“The way cats were born to meow, I was born to make art,” the artist Kenny Irwin Jr. said in a recent phone interview. For more than 30 years, Irwin, who is 42, has devoted himself to working on RoboLights, a sprawling light installation in a residential section of Palm Springs, California, that has drawn tens of thousands of fans at the end of each year but also consternation from some of its neighbors.
Now, following a long legal tussle that has finally been concluded, RoboLights will travel for the first time, going on view on the grounds of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit, by Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead, on October 25. A photography book about the installation shot by Julie Reyes Taubman, the late founder of MOCAD, will debut in late May. “Robolights was like nothing Julie had ever seen,” her husband, Robert S. Taubman, said. “I think Kenny came to view Julie as someone who could celebrate what he was doing. It’s a fortuitous outcome for the show to be traveling to Detroit.”
The presentation at MOCAD is “inspired by futuristic dreams of distant star systems,” Irwin said. “The installation will transform the quarter-acre sized lawn into a psychedelic world filled with towering mechanized robots, strange creatures from the future, and millions of lights.”
Irwin was born in Palm Springs, and has created installations for the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore as well as a holiday-themed set for Conan O’Brien’s former late night show. He began RoboLights in 1986 at the home of the artist’s father, with 75,000 lights, and he estimated that it has since grown to more than 8 million lights across two acres of land at his father’s house.
In recent years, some Palm Springs residents saw the colorful display as a nuisance in the upscale Movie Colony section of town, where the former estates of Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Cary Grant are situated. Following a legal battle that Irwin won, a settlement agreement was reached, with Palm Springs agreeing to pay him $125,000 to find a new home for the project in a commercial area, away from the residential neighborhood its long inhabited.
“For years I’ve dreamt about making it a year-round attraction,” Irwin said, emphasizing that the move to a new venue in Palm Springs–after its upcoming appearance in Detroit, which runs through January 6, 2020–will be a good thing for the immersive installation, and part of his ambitions to build the world’s largest “art park.”
“I dream to build the world’s first full-scale amusement park dedicated to the visual arts,” he said, “a year-round Palm Springs, California attraction open 365 days of the year to eventually have immersive art installation rides, a 60-toilet pink carousel, a fully legit museum with a high-speed rollercoaster going through it, bumper cars with full-size cars, and so much more.”