped Christmas trees made out of old computer parts. Nearby are more in-progress trees, these ones made from discarded propane tanks. Overhead, an inflatable Frosty the Snowman sits atop what looks like an under-construction giant robot.

The project is a Detroit version of the Palm Springs, California-based artist's Robolights installation, which Irwin, the son of a hotelier, had built up over the past three decades into a tourist attraction that drew more than 60,000 visitors annually.

"I always had a fascination with lights, and the whimsy of the holidays," Irwin says, taking a quick break from the installation work on a recent Saturday. "I always liked fun and happy things. So, my dad and I were driving around once during the holidays ... and I wondered, 'Well, why don't more people put up lights in the area?' And then [my dad] says, 'Well, why don't you go ahead and do it? You know, go for it!'"

That was back in 1986, when Irwin was about 12 years old. Meanwhile, that same year, in Detroit, Tyree Guyton began transforming his blighted childhood neighborhood into the sprawling, polka-dotted found-object playground known as the Heidelberg Project. Irwin later attended Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills and visited the Heidelberg Project on a field trip, where he met Guyton. (Irwin was asked not to return to Cranbrook after he transformed his dorm room into a Robolights-like installation.) Back in Palm Springs, Irwin, like Guyton, eventually ran into opposition from his local government and his neighbors, some of whom did not want his whimsical creations in their neighborhood. Irwin is now in the process of moving the Palm Springs Robolights to a new, commercially zoned location, just as Guyton is in the process of consolidating the Heidelberg Project into "Heidelberg 3.0," which is planned to feature a more permanent museum and artists studio.

But Irwin says that while he regards Guyton as a fellow traveler and says he has met him several times over the years, Robolights is not necessarily inspired by the Heidelberg Project – or what Guyton calls "Heidelbergology."

"I've been making art ever since I was born," Irwin says. "I was born as an artist — like cats are born to 'meow,' pretty much. So I always loved creating things, building things, making stuff out of other things. When things were given to me, I'd take them apart. [I was] fascinated with robots, and aliens, and spaceships, and space exploration, and what life might lay out there in the stars ... It all sort of stratifies through my art and the Robolights experience that you see and the whimsy of the holidays combined with it."

Robolights is further tied to Detroit due to MOCAD's former board member, the late Julia Reyes Taubman, who photographed Robolights. The photos, the last Taubman ever took, are collected in the book Kenny Irwin: The Robolights Project, Palm Springs 1986-2017, which is on sale in MOCAD's gift shop.

Irwin has been working on the Detroit Robolights since he arrived in Michigan in early August. He says he averages about 14 hours of work a day, seven days a week, stopping just to pray. (Irwin has converted to Islam.) The show opens to the public on Friday, Oct. 25, and includes an exhibition of Irwin's pen and ink drawings inside the Mobile Homestead. The installation will be up through the winter, which should liven up Detroit's Noel Night festivities.

MOCAD is taking donations for Irwin to use for Robolights through early October; whatever Irwin receives will determine how the project takes shape. MOCAD executive director Elysia Borowy-Reeder says the museum can even send a truck to pick up large items. (So far, someone has already donated a boat.) She says they don't want anything "smelly, explosive, slimy, or illegal," which is good advice for things to avoid in general, in life.

"Basically, the premise behind Robolights is a 'why not?' world in a 'why?' world," Irwin says. "It's kind of like if you took a museum, and you took an amusement park, and they both got together and had a baby."

"This exhibition at MOCAD marks the first time that Robolights will be presented on a large scale outside of California and the only opportunity to see what the artist has created for Detroit," says Amy Corle, MOCAD's curator of education and public engagement. "Irwin's dazzling carnival of towering robots, dinosaurs, alien spacecraft, and fantastical creatures from the future all painted in a wondrous array of vivid colors and wrapped up in thousands of lights is a one of a kind experience that should not be missed.”

Aside from Robolights, MOCAD has plenty of other events set for the fall season. Martin Creed, the conceptual artist whose neon light message "EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT" has adorned MOCAD's facade since it first opened its doors in 2006, will kick off his "part-talk, part-concert, and part cabaret" performance art tour at the museum on Thursday, Sept. 26. Doors are at 8 p.m., and tickets are $7, or free for MOCAD members.

On Friday, Oct. 11 MOCAD will host its annual gala benefit, featuring a silent auction, entertainment from Claude Young, and food from Bacco. Also opening on Oct. 25 is Richard Prince: Portraits, which highlights new work from the artist best known for redefining concepts like authorship and appropriation, and Crossing Night: Regional Identities x Global Context, which highlights lens-based work from emerging artists from southern Africa. The exhibition was organized by the A4 Arts Foundation — a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the creative arts in southern Africa.

Li Miller contributed to this report.

MOCAD is located at 4454 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-6622;

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