Texts by Matt Copson
and Jean-Marie Gallais
New World Agency™
Mike Kelley was born in 1954 in suburban Detroit where he attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor followed by an MFA at CalArts. He rose to prominence in the late ’80s alongside artists such as Paul McCarthy and Jim Shaw for his work which collaged elements of underground comics, punk music, working-class white Americana aesthetics and the legacy of modernism. At some point he was abducted by aliens and raised by zombies. In 2012 he committed suicide. Or at least that’s the gist of it… as Kelley said: “My biography is boring… it’s much better to fill in these empty spaces with fiction than the boring truth.”
At its core, Mike Kelley’s work is a series of games enacted through fanciful narrativization. Take Day Is Done, where he imagined melodramas based off images from school yearbooks, or Kandors, a series of fan fictions about Superman’s hometown, or Educational Complex, where the material of his playful narrative was his own identity. These games began as a response to a response. Mike claimed that his early works—which used children’s toy animals as materials—were often misinterpreted as alluding to trauma and abuse, to the extent that some thought he must have been abused as a child. In Educational Complex he validated this interpretation, claiming that his audience must know better than him and that he must have suppressed his trauma. The piece itself is an architectural model consisting of all the sites of his education smashed together, from his family home to the art schools he attended, every forgotten space (the majority) is rendered as an inaccessible block and the end result is an obtuse collision of white cardboard structures. Kelley was not shy about telling the audience how to interpret his work this time, saying “the implication is that anything that can’t be remembered is somehow the result of trauma.” With a heavy dose of combative irony, he was giving the audience what they wanted. Of course, what we want is disgusting: the contact high found when comfortably witnessing someone or something extreme and horrifying. We hear it in the audio tours describing Van Gogh’s self-mutilation as we pan our eyes over depictions of wheat fields imbuing them with morbid animation. We see it in the smile of a curator as they finish mounting a wall text full of juicy references to slavery. The trauma economy.
Kelley spoke of Educational Complex, like many of his following works, as being inspired by the rising popularity of therapy in America, “predicated on the idea that certain traumatic events… are repressed and only removed later.” Today the works seem both prescient and quaint given the continued growth of the trauma economy in society at large. Perhaps as a result of the deepening understanding of mental health in the West, or maybe the growing sense of alienation amongst younger generations and a million capitalist enterprises ready to take advantage, trauma has gained social value and become a source of personal narrative. The problem is—as Kelley’s work mocks in its total ambiguity—that trauma could mean anything. According to the psychotherapist Resmaa Menakem, it encompasses “anything the body perceives as too much, too fast, or too soon”; an efficient description of modern life. Trauma’s most common clinical effect is PTSD, which is now so all-engulfing that it includes 636,120 possible symptom combinations. Its non-specificity has made trauma the perfect vehicle for any manner of dispute or complaint. Every day the latest culture war battle sees both sides claiming victimhood based on any manner of manipulatable criteria, be they emotional, political, or material. And who are we to pass judgement when truth is so amorphous? When child abuse can be casually weaponized into conspiratorial fantasy? When moral responsibility is leveled such that a PTSD-stricken soldier and the family he killed are on an even playing field. Ultimately, there is a safety in this non-definition of trauma. It is inherently backward-looking—what happened?—and irreversible, thus a compelling resource for anyone alienated in the present and scared of the future. There is a solace in its simplicity.
Educational Complex is similarly simple and undefined. Through its extreme blank formalism, Mike parodies the idea of art as self-expression and the creation of artwork as a form of catharsis for its creator. Instead, its architecture becomes a container for our subjectivities not his, efficiently and comedically harnessing the potency that we’ve quietly given trauma as a culture by creating a void for people to project their own imaginations onto. We imagine ourselves in shrunken form walking through the school corridors of Mike’s past as if in a Brancusi-fied theme park, opening doors onto scenes of total horror. These perversions are all in our minds and so we have no one to blame but ourselves. In later works like Day Is Done, Mike uses trauma as an excuse for his own imaginative creativity. Day Is Done is a labyrinthine installation made up of 365 video works that fill in the repressed areas depicted in Educational Complex with scenes of Kelley’s own creation, inspired by his own biography as well as Disney cartoons, vampire flicks, high modernism, grunge music, and many more elements. The work is the total inverse of what came before, a vision of operatic maximalism sucking up as much mass-cultural and subcultural imagery as possible. This is identity through a postmodern lens, where we are all Frankenstein’s monsters constructed out of the detritus of the contemporary culture around us. Mike spoke of his desire to “make these works not only representations of my own abuse, but also ones of culturally shared group abuse” and in this way his use of trauma is really a means to an end. For him, trauma is an invisible force that floats everywhere tying us together, onto we project depth and romanticism as well as our identities. In these works we are not only the unreliable narrators of our own past but also our essential beings.
