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Mike Kelley’s recent installation Day is Done at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea, NYC offered a fascinating montage of American suburban preoccupations. It was a chaotic mixture of film sets, video projections, moving sculpture and photographic portraits under the working title Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction. Kelley’s thirty-two ‘reconstructions’ developed the obsessions and rituals of teenage dating and lust, Halloween fantasies about vampires and the Satanic, conventional and arcane religious themes, student plays and celebrity worship. His interest in the lame and abject failure was again in evidence, as was his fertile imagination, sardonic perspective and satirical power. All of which added up to a unique insight into historical and cultural practices.
The installation site looked like a jumble sale, and the accompanying Stockhausian soundtrack of screams and repetitious drumming exacerbated the discombobulating ambience. An array of sets was scattered about, including a sparse brick fireplace and walkway, giant horse costumes, fake office fronts, a model house, a partially complete Nativity scene with a black baby Jesus, a devil’s costume hidden behind a Santa’s chair, a rocket, and a mock-up lounge room where a chair, vase, phone and picture frame, swirled around as if controlled by poltergeists.
The idea of reconstruction or regeneration was a guiding principle in the show and the photographs played a central role in articulating it. Kelley found photos of extracurricular ‘dress-up’ events like proms and Halloween nights from the late 1950s. He then re-cast, photographed and video-taped the scenes. There was thus a strange kind of echoing that provided fascinating perspectives on the relationship between media, human behaviour and history. Rather than fortifying our faith in the accuracy of media, the artist showed that its representations offer a distorted and mythological construct of the past. Kelley’s enterprising engagement with this notion turned media images into perverse reflections of an earlier era. Black Curtain showed an original picture of a guy in a leather jacket with swastika on his sleeve and pen firmly clenched between his teeth. A companion wearing a military helmet stood next to him. This photo was recreated and ‘animated’ through a video performance where two other men wore similar costumes and then performed a Beastie-Boy type rap about having sex with obese women. In a further confounding twist a woman appeared on the stage with the guys, but she was in turn a re-creation from an old photo of a church service that appeared in another part of the installation. At such moments Kelley let his sacrilegious humour off the leash as these lame performers combined role-playing, sex and religion in a kind of bizarre folk tale.
At other times the humour was blunt and brutal. In Gospel Rocket Kelley made a direct link between religion and the military. A giant lighted billboard, advertising the message ‘!Tonight! Gospel Rocket’, pointed to a facsimile of a rocket that was draped in faded yellow nylon choir aprons. One concluded that the rocket was a weapon that might be used to kill with Christianity’s blessing. In the work Joseph Supplicates an old ’50’s photo showed three people sitting on a row of chairs at a church service, including a young woman dressed in a white dress and dark cape. A young man sat on his knees and supplicated to her as part of some arcane ritual. Kelley photographically re-generated the image of the scene as played by contemporary people. An additional act of re-generation was provided by a makeshift altar and row of chairs. The kneeling supplicant was also recreated, but as a dummy without an upper body. The scenario was quite unnerving and had an uncanny effect like that seen in Robert Gober’s ‘leg portraits’.
In Heartthrob Split an adolescent dressed as Dracula crooned a Tony Bennett-style number about being lonely and loveless. In another video piece (Morose Ghoul) a youth wearing a devil’s costume performed as a stand-up comic. Nearby, a video projection on a double sided-screen showed occult shadow plays and ghostly apparitions. In Switching Marys a Tarot Card effect was created when rapidly transposing images of a blue-robed woman flicked between two large oval screens (like framed mirrors). Other scenarios like Pink Curtain and Devil’s Door were mock possession scenes where chairs and domestic objects moved around by themselves, or where spectral curtain racks whirled around in the dark. This freaky stuff might have been scarier if not for Kelley’s heavy emphasis on ‘amateur hour’. In such pieces his satire worked away with corrosive effect as he exposed mediocre talents striving to create something special. He was, however, never pedantic about such issues.
Teenage kitsch also got a run in Candy Cane Throne, which combined an empty Santa throne and a video projection on an oval screen. The video looked like a sweets’ advertisement with endless images of swirling and eddying pink chocolate milk. The visuals were accompanied by a cheesy Californian bubblegum soundtrack sung by teen girls in praise of Candy Cane. The rituals of teenage dating appeared in Welcome Annual Singles Mixer, which consisted of a party table set with paper cups, photos of KFC and Sugar Lane Cola. A multi-coloured mirror ball placed on children’s mattresses was a thought provoking addition. Celebrity worship was addressed through an Honour Roll of photo portraits of ex-Kiss jerk Gene Simmons, Jon Voight from Midnight Cowboy, Lakers’ basketball player Brian Colby and a host of lesser lights. These images were hung on something resembling a teenager’s bedroom wall.
The sheer inundation of suburban dross provided a powerful insight into America’s love of waste and over abundance, not only of the commodity, but also of half-baked ideas that keep the madcap heart of the USA chugging along. The artist seems to feed on the pathologies of the American condition while enthusiastically capturing the incredible energy of its madness and mis en abîme. Kelley also revealed the kooky underbelly of the suburban experience and showcased its enduring teenage rituals that are loaded with cultural significance.
Day is Done was an exhilarating and wild portrait of hometown America. It is easy to appropriate and snigger at the crass rituals of American consumption and suburban kitsch. Kelley however did not use ‘art’ to punish or mock the Americana = Bizzarro sphere of taste. Rather, he set up a situation in which the material transcended itself—not through aesthetic transformation (and by implication, elite disdain), but solely via the wealth of the subject’s sociological content. The show was therefore more circus romp than art display.
Mike Kelley, Heartthrob Split, 2005. Mixed media with photograph, 215.9 x 137.2 x 256.5cm. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York. Photograph Fredrik Nilsen.
Mike Kelley, Gospel Rock, 2005. Mixed media with video projection, 228.6 x 574 x 640.1cm. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York. Photograph Fredrik Nilsen.
Mike Kelley, Devil's Door, 2005. Mixed media with video projection and photographs, 287 x 396.2 x 203.2cm. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York. Photograph Fredrik Nilsen.
Mike Kelley, Joseph Supplicates, 2005. Mixed media with video projection and photographs, 287 x 396.2 x 203.2cm. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York. Photograph Fredrik Nilsen.