Did Mike Kelley Predict the Isolation of the Internet?

In an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles that pairs Kelley with contemporary voices, curator Jay Ezra Nayssan explores the late American artist’s shades of loneliness

BY Matthew McLean AND Jay Ezra Nayssan in Frieze Los Angeles | 12 DEC 23

Matthew McLean Of all the facets of Mike Kelley’s practice or thematic approaches to his oeuvre, why “nonmemory”? And what’s the resonance of this concept for where we are now?

Jay Ezra “Nonmemory”, the title of the exhibition and its accompanying publication, takes direct inspiration from Mike Kelley’s use of the term in his writing as a way of treating, reordering and representing the complex and unstable relationship between memory, space and identity. Kelley’s practice has been near-constantly revisited, re-contextualized, canonized. How does a curator free themself from all this art history? For me, the only way was to go back to his actual voice, his actual writing. 

With his foundational text “Repressed Architectural Memory Replaced with Psychic Reality” (1996), Kelley’s sculpture Educational Complex (1995) marked a point of departure for the artist. Decidedly embracing mis-readings of his previous works (particularly suggestions that he had experienced sexual abuse in childhood) and crossing them with his interest in repressed memory syndrome (the theory that memories might become hidden as a result of trauma), Kelley embarked on a quest to chart his own formation by the institutions of home, church and school. One thing that set this project apart was Kelley’s employment of space, specifically architecture and architectural tropes, as visual tactics and instruments for representing and tracking the failures of memory and spatial habituation. Made in the last decade of Kelley’s life following the breakthrough of Educational Complex, the selection of works in the exhibition – “Kandors” (1999–2011), “Memory Ware” (2000–2010) and subsequent appendages to Educational Complex made in 2002 and Mobile Homestead (2005–2011) are largely influenced by these concerns.

How are we shaped by institutional and structural spaces and our memories thereof? If our identities are formed by these spaces, then what happens once our memories of them become obscured? And how does the intersection of memory and space correlate to how we portray, reconstruct or reimagine these spaces and ourselves? The numerous political, social, technological and economic developments that have taken place in the decade since Kelley’s passing mean these questions deserve, even demand, thoughtful reapplication today.

Mike Kelley (left) Repressed Spatial Relationships Rendered as Fluid #1: Martian School (Work Site), (right) Drawing for Repressed Spatial Relationships Rendered as Fluid # 1: Martian School (Work Site)
Mike Kelley, (left) Repressed Spatial Relationships Rendered as Fluid #1: Martian School (Work Site), (right) Drawing for Repressed Spatial Relationships Rendered as Fluid # 1: Martian School (Work Site), 2002.© Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. All Rights Reserved / VAGA at ARS, New York,NY. Photo: Christopher Burke 

MM Could you select one of the pairings of Kelley’s work and that of contemporary LA artist that you feel really encapsulates the dialogue you’ve sought to create?

JE The works of El Salvador-born, Los Angeles-based artist Beatriz Cortez and Los Angeles-based artist Kelly Akashi engage with natural and counter architectural forms as a way of challenging our perceptions of space and time, similarly to Mike Kelley’s “Kandors” (1999–2011), which rework the unstable visual representations of Superman’s home city. Cortez’s multimedia amalgamations of distant pasts and futures create new historical and spiritual multiplicities in the present, while Akashi uses the lens of geology as a psychological metaphor for expansive time and space.

I’m particularly keen on this grouping in the exhibition because it allows more expanded contemplations of the faux-rock bases of some “Kandors”, which are sometimes ignored in favor of the resin-cast model of the cities that sit on them. For example, in Kandor 16 (2011), included in this exhibition, Kelley has exploded the Kandor’s smooth, yellow pedestal to reveal a volcanic or pumice-like matter. In an earlier, relatively enigmatic group of “Kandors” including The Spuming Citrus Caverns of the Valley of Ebullience (2007–2009) – included in this exhibition – the resin model of Kandor has been replaced with a small television playing time-lapse videos of crystals growing in a jar on top of a massive formation of (faux) bedrock.

In “Space-Time (Exploded)”, one of my essays for the publication, I look at the meaning behind Kelley’s use of this primitive, primordial form against the futurist, fantasy architecture of Kandorallowing this argument to be made through the lens of work by Akashi and Cortez. In Akashi’s practice, we see the dilation of time through an opposition of permanent and ephemeral materials: giant, immortal flowers made from hand-blown glass alongside wilting petals and leaves; marble, shaped by the hand of time, is then carved into by Akashi’s own hand. In her series of memory boxes, space capsules and time machines, Cortez explores and portrays different temporalities and localities as if they exist simultaneously, combining a unique vernacular architecture with non-human shapes, whose architecture reflects the self-organizing qualities of organic matter. These structures are accumulations of space and time that effectively disrupt the notion of present-as-past and allow us to consider deep time.