It feels vulgar to read Mike Kelley’s suicide in relation to his work, after all that was the very pop-psychologizing that he was parodying. But ultimately his biography is not ‘boring’, his interests in trauma don’t sound purely academic and his work will forever be imbued with a certain morbid curiosity. Much like his generational peers David Foster Wallace and Mark Fisher who also took their own lives, it’s hard not to view these tragic endings as indicative of the nihilism of the Gen X project. The idea of irony as a critique has been rendered totally impotent in the wormy Rashomon-style decentralized world of today, and with it the trauma economy is thriving better than ever with my generation’s fixation on individualized authenticity. But Mike’s work was always much richer than mere critique—it’s extremely funny, deeply poetic and looks incredible. Unlike many of his postmodern peers, I think he liked how it looked too. There is a deep love for his idiosyncratic references which you can feel in his crudely sewn DIY felt banners proclaiming “I AM USELESS TO THE CULTURE BUT GOD LOVES ME” or in the Hollywood-level production of his snow globes housing Superman’s lost home (his own source of trauma). This is because his interest in trauma as a metaphysical force is deeply empathetic in its anti-essentialism. It is a force that goes beyond subjectivity and thus ourselves. And so, when I think of his work and his death, I imagine into the negative space between the two and it is no different from the blocked-out spaces of his Educational Complex: a rich void for me to project my wildest imagination onto.
Text by Matt Copson
Mike Kelley was not a fan of Superman, contrary to what one might think,2 but at the dawn of the third millennium, he created a series of striking works based on this saga that originated in the late 1930s. For that matter, Superman isn’t even the main protagonist of this story; the imaginary city of Kandor on the superhero’s native planet Krypton steals the show. (In the late 1950s, readers learned that, before the planet Krypton was destroyed, the city of Kandor and its inhabitants were shrunk and encapsulated under a bell jar by the super-villain Brainiac. Superman, the man of steel, a Kryptonian who survived because he was sent to planet Earth by his father when he was still a baby, managed to secure the city under the bell jar, which he preserved with great care in his secret lair, the “Fortress of Solitude,” as a memory of his own past, with the hope of bringing it back to its original scale one day.) The culmination of Mike Kelley’s cycle devoted to this story, the Kandors Full Set (2005-2009) held by the Pinault Collection, a series of luminous miniature cities and their bell jars, has a particular aura in the artist’s oeuvre. Neither entirely different from or similar to the rest of his work, the Kandors became distinctive for their aesthetics of seduction, thus breaking with many works or installations that dealt with abjection. They condense many themes and areas of interest for the artist that are refracted in every direction like the light that crosses through the translucent materials of which the works are made. Mike Kelley’s interest in Kandor also had multiple focal points; from a narrative standpoint, it concerns the metaphor that the miniaturized city represents for Superman, a symbol of alienation, of a constant recall of his inaccessible past, like an age-old torment. But from a symbolic standpoint, it was another aspect that emerged serendipitously during Kelley’s research that fascinated him: the changing appearance of Kandor. In fact, by working with a magazine collector, the artist discovered that, in the hundreds of depictions of Kandor under its bell jar, the city is never really the same from one episode to the next. The reason for the visual discontinuity is rather trivial; the appearance of Superman’s native city is not essential to the storyline, and as such it might as well be a generic city of the future, a science-fiction city without any distinctive markings other than the modernist point of view of the people drawing it, who were anchored in the twentieth century. In addition to the iconographic interest in these variations, Kelley saw them as a potential sign, namely, weren’t they also the result of a vacillating memory? An evanescent recollection resurfacing in different forms? From a formal point of view, the production of the Kandors delighted the artist; the challenge lay in translating, without betraying, the language of the comic by projecting it into three-dimensional space, as well as in giving a form to a collective evocation of a future seen from the past.3 Narrative, symbolic, and formal: the three registers exploited by Kelley intermingled and formed the fundamental triumvirate of each of his projects from the beginning of his career working in performance and with objects, and then the installations and multidisciplinary projects, leaving the works open to various levels of complexity, development, and interpretation.
