in Features | 16 MAR 06
Featured in
Issue 97

Tomorrow Never Comes

Many of Mike Kelley’s obsessions and strategies were reinvigorated in the artist’s recent multi-media spectacle ‘Day is Done’

in Features | 16 MAR 06

I. ‘High school with money’??1

Mike Kelley again. Mike Kelley still. Mike Kelley back, and bigger and better and badder than ever. Mike Kelley arriving from the wilds of California and taking on New York like King Kong (only without that falling-off-a-building part). Mike Kelley as a canonized master. Mike Kelley as an unredeemed rebel. Mike Kelley showing those youngsters a thing or two.

Whatever else has been said about ‘Day Is Done’, Kelley’s recent solo show at the Gagosian Gallery in New York, it’s clear that it was an ‘event’ – an event in some way ‘about’ Mike Kelley. Of course, every show is about the artist who created it. But this big-budget multimedia spectacle – if only in terms of sheer scale – seems to be something else besides: a statement, a summa, a challenge. Staged at the bluest of blue-chip Chelsea galleries, the show necessarily inserts Kelley into a network of social relations: to the market, to art history, to his own history and to the artists sharing the neighbourhood. And these relations are clearly on the artist’s mind. In Artforum he noted: ‘We are now in a period when a lot of fun art is being made. I put this show together with New York in mind.’2

So then: this is fun, or at least Kelley’s version of ‘fun’. And it is fun, in a more than slightly queasy-making way. What the viewer takes in first is that there is too much to take in. Dozens of video screens, multiple overlapping musical soundtracks, stations of theatrical-sculptural-architectural weirdness flashing in a huge darkened room. And the starting-point of all this freaky son et lumière? A bunch of adolescents playing dress-up. Kelley’s project has its origin in a set of found photographs from high school yearbooks. The football team and the pep squad are nowhere to be seen. Apparently taken at festivals, school plays and Halloween pageants, the odd and ambiguous snapshots feature vampires and assorted goths, pigtailed hicks and Nazi biker thugs, fake horses and real donkeys, mimes. As the gallery statement puts it, these scenes present ‘carnivalesque disruptions of the normal school schedule’: moments of brief, pathetic and soon to be recuperated bits of freedom from the mundane, regimented world. Extracurricular activities, in other words – just like art.

The photos serve as occasions for a series of dramatic elaborations: ‘Projective Reconstructions’, as the subtitle has it. The scenes depicted have been recast (with adult actors), restaged and re-photographed, the new versions paired with the originals, neatly framed in diptychs and conventionally hung around the periphery of the gallery. Expanded into surreal dramatic vignettes and oddball musical numbers, these scenes are presented as videos on 28 ‘islands’ – hybrids of screen, stage set and sculpture – dispersed around the space. They loom out of the darkness, flashing on and off, spook-show style, competing for attention. (Remember Michael Fried’s old complaint about the effect of Minimalist art on the viewer? ‘[O]nce he is in the room the work refuses, obstinately, to let him alone.’3 The poor guy didn’t know how easy he had it.)

Humiliation is the dominant emotion in the various scenarios presented in the videos, which present Catholic rituals and horror film creep-outs all oozing uneasy sexuality. A caped and cummerbunded dandy sings a cocktail-lounge ballad of his sexual prowess, then recants and confesses his shameful virginity. A ‘shy Satanist’ at a talent show dedicates a song to her Lord and Master. A kneeling Joseph abases himself before Mary’s parents. An epicene blond boy confronts sexual mystery in a barbershop from Hell. The music, meanwhile, dips its toe into every available genre from whiteboy Hip Hop to faux Schoenberg, often clashing hilariously with the images.4

Along with everything else ‘Day Is Done’ suggests – fun house, state fair, religious festival, grand Modernist gesamtkunstwerk, Broadway musical – the show is also the Museum of Mike Kelley, a map of his methods and concerns played out around a single theme. (Kelley’s proper mid-career show happened back in 1993; this, then, could be considered his ‘improper’ retrospective.) Most of the artist’s past obsessions and strategies can be found renewed and reclaimed in here somewhere: the uneasy dialectic between transgression and the authoritarian order, between ambition and failure; high Modernist tropes are ventriloquized through degraded popular forms (and sometimes the other way round); druggy, free-associative dream logic set against absurd quasi-anthropological typologies, the latent against the way too blatant. Freudian categories are invoked and derided; Folk Art and the avant-garde duke it out one more time, and both seem pitifully out of shape. Overall, as in all of Kelley’s work, there’s a sense of a rather nasty joke being played, but a feeling of uncertainty as to the identity of the victim – because ultimately it’s being played on everyone at once. Or rather, the social structures that allow superiority, and hence mockery, are always in danger of collapse.