Beatriz Cortez  Underworld Meteor (detail) 2022
Beatriz Cortez, Underworld Meteor (detail), 2022. © Beatriz Cortez. Courtesy: the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Commonwealth and Council. Photo: Keith Lubow 

MM How do you think the presence of faux-rock and these galactic geological elements in Kelley’s works of this period attenuates our understanding of “nonmemory”?

JE Unlike his parallel Educational Complex and Framed and Frame (1999), which explore institutional and structural space respectively, with the “Kandors” Kelley really engaged with more counter-architectural manifestations of space, specifically deep space and cyberspace. I think it would be negligent to ignore the symbolic value of these rock-like structures: what Jeffrey Sconce, in his essay “When Worlds Collide” in the 2011 volume Exploded Fortress of Solitude calls the “stolid indifference of a black rock.”

In his last two shows of new work, Kelley exhibited the major faux-forms of Exploded Fortress of Solitude (2011) in London 2011, just after a show at Gagosian Beverly Hills where he combined the “Kandors” with the Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction (EAPR): it was possibly the most complex exhibition he made, and for many, nothing made sense. I think this was the period when Kelley was just really blowing shit up, and blowing up meaning, when everything was finally meaningless. The irrelevance of our stories, of where we come from: I think this is what Kelley is underscoring with the profound indifference of deep geological time, which the faux-rock alludes to.

“Nonmemory”, 2023–24, installation view. Courtesy: Hauser & Wirth

MM Kelley wrote of the “Kandors” that he initially intended the project to be “an out-of-date image of the future re-presented through recent technological developments.” How do you think the then-recent technologies of the internet influenced his thinking around this work?

JE This body of work has its origin as an internet project, which I’ve always been fascinated by. Kelley was approached by a German institution to do a project with new media, and he originally planned to do what we’d today call “crowdsourcing”: so, Superman comic fans could submit different images of Kandor from their own collections. This was a way not just of gathering these Jetsons-like, past renders of the future, but mapping the seemingly infinite variation in the depiction of Kandor – as a model of memory’s elusive nature. I believe he wanted to build this out into an online forum, where models of Kandor could be built and shaped according to fans input and recollections. It really was rooted in a new kind of spatial exploration, that space being the internet.

Kelley is often using Superman to examine alienation, and it’s quite prophetic in a way that he’s looking at the internet as a space of displacement and placelessness in the postmodern sense: and almost predicting the rise of the net “surfer” as “a lonely, disembodied individual.” He’s already looking at the disconnection of the internet –and asking what lies on the other side of the anonymity it offers.

The institution didn’t have the funds ultimately to realize the online part of the project, and that’s fascinating too because of Kelley’s preoccupation with failure and how he could incorporate these apparent dead ends or wrong turns in his practice and use them to generate new work. I almost wonder whether when he set off pursuing the online project, he already knew it wouldn’t be realized and wanted to see what came from that.

Mike Kelley Kandor 16 2011
Mike Kelley, Kandor 16, 2011. © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. All Rights Reserved / VAGA at ARS, NY. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen 

MM “Nonmemory” opened about a month before the Mike Kelley retrospective at the Bourse du Commerce in Paris, which travels to Tate Modern in London next October. What did make of the Paris show? What do you think it got right and what did it get wrong? 

JE I don’t envy the curators who are tasked with the almost impossible job of constructing a Mike Kelley survey, not just because the breadth of his interests is so incredibly wide-ranging, but because any clear interpretation or presentation of his work stands in direct opposition to the way Kelley thought and produced. If any survey risks tidying up, or tying a bow on an artist’s practice, this is even more so with Kelley’s practice, which is so inherently slippery and therefore replete with potential for re-action.

The press release for the exhibition at Bourse de Commerce closes with: “The second floor follows the chronological development of Mike Kelley’s work according to its major themes.” I suppose that a chronological presentation is an unfortunate necessity when it comes to a survey, but if in some cases this can be disguised or less legible, the architecture of Bourse’s second level rotunda only exaggerated it. Divided into several gallery spaces, the museum employed each one to contain each of these “chronological developments”. The architecture also delineated a clear entry and exit, and therefore a clear beginning and end to the exhibition. 

What we aimed to create with the exhibition design of “Nonmemory”, developed collaboratively between Del Vaz Projects, Hauser & Wirth and the Mike Kelley Foundation, was a kind of ouroboros. There is one point of entry and exit into the exhibition space, but there is no precise delineation of exhibition start or end. So on entering the gallery a visitor may turn to their left and begin with Mobile Homestead (2005–2011), which was one of Kelley’s  last works, completed posthumously, or they could turn right and begin with works from 2002 related to Educational Complex (1995). Specific bodies of work are grouped together only loosely, and a minimal use of walls and overly generous sightlines aims for a visual porousness.  