The starting point for this project was called Kandor-Con 2000, created in 1999 on the occasion of an exhibition about new technologies seen from a past viewpoint, held at Kunstmuseum in Bonn.4 Kelley proposed to the museum to organize a large Superman fan convention to generate a collective evocation of the utopia that Kandor represented. The convention was to be held in the museum and in an online forum (let us recall that, in 1999, the Internet was in its earliest infancy, both for the art world and the general public, and that, as Kelley himself emphasized, it too resembled a kind of communal utopia and virtual architecture).5 The goal was to build a model of Kandor with the help of the largest possible number of fans. Because the project was turning out to be costly and unrealistic, Kelley revised and modified it to become a kind of construction site visitors center, replete with promotional banners and architectural models, changing in appearance during the exhibition,6 a 3-D simulation, and more. It was in preparing the “plans” to build the city that the artist noticed the visual discontinuity of Kandor. Since working on his gigantic cardboard model with the appearance of a dystopian city Educational Complex (1995), which brought together in the same layout the various places where the artist received his education, enlightening the places he didn’t remember, Kelley had learned that remembering an architecture is a complex experience. Memory fixes the space in a certain way and, conversely, the spatial references condition one’s memory, as Frances A. Yates developed in The Art of Memory (1966), which we surmise that Kelley had read. The first sketches for Educational Complex reveal Kelley’s approach, which began with tracing the plans of his various schools from memory on pieces of paper. However, moving these floating shards of his memory into a viable, three-dimensional form was impossible without recourse to the building plans. Memory had deformed the spaces and built pathways that did not exist. Thus, Kandor is an architecture that is as ungraspable as a souvenir as it is unimaginable on the basis of a stable reference, because it never existed. And this happened on a collective basis, as the people who drew the Superman series changed over the years. All these aspects would fascinate Kelley for almost an entire decade. In 2007, he presented the exhibition Kandors at the Galerie Jablonka in Berlin.7 The artist selected twenty representations of this ghost city and, like an alchemist, he gave life to these fictional spaces in the real world. Kelley’s formal program for the Kandors was for them to be “akin to paintings by Henri Matisse in three dimensions, with science-fiction overtones.”8 The artist went on to work with specialists across the globe to achieve a sense of technical prowess and sophistication, even if the DIY aura was never far away. He used colored urethane resin for the cities, experimenting endlessly with different molds and textures, and Pyrex glass blown in Czech Republic for the monumental bell jars, which were dyed during a second process by specialists in decorative arts in Ohio using pigments selected by the artist. The Kandors project consists of various series of pieces of furniture, pedestals, bottles, and cities, along with lenticular images, animations in which the glass bell jars are personified and embody children’s emotions, as well as atmospheric videos shot within the bottles, the Kandor—Bottles Projections (2007). Conceived concomitantly with this exhibition, the Kandors Full Set, created between 2005 and 2009, resembles the ensemble of the cities in resin and the bell jars, presented in a dark environment, the sole light emanating from the works backlit from behind their veneered pedestals.
Mike Kelley was always keenly aware of his relationship to art history, from which he often parasitically appropriated a heroic discourse.9 What interested Kelley about Kandor was not so much working with comics as a minor, folk art form as the potential to reach a wider audience as he continued with his quasi-anthropological exploration of America’s unconscious neuroses: the theory of repressed traumatic memory and the vulnerability of myths, through the entangling of fiction and reality.10 Superman, the archetypal superhero, has moments of weakness and melancholy that surface, especially when the man of steel reflects on things in his solitary lair. Contemplating a bottled Kandor, he faces his trauma; his planet was destroyed, and his fate as its sole survivor and potential savior of Kryptonian civilization was irreversibly decreed by his father. There is no clear solution to this situation for Superman, despite all of his superpowers. How can he revive Kandor at another scale and in a breathable atmosphere? The city is trapped in the narrative, condemned to survive only in miniature in this atmosphere under a bell jar. We can sense the character’s sadness, even oppression, in the face of so many insurmountable schemes. He thus becomes both philosophical and comical—Mike Kelley had the talent of deftly manipulating both registers—as an actor playing the role of Superman reads fragments of the writings of the American feminist literary icon Sylvia Plath in the video Superman Recites Selections from ‘The Bell Jar’ and Other Works by Sylvia Plath (1999). In The Bell Jar, Plath’s brilliant novel published in 1963, just a few months before she committed suicide, the author describes the alienation of Esther, a young, depressive woman faced with making certain life choices in 1950s America and feeling herself more and more on the margins of society.
In 2010-2011, when he merged his two last major concomitant projects, Kandors and the Extracurricular Activities Projective Reconstructions,11 Mike Kelley suggested that the Fortress of Solitude where Superman keeps Kandor may also be the site of repressed trauma. It was in context that the artist produced, among his last pieces, his version of the man of steel’s refuge (Kandor 10B [Exploded Fortress of Solitude], 2011): an austere cave after an explosion whose interior nevertheless harbors the precious, luminous city like a treasure, but well encapsulated and protected within a dazzling setting made of memory ware.12 The script seems to have led the superhero down a tragic slope, but the luminous bottle symbolizes a possible future. Even if Superman has already taken off.