II. ‘Krypton is the home that can never be returned to.’??5

If ‘Day is Done’ can be considered a retrospective work, it is simply the latest and grandest move of a retrospective vein that Kelley’s been mining for the last ten years. In that time he’s been producing a twisted and parodic version of psychobiography – alternately exploring his own past and producing multiple bizarre quasi-fictional pasts. Acting as his own art historian, he has tried to figure out what strange forces may have combined to create Mike Kelley.

The conceit at the centre of this work is Repressed Memory Theory, the now discredited pop-psychological concept that, back in the late 1980s, was called on to expose everything from Satanic ritual abuse in pre-schools to alien abductions in the suburbs. The theory posits that traumatic memories can be totally lost to the conscious mind and then totally recovered years later. The flip side, though, is the implication that all gaps in recollection are actually the result of hidden abuse: amnesia becomes proof of trauma. It’s not hard to see why Kelley would be drawn to this idea. As a strategy of aesthetic production, the theory is a brilliant model of making something – a lot, actually – out of nothing. In the hide-and-seek game of suddenly recollected trauma the amorphous and imperfect miasma of memory is, precisely by virtue of its failure, given a meaning. More to the point, Repressed Memory Theory functions as a perverse alternative to (or cure for) nostalgia. It’s like a really cruel ‘good news, bad news’ joke: the lost past can be recovered, whole and undiminished ... and proves to be floridly horrible.

Educational Complex (1995) is the (literally) foundational work of Kelley’s investigations along this path. It is an architectural model of every school Kelley attended, merged into a single grand ‘arts centre’. The plans are based, initially, on the artist’s hazy recollections of the various institutions; unremembered areas are left blank, represented by sealed empty spaces. What results is a building that is both believable and impossible: symbolic space claiming its status as actual. Visually austere by Kelley’s standards, the model looks almost like something that could be constructed.

Austerity, of course, is not a mode Kelley can keep going for long. Just as the lacunae of Repressed Memory are ultimately filled with realizations of past horrors, so the schematic exercise of institutional recollection gives way to a lush profusion of artificial traumas. In Timeless/Authorless (1995) salacious fictional narratives of sexual abuse find their way into copies of Kelley’s hometown newspapers. Further investigations of his own aesthetic development find the artist excavating his undergraduate paintings and re-creating them, searching for that childhood fantasy object the Indian maiden of the Land-O-Lakes Butter trademark on the island of the Detroit River, constructing a junk-encrusted version of astronaut John Glenn copied from an original statue standing outside Kelley’s high school. In these deadpan and delirious works anything at hand is potentially ‘evidence’: the act of recollection is recast as a sort of screwball forensics.

III. ‘Mr. Kelley is actually something of a late bloomer.’??6

Just about every essay about Kelley at some point rehearses a version of the artist’s biography and artistic development: his origin story. (We are now at that point.) As a hallowed trope of superhero comic books, the origin story serves to explain, both materially and psychologically, why the costumed crusader can (and chooses to) do what he does. The story is continually available and constantly referenced, called on at key moments to do the explanatory work that keeps the present-day narrative rattling down the tracks. If the superhero (like, perhaps, the contemporary artist) is situated at the crux of the mundane and the extraordinary, his origin tale places him in relation to both. (Think, for example, of another high school kid, Peter Parker, and his unfortunate family situation, a radioactive spider.)

A capsule version of Kelley’s inescapable origin myth – simultaneously generic and specific – goes something like this: a working-class boy is born in a working-class town in the Midwest in the mid-1950s – iconically middling, anti-intellectual, unartistic surroundings. Weird kid. All that normality – he doesn’t dig it; he finds the straight world a drag. He sees glimmers of alternative possibilities in the more extreme versions of Pop culture: Robert Crumb, Sun Ra, Iggy Pop. It’s a difficult time for the freak aesthetic, though. The great psychedelic blossom is hanging heavy and wilted on the tree of American culture, and the subcultural sublime just isn’t what it used to be. So he decides to become an artist – perhaps to sustain, deepen and explore his ‘mind-blowing’ adolescent confrontations. After studying with Hofmann-trained abstract painters at the University of Michigan, he heads west to the first-generation Conceptualists at CalArts.