I was inspired by my first most complete encounter with Kelley’s work at MOCA Los Angeles in 2012. I remember seeing the mobile portion of the Mobile Homestead parked outside facing the museum’s entry, and the first thing I encountered inside was Switching Marys (2004–2005). From what I recall, there wasn’t a didactic chronological or temporal organization of the works, which the MOCA Geffen’s former police-car-warehouse architecture permitted. This seemed to me an effective way of illustrating a Kelley-ian way of working and thinking. Yes, he did employ recontextualization in his practice to move from one “chronological development” to the next, but what is even more fascinating, and so immensely critical in my attempt to understand Kelley, is that within each of those developments there were myriad simultaneous investigations and inquiries. Hence, our choice in “Nonmemory” to focus on one principal concern within Kelley’s practice and expand on the multiple and concurrent bodies of work that he produced around it, which the exhibition design reflects.

Video still from Mike Kelley, Mobile Homestead Documentaries: Going West on Michigan Avenue from Downtown Detroit to Westland and Going East on Michigan Avenue from Westland to Downtown Detroit, 2010–2011. © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. All rights reserved / VAGA at ARS, NY 

MM How do you see this show and its concerns as relating to the research you do and the shows you mount at Del Vaz Projects?

JE Del Vaz Projects was founded in 2014, although we formally obtained non-profit status in 2021. Since then, we have attempted to create a cross-generational dialog between artists: established or emerging, underrepresented or under-recognized, living or dead. Our goal is to frame our interests—Los Angeles artists and their stories—within a larger art-historical context and canon. This is usually done not by simply mounting exhibitions but producing academic publications and free public programming (at times independently and at times with partnering organizations), which are the results of years-long research projects. At the same time, we have dedicated ourselves to challenging the way our public views and engages with art. This is not only possible through our domestic setting, but with our continued collaboration with historically and culturally significant sites across various communities in Los Angeles.

I hope “Nonmemory” exemplifies this, placing Kelley’s work in dialogue with the diverse and varied approaches of living artists to bring a new criticality and urgency to the specific preoccupations at the root of his works and to raise further questions that address social and spatial issues that have become even more prescient today. The exhibition’s thematic concern underscores our penchant for spatial inquiry.

But the project’s commitment to publication and programming also reflects the Del Vaz way of working. A new co-publication between Del Vaz Projects and Hauser & Wirth Publishers will feature documentation of the exhibition, a collection of essays by myself, reproductions of important works by Kelley and his foundational text, “Repressed Architectural Memory Replaced with Psychic Reality” (1996)—as well as a series of conversations between each participating artist and curators including Kathryn Andrews, Myriam Ben Salah, Ruba Katrib and Daniela Lieja Quintanar. In addition, “Nonmemory” programming, produced in collaboration with Hauser & Wirth’s Learning Department and The Performance Project—includes a screening of Meriem Bennani's Life on the CAPS trilogy (2018–22), followed by workshop, studio residency and performance by the Puerto-Rican collective Poncili Creacion. Each of these programs serve not only to re-contextualize the work of Kelley, but also illustrate the legacy and influence of his career over a new generation of artists, whether they were conscious of his contribution to the culture ether or not. 

Installation view
‘Nonmemory’, 2023-24, installation view. Courtesy: Hauser & Wirth

MM What do you have coming up next at Del Vaz: what are you working on for 2024?

JE As we approach ten years since our founding, we are focusing our efforts on the project “Earthshaker”, which will open in January 2025 and encompass an exhibition of works by Derek Jarman, Ana Mendieta and P. Staff. The exhibition will include painting, sculpture, photography and film by all three artists, as well as a newly commissioned moving-image work by P. Staff. The project will include a new publication—our fifth publication since obtaining non-profit status in 2021—as well as a series of screenings at a partnering institution of rarely exhibited Super 8’s by Jarman and Mendieta.

At the same time, we are dedicated to maintaining our organic, intuitive and open dialogue with and will be continuing several ongoing conversations with various artists and artist estates we hope to work with over the forthcoming months: among them, a project by poet and painter John Garcia; an exhibition of sculptures by Robert Bittenbender, Lee Bontecou, Nancy Grossman and Valerie Keane; a presentation of drawings and photographs from the Steven Arnold Museum & Archives; and a performance by French choreographer Francois Chaignaud.

“Nonmemory”  is on view at Hauser & Wirth Downtown Los Angeles until January 14, 2024.

Main image: ‘Nonmemory’, 2023-24, installation view. Courtesy: Hauser & Wirth


Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.

Jay Ezra Nayssan is the founder and director of Del Vaz Projects, Los Angeles. He is currently organizing the exhibition ‘Technologies of the Self’ with artists Max Hooper Schneider, Tetsumi Kudo, Lucas Samaras and Paul Thek, which will open at Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles, in February. He lives in Los Angeles.