In the current exhibition at the Brittania Street Gagosian we are told that Mike Kelley expands on two previous major projects—the Kandor series and the Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction (EAPR) – combining them into one mega installation.
Lost? Well so was I! It turns out that this bizarrely titled installation is based on a rather arcane conceit and may need a little explanation: the Kandors, apparently, are representations of Superman’s city of birth, the only remaining part of his home planet, Krypton. In the well-known comic books Superman saved the miniaturised city in a bottle fed by a tank of atmosphere. What better sculptural metaphor than a city in a bottle? These cities are recreated throughout the exhibition in immaculate translucent cast resin forms held within enormous bell jars. Half reliquary and half brightly coloured consumer product these micro-metropolises are displayed in multiple versions in several different narratives. Sometimes on their own, sometimes surrounded by ceramic figurines to coffee pots, which provide moments of humour and charm throughout the installation. Kandor 10, a yellow city housed in a hand-blown, pink glass bottle, is a grouping of tall skyscrapers situated within a full-scale rock grotto; Kandor 12, constructed in off-white resin and evocative of a group of chess pawns, or minarets, is encased in a shadowy brown bottle, which sits on a platform resembling a Greek column positioned in front of a chest of drawers and an illuminated translucent green wall.
In the centre of the show is Superman’s Fortress of Solitude – a plastic cave into which one is invited by an ever courteous member of the Gagosian staff brandishing a torch. In one corner resides a pile of "treasure" and in the centre is another Kandor. Like a grotto from several thousand years in the future the space could be unsettling were it not so artificial. Instead the whole experience is unanny - known but also somehow unknown. Behind the stage-set presented in the gallery are hints of anti-form sculpture. The large geological urethane foam formations are reminiscent of Lynda Benglis’ Quartered Meteors, (1969) and Robert Smithson’s Asphalt Rundown.
The installation is driven so strongly by a hidden narrative that it is difficult to apprehend immediately, but a little persistence pays off. As with so much that Kelley does best (alongside his fellow West Coast artist Paul McCarthy) the watchword is abject – an extremely bad, unpleasant, and degrading scenario. And so we are led to ask where this lingering sense of unpleasantness comes from? Through the superman narrative Kelley is attempting to debase one of the great American superheros - the saviour is sullied.
The EAPR video series stems from what Kelley calls “folk performances”—common, often carnivalesque, activities documented in school yearbooks, local newspapers, or home snapshots. The two videos comprising EAPR #34 are based on an image of what appeared to be an amateur stage play, featuring a “royal” male character with his female harem. In one of them, a “King” lords over his harem. In the other, a group of “Queens” demean a male servant. EAPR #35 features a cast of gnome-like characters who shamble around aimlessly in a cell. Kelley has described the EAPR videos as defensive shields against the gaps or “repressed trauma” in his life. Beyond being psychologically disturbing the videos play on Duchamp’s image of the "bride stripped bare". The video features the stripping of a figure in a wedding dress who is then set about by carnivalesque characters with various repressed sexual acts.
There is nothing straightforward about Kelley's work. It takes time and a strong stomach to get to grips with the repressed imagery and disturbing sets. There is little doubt though that his critique of the American idealism is worth the ordeal.
-- Mike Tuck
All images courtesy The Gagosian Gallery, London
Image : MIKE KELLEY, Kandor 16, 2011, Mixed media, 77 1/4 x 49 3/4 x 40 3/8 inches; MIKE KELLEY, Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #36 (Vice Anglais), 2011, Lenticular panel, light box, 34 x 50 x 4 inches, (86.4 x 127 x 10.2 cm)