While flaneuring Palm Springs’ Movie Colony neighbourhood just east of their Design District we suddenly came upon three huge robot-looking creatures amongst the trees - one pink, one yellow and one orange. The pink robot was probably 30-feet high. Quickly the light bulb went on; this is the house with the bizarre Christmas light show I had read about.
Peering over the bushes and the fence we could see hundreds of strange-looking creatures created out of recycled junk that looked like a surreal mash-up of characters from Star Wars to Jurassic Park. Did a 21st century Dali or Duchamp live here?
We had to come back at night!
Robolights 101 / Kenny's World
Basically, Robolights is a giant art installation with millions of lights and hundreds of giant creatures from various folklores and movies, as well as Christmas and cartoon characters that fill a two-acre residential lot in Palm Springs’ Movie Colony neighbourhood. The work of artist Kenny Irwin Jr., it is billed as the largest, most spectacular residential light display in America, perhaps the entire world.”
What began in 1986 as a 9-year old boy’s dream has become Kenny’s altered reality (he still lives in the family house year-round surrounded by his installation). He has built on almost every available square centimeter of the homestead – his childhood sandbox, the tennis court, the pool and the even the roof of the house.
His first piece was a 10-foot tall wooden creature with a 1940s phone coming out of its chest. Since then, he has continued to work on the display year-round using donated junk from friends and strangers (e.g. when a local casino was upgrading the slot machines, they donated all the electronic equipment and some old machines), as well as purchasing things on EBay.
Ironically while it is called Robolights, there are no real robots in the show and Irwin doesn’t even celebrate Christmas, having converted to Islamic many years ago.
Visitors are welcome year-round by donation, but it really comes alive from Thanksgiving to the first week of January when extra lights are added to make it more Christmassy. During this time it is open from 4 to 9:30 pm, donations are option and you can also donate a toy for children in need.
Robolights has captured national and international attention over the years, attracting 20,000 people last year. But, Robolights almost didn’t happen this year as the City of Palm Springs was concerned the two enormous inflatables on the roof of the house could blow off and damage houses, cars or people on the streets.
What we saw!
From the outside, it looks like a Christmas lightshow “gone wild” with a Santa and his reindeer along the street at the entrance made out of an assortment of recycled materials from old car parts to shopping carts. There are countless lights and the roof of the house is graced with two huge inflatables. There are lots of people milling about but it was not crowded this Tuesday night (nor was it on the Sunday night when I popped by again).
However, upon entering the narrow passageway you quickly realized this is not an innocent Christmas show for children, but a weird, wacky and sometimes macabre art installation on a scale I have never seen before. This art exhibition is full of fun, strange and bizarre surprises – a mash-up of Disneyland and the Stampede midway.
Many people were overheard saying, “WOW this is amazing/weird.” Another frequent comment was “Where does he get all this stuff?” Irwin estimates he had incorporated over 1,000 tons of recycled materials into the various displays.
Don’t get me wrong there are lots of things for kids of all ages to see and enjoy. There are all the things you would expect in a Christmas light show - Santa Clause, reindeer, snowman, castles, candy canes, but all with a twist.
In fact we know of one family with a two and half year old who went with friends and said they all enjoyed the show for different reasons. And there were certainly lots of families enjoying the show the night we were there.
Parents be prepared to answer some difficult questions like “Why are those people sitting in toilets in shopping carts on the roller coaster?” Or “Why are those naked people painted yellow and have animal horns on their heads?”
There is Santa riding a military tank and hundreds of toilets incorporated into various artworks – what kid doesn’t like some toilet humor. Watch out for the dinosaur clutching a stuffie in its mouth. Fortunately, for the younger children they will be mesmerized by the lights, colour and everything going on to see the “devil in the details.”
In an LA Times interview in November 2015, Irwin stated “My main intention is to provide people with immense pleasure through the work that I do. There's not really any deep meaning in my art. It's basically for the whimsy of it." He identifies four themes to his work – robots, extra-terrestrial, holidays and Islamic culture. He has said publicly “nothing is sacred to him.”
From a curatorial perspective I loved the tension created by the juxtaposition of mythical and macabre characters. Given the number of toilets in various contexts, one can help but wonder if Irwin is a modern day Duchamp. The monochromatic figures from recycled objects recall the sculptural work of Lousie Nevelson. Robolights is an ambitious art installation that builds on the work of the surrealist. It is a mash-up of Halloween and Christmas.
We were there for a good hour wandering the labyrinth of narrow pathways and could have stayed longer, but my camera’s battery ran out of juice.
I would definitely go back again.