While class and geography are usually the salient features in the retelling of Kelley’s story, chronology is also crucial. He is 14 in 1968, graduates college in ’76, gets his master’s degree in ’78: his relationship to the various aesthetic currents, high and low, he confronts is marked through and through by belatedness. It is a story of just missing the boat, again and again, of encountering a series of moribund ideologies. Speaking of his relationship to hippie culture, he has noted: ‘Your older brother or sister at least got to live out the dream for a couple of minutes before they got dejected; but you just got the dejection.’7

IV. ‘The religion of younger siblings’??8

What would be the expected artistic strategies of this super-anti-hero, this eternal younger sibling, who came to everything just a little too late to believe, who experienced the sublime as a hand-me-down, always a little soiled with use? Perhaps it would involve something like a redistribution of aesthetic wealth, as well as an intense scepticism as to whether such a Utopian refashioning is possible – the creation of new boundary-defying ‘dreams’, combined with a strong suspicion that they can, and will, crumble at any moment. ‘You always make things mean something’, Kelley has said of his working methods; ‘you might abandon them, but you make things mean something for the moment because you need to do that. So artwork for me has always been the production of a provisional reality, and then you produce another one, and you produce another one, and you produce another one.’?9

Making meaning is, of course, an operation of context, bringing one ‘thing’ into contact with a bunch of other things. Association is the most readily visible of Kelley’s contextualizing operations and the engine of much of his work. Associative logic brings together apparently dissimilar categories with surprising results. It implies a kind of automatism, an endless improvisational riffing. Uncomfortably democratic, association is ‘free’ and, like ‘free jazz’, often discordant and unmetered. In associative mode Kelley surfs freely between so-called high and low cultural registers, playing the role of bad-boy transgressor, spewing forth connections like vomit, like ectoplasm.
Yet transgression can only take you so far. It’s not the way out. As a provisional reality, it will always be reclaimed and compromised. So association is checked and countered by what takes the form of morphology – an absurd, quasi-scientific formalism. Association brings out the social life of ideas and ideologies; morphology deals with the material nature of artefacts. If association is figured as soft and formless, morphology is hard (both rigid and difficult). If the associative impulse resembles doodles on a notebook, morphology takes the form of a lab report. It speaks with the voice of authority, trying to please the teacher by acting like him. These opposed strategies occur again and again in Kelley’s work, their affective valences functioning dialectically. They serve to undermine each other and are always getting their wires crossed.

V. ‘Mercy date’??10
Of course, if one is in the business of creating a succession of ‘provisional realities’, one must be ready for conflict between their claims, for mixing up the registers. This is fine with Kelley – he is a master of misprision, of getting things exactly wrong: fabulously, impressively wrong, as in the stoned Californian term of approbation: ‘Dude, that is just so wrong.’
But misreading is inherently unstable; it doesn’t belong to the artist. So the history of Kelley’s work includes the viewers’ misinterpretations of it, which he has repurposed back into the work. For example, as he learned when he worked with stuffed animals and dolls, certain objects cannot be read as other than surrogate humans. The series ‘Empathy Displacement: Humanoid Morphology’ (1990) is specifically designed to toy with the viewers’ reactions. There a minimally representational doll is presented in two forms: as a human-scale black and white painting and as the doll itself, hidden in a coffin-like box. As the title suggests, the viewer’s emotions are re-channelled and baffled.

With ‘Day Is Done’ Kelley has effected another sort of re-channelling. The ‘projective reconstructions’ are projective, both in the simple sense of elaboration (as in the surrealist game ‘Irrational Enlargement of the Film Scene’) and in the more specifically psychological sense of investing another with one’s own repressed fears and desires. The artist has not just filled these moments out; he has filled them in. Projection is a misreading of a particularly reflexive type – it reveals more than it was meant to. But whose projection is at stake here? The original subject’s? Those of the artist himself? The viewer’s? As one might expect, the answer is: all of the above.