Text by Jean-Marie Gallais
In early 2012, as news spread of Mike Kelley’s suicide at home in California, Rafael Jablonka, his German gallerist, published a death announcement in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper of 4 February 2012 with the words “Goodbye Superman” printed in the center of the black-bordered notice.
He was nevertheless an avid reader of various fanzines and comics. For the project The John Reed Book Club (1992), he even imagined a parody of a Marvel comic whose band of awkward superheroes tries to save the world with left-wing revolutionary aspirations, in which Kelley’s drawings refer constantly to Communist author, journalist, and activist John “Jack” Silas Reed (1887-1920).
This is one of the rare projects for which Mike Kelley provided a detailed account of the production in the work: Mike Kelley, Kandors, Berlin / Munich, Galerie Jablonka / Hirmer, 2011.
Zeitwenden: Ausblick [“Turning Point: Outlook”], curated by Dieter Ronte and Walter Smerling, Kunstmuseum Bonn, 4 December 1999—4 June 2000.
Mike Kelley, op. cit.
Professional model builders were hired for the exhibition to construct models of various “buildings” based on different illustrations of Kandor in the comic. These structures rested together atop a pedestal for the entire duration of the exhibition.
Mike Kelley, Kandors, Galerie Jablonka, Berlin, 29 September – 22 December 2007.
Mike Kelley, op. cit.
Kelley’s birdhouse sculptures from his MFA thesis exhibition went against the conceptual teachings that were prevalent at CalArts with his emphasis on manual DIY. When he used stuffed animals in the works that form the series Half a Man from the late 1980s, he piled them on the wall like an expressionist all-over (More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid, 1987), or he arranged them on the floor to mock Carl Andre’s minimalist art (Mooner, 1990, or Arena #4 (Zen Garden), 1990). He did the same thing when he appropriated the folk-art technique known as memory ware, which he transposed into two dimensions, thus ushering this medium, usually confined to flea markets, within the walls of museums.
This entanglement created a mise en abyme, as Superman also leads the plausible appearance of a normal life among humans in the form of Clark Kent, a timid bespectacled character who is often the subject of mockery, and who is overshadowed by a domineering working-class woman who suspects her colleague’s double identity and who only has eyes for Superman: Lois Lane.
Mike Kelley: Exploded Fortress of Solitude, Gagosian Gallery, London, 8 September—22 October 2011.
In the 2000s, Kelley worked with a Canadian folk-art technique called “memory ware,” which consists of studding cement with an accumulation of everyday objects such as buttons, pins, chains, seashells, and foreign coins.
MIKE KELLEY (b. 1954, Detroit, MI, USA) is widely considered one of the most influential artists of our times. He worked in a startling array of genres and styles, including performance, installation, drawing, painting, video, photography, sound works, text, and sculpture. He also worked on curatorial projects, collaborated with many other artists and musicians, and left a formidable body of critical and creative writing. A selection of recent solo exhibitions includes: Bourse de Commerce, Pinault Collection, Paris (2023-2024); MoMA PS1, New York (2013); Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (2013); Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (2013); HangarBicocca, Milan (2013); The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2012); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2012).
MATT COPSON (b. 1992, Oxford, UK). Recent solo exhibitions include: Age Of Coming, C L E A R I N G (Brussels); Coming Of Age, High Art (Paris); Down Boy, Reena Spaulings (New York); Blorange, Fondation Louis Vuitton (Paris); and Swiss Institute (New York). In 2023 he wrote and directed a new opera, Last Days, with music composed by Oliver Leith. It premiered at the Royal Opera House (London) and will have its US premiere in 2024 with the LA Phil at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
JEAN-MARIE GALLAIS is Curator at Pinault Collection (Paris, Venice) and co-curator of the exhibition Mike Kelley. Ghost and Spirit at Bourse de Commerce in Paris (October 2023–February 2024). Trained as an art historian and exhibition curator, he was Head of Exhibitions at Centre Pompidou-Metz between 2016 and 2021, where he curated the exhibitions Painting the Night (2017-2018), Lee Ufan. Inhabiting Time (2019), Folklore (2020), and Writing is Drawing with Etel Adnan (2021).
* Excerpt from a text by Jean-Marie Gallais, Curator at the Pinault Collection. Full version published in the exhibition catalogue Mike Kelley. Ghost and Spirit (eds. Catherine Wood, Fiontán Moran, Jean-Marie Gallais), Paris, Pinault Collection and Éditions Dilecta, October 2023. Special thanks to Paola Ravagni.