BY Jörg Heiser in Reviews | 11 NOV 98
Featured in
Issue 43

Mike Kelley

BY Jörg Heiser in Reviews | 11 NOV 98

The English phrase 'skeletons in the cupboard' has a tellingly different German equivalent: 'corpses in the cellar'. The comical, dry, black-and-white rattling bones of the English contrasts with the wet, fleshily rotten connotations of the German. Mike Kelley's new work seems to take both into consideration, while adding a Californian variation - aliens in the toilet.

The starting points for the central, eponymous piece of the show, entitled Sublevel (all works 1998), are two imaginary takes on the cellar as a common metaphor for the repressed. One angle is personal: Kelley tried to recall the basement ground plan of Cal Arts, where he studied in the 70s; a part of the building mostly occupied by darkrooms and video editing suites. The artist has built a large wooden model, jacked it up on metal posts at hip level and covered the inner walls of all the bits he couldn't remember - the 'negative space' of remembrance - with a rosy crust of plastic crystals. The second angle is media trash: a news story about a primary-school teacher who was unanimously accused by a group of his pupils of abusing them in a specially built system of tunnels and a dungeon beneath the classroom. According to the reports, however, investigations revealed no trace of a tunnel. While the story seems to say more about the psychic violence of child education than the actual terror of child abuse, Kelley took it at face value and built a wooden crawling tunnel, angled around the Cal Arts model, and terminating in an aluminium metal box of about human height that might be mistaken for a Minimalist monolith.

But on entering the gallery, it is hard to see this as a clean metal cube hiding nothing but negative space, since it is coupled with a wooden shed of about the same size, which looks suspiciously like a latrine. Entitled The Keep, it constantly emits the sound of a UFO, or rather a 50s B-movie sound engineer's idea of what an UFO sounds like. The door is locked, but there's a peephole through which can be seen bottles of various sizes filled with coloured liquid (alcohol? LSD?) lined up on a shelf. At knee level, the wood is cut away and you can catch a glimpse of pure rays of green and red light coming straight up out of two parallel shit holes, like a Leslie Nielson parody of the X-files.

In Pay for Your Pleasure (1988) Kelley forced the audience to its knees, and he seems to take pleasure in this: in order to see a crucial part of this show, you have to crawl through a tunnel. To reach the entrance, you must walk around the wooden ground plan with its imaginatively distorted measurements: little rooms with no windows that look like prison cells, large rooms with no doors. Just because Kelley can't precisely remember every broom cupboard and boiler room of Cal Arts' basement, there is no inevitable implication, as popular psychology would have it, that these missing parts represent repressed memories of traumatic experiences. But Kelley grips this notion with a deadly, mocking seriousness and turns it on itself: memories of the most pragmatic spaces of art school become a nightmarish candy-coloured labyrinth of Kafkaesque torture, a sugar-coated Führerbunker.

And so the link between Cal Arts' basement and the primary-school teacher's dungeons is just a fall to your knees away. After several metres crawling head-on into the black, leaving the pink crystals of the unknown behind, the UFO-sound in your ears, you start to see a sub-ultramarine blue, a typical illusion in total darkness. As you turn the first 90-degree corner, a light flashes steadily, blue then red, and after the second corner, a revolving police light becomes visible. The big drama of sudden blindness is replaced by the relief of a horror comedy - Silence of the Lambs segueing into Attack of the Killer Clowns. Finally reaching the interior of the metal cube, you can't stand up; first you have to move to the side because a metal table is above you. Two sink holes have been let into the surface of the table, a pair of aluminium bowls is beneath them - clean pathology. There is a locked, glass-fronted cupboard whose contents, echoing the latrine LSD paraphernalia, are a little collection of dildos, including a plastic corncob and other possible penetration devices such as a big felt pen (but no cigar...) erected in a mini skyline of porn-oddity. Right in the centre, there's a little Christmas crib with Mary, Joseph, the Jesus child and the other Bethlehem witnesses made of glass.

This is the last centrepiece, the obvious - maybe too obvious - religious sign conflating the connections between sexual prudery, mass psychosis and educational control through parents, preachers, teachers, therapists; the ones who lock pleasure away have their own corpses in the cellar. Science fiction fantasy, horror, comical porn and drugs of any kind can be both affirmation of and relief from the anxiety and inhibition created by these power structures, while UFO-fanaticism and child abuse as media topics reveal themselves to be symptoms of the same puritanical social climate.

Artistic practice is not independent of this, even in its most formalist pronouncements. Kelley explores this on numerous levels in a series of pictures surrounding the central installation. Ghostly Afterimage, for example, a brutish self portrait in oils by the fictional 'Elmer', accompanied by a psycho-babble commentary claiming that 'Elmer's shaky paint is typical of those who suffer from the type of violent delirium characterised by the sweats, trembling, anxiety and frightening hallucinations'. In Missing Time Colour Exercise four tableaux show a collection of the American sex-joke magazine Sex to Sexty from the early 60s to the 70s, most of which display smutty cartoon scenes about penis size, big boobs, farting and animal sex. Each time an issue was missing in a year's set, the artist cut out the backboard and filled it with a monochrome plate the same size as the magazines, which referenced the dominant colours, as if to put the Ellsworth back into Kelley. Ultimately, and despite - or rather because of - all the mockery, Kelley takes us back to what Freud intended in The Joke and its Relation to The Subconscious.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.