‘Day Is Done’ invites empathetic misreadings. While Kelley has stressed that the work is not ‘about’ high school, it is impossible fully to ignore the original referents. Ambiguous as they are, the photographs of the costumed students have a powerful affective presence. The various character types portrayed – the Goths and vampires and country bumpkins – are generic, but they all seem to point towards a particular type of role-playing: trying out and trying on differing levels of sophistication and otherness. A vampire is a sexual predator, aristocratic and divorced from time. (Exactly what an American high school student is not, in other words.) Dressing up as a ‘hick’ stages a cartoonish version of class and regional difference.

So Kelley has done the most perverse thing imaginable with these photos, these comically unsuccessful theatricals: he has taken them seriously, at their word. More seriously, certainly, than the kids depicted take themselves. While the real photos depict kids dressed up as vampires and Satanists, the restagings show actual vampires and Satanists. They are not false but fictional and hence, in their provisional way, ‘real’. A collection of mundane festive activities is transformed into an institutional structure haunted by rituals of ambition.

VI. ‘He seemed too present in his fictions.’??11

Kelley has said that he sees the scenarios of Repressed Memory Theory as a dark inversion of the Freudian ‘family romance’: the belief that your parents are not your own, that your real parents are royalty, that your pedigree is really more impressive than it may seem. It’s worth pointing out that becoming an artist may be as close as one can get to actualizing the family romance fantasy. However one was raised in the ‘natural’ world, entering the art world inserts you into a surrogate, voluntary family – your forbears become the older artists that supposedly influenced you, gave birth to your concerns. At the same time, of course, you also have siblings and descendants. The art world is coded in terms of generations, and Oedipal struggles play themselves out in terms of successive ideologies and styles.
Among the various desublimations Kelley has enacted in his work, various Romantic myths of the artist come in for particular attention: the seer, the tortured soul, the madman, the criminal. And, most notably, the misbehaving child. Among the many other things it is, ‘Day Is Done’, with its adult adolescents, its tolerated rituals of free play, its tragicomic spectacles of humiliation, is a version of the art world and art history, in miniature. And Kelley, who is always willing to assume the role of exemplary figure, to place his history at issue, is of course part of this: as working-class rebel, as ageing ‘bad boy’ and as begetter of a lot of ‘fun’ art.

Of course, the latest show is only the beginning. The ‘Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstructions’ have been conceived as a 365-part mega-spectacle, eventually to be screened over the course of an entire day. In other words Kelley is going to remain in high school for quite a while. This project – this series of projections – is about projecting oneself into the future. It is about goals that are either absurdly ambitious or patently impossible. However it turns out, Kelley is suggesting that he will be failing for a long time to come.

1 The phrase ‘it’s like high school with money’ is usually attributed to actor (and painter) Martin Mull as a description of Hollywood.
2 ‘1000 Words: Mike Kelley Talks about “Day Is Done”’, Artforum, October 2005, p. 235.
3 Michael Fried, ‘Art and Objecthood’, Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1968, p. 140.
4 Many of the poppier songs play up the absurdity of the conventional use of sexual innuendo: ‘Candy cane, I need a candy stain/ I wanna wallow in your soda-pop drain …
5 Mike Kelley, ‘Architectural Non-Memory Replaced with Psychic Reality’, Minor Histories: Statements, Conversations, Proposals, Writing Art, ed. John C. Welchman MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2004, p. 322.
6 Roberta Smith, ‘Mike Kelley’s Messages: Mixed and Mystical’, New York Times,
5 November 1993, p.33.
7 Robert Storr, ‘An Interview with Mike Kelley’, Art in America, June 1994,
pp. 90–93.
8 Adam Phillips, Equals, Basic Books, New York, 2002, p. 4.
9 Mike Kelley in an interview with Sérgio Bessa, Zing magazine, issue 6, December 2004.
10 From the sound-track to ‘Day Is Done’, a song sung by what appear to be Nazi thugs to a portly Christian girl lighting candles: ‘Mercy date, mercy date/ She got picked ‘cause she’s overweight’.
11 Mike Kelley, ‘Shall We Kill Daddy?’, Origin and Destination: Alighiero e Boetti, Douglas Huebler, La Société des Expositions des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 1997, pp. 155–71. Huebler was Kelley’s mentor at CalArts.