BY Holger Liebs in Reviews | 08 JAN 08
Featured in
Issue 112

Mike Kelley

BY Holger Liebs in Reviews | 08 JAN 08

With a palette ranging from garish orange to leafy green to pale violet, it looks as though a night-club designer has been unleashed in the gallery to attempt a visualization of Goethe’s colour theory. The rooms are faintly illuminated by a handful of lamps whose lights are diffused by coloured glass panels, and it is so dark that those who enter risk tripping over the tubes that weave their way around the entire space, connecting gas bottles to vessels reminiscent of outsize cheese-plate domes or snow globes, raised up on plinths. Inside the vessels are models of trapped miniature cities, transparent and multi-coloured skyscraper agglomerations that could almost pass for forests of dildos. Videos of cyclones and sparks flying around inside the domes are projected onto the walls, alongside light-boxes with three-dimensional, comic-book-style renderings of the same domes. The ambience is completed by New Age mood sounds murmuring around the space, undermined by a technoid rumbling, gurgling and hissing. It is a visual and acoustic tour de force, a ghostly yet breathtaking spectacle that leaves gallery-goers feeling as though they’ve landed on another planet.

Mike Kelley’s synaesthetic Gesamtkunstwerk updates earlier holistic Utopias of harmony and universal communication – from the early-20th-century experiments of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin to the multimedia design environments of the 1960s – by introducing another key 20th-century myth of reconciliation and salvation: Superman. The title of the show, ‘Kandors’, references the eponymous city on Superman’s home planet of Krypton that was saved in miniature form under a bell jar by the superhero and transferred to his ‘Fortress of Solitude’ after an evil alien had shrunk Kandor and its inhabitants to the size of a toy. This transportable city-in-a-bottle is emblematic of Superman’s traumatic childhood and symbolic of the double loss he suffered of both his parents and his homeland.

Since Superman trivia have been subsumed into everyday American life – the motif of the Fortress of Solitude, for example, has been quoted in numerous American television series from The Simpsons to Saturday Night Live – Kandor denotes a kind of Utopia, a purely imaginary place, a possible but never actually realized version of a city (Kelley’s installation Kandor-Con of 2000, a kind of laboratory for a future metropolis, was also shown in Berlin, in an abandoned factory on Ackerstrasse). For Kandor is the phantom of a place in two senses: within the logic of the Superman story it is the miniaturized symbol of a traumatic loss; furthermore, since countless renderings of it exist in numerous comic strips, with each version being slightly different, its original appearance can no longer be accurately recalled.

Kelley subjects Kandor to adaptation and reinterpretation within the context of ‘repressed memory syndrome’, the popular mythology according to which the memory of traumatic events could well be completely blocked from the conscious (an idea originated by Freud in his early writings but later abandoned in preference for the repression of impulses theory). Repressed memory therapy obliges the patient to go on an arduous search for clues in their memory, or to lay bare the gaps. This is something Kelley first explored in Educational Complex (1995), an installation that recreates in model form every school the artist attended: the result is as authentic as possible, but necessarily fragmentary. Within this architecture, voids and closed rooms represent the gaps in Kelley’s memory, thus wryly suggesting a possible trauma experienced by the artist.

With ‘Kandors’ however, Kelley has moved away from this more autobiographical approach. Discussing the installation in Berlin, he emphasized that his main focus was on the work’s formal aspects: he wanted to achieve the colour qualities of Henri Matisse, he said, but in three-dimensional form. This reference to Matisse, who strove for harmony of form and colour, and whose last works evoked the lost paradise of Oceania, is surprising only at first glance. It serves Kelley as abstract code for the fact that Kandor, as a lost paradise, also stands for a feeling of insurmountable Otherness (not just for Superman, the alien who will always remain an outsider on Earth). And for depression – Kelley also mentioned Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar (1963), in which she writes: ‘Wherever I sat … I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my sour air.’ Not for nothing did Kelley insist, as part of the million-dollar production budget of ‘Kandors’, on the perfect quality of the glass domes, which were hand-blown in a Czech glassworks and then tinted in the USA. The evocation of a clean, airtight prison had to be perfect. At the same time this sense of overbearing isolation was split between several independent units, separated by screens, no longer permitting a focal point, just continuous transformation.

And is Kelley himself, whose own underdog biography is so often projected onto his work, not a kind of Superman of contemporary art? ‘Superman’, says David Carradine in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004), ‘is the only superhero born with his superhuman powers – he must disguise himself as a little nobody to get by on Earth.’ Kelley uses the ruins of formerly popular myths to address major questions on a grand scale, examining the link between narcissism and alienation, tragedy and buffoonery, trash and art.