– Spring/Summer 2001

What Do You Know About My Image Duplicator

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Leigh

Karen Kilimnick, Me as Isabelle Adjani on T.V. Denying She Has AIDS, c-print 17” x 21”, 1988. © Karen Kilimnik. Courtesy Sprueth Magers Berlin London

Karen Kilimnick, Me as Isabelle Adjani on T.V. Denying She Has AIDS, c-print 17” x 21”, 1988. © Karen Kilimnik. Courtesy Sprueth Magers Berlin London

Let us compare and contrast.1 Karen Kilimnik's succinctly named mixed-media 'scatter piece' Drugs, appears to be no more nor less than its title indicates: a studiedly artless arrangement of mounds of dubious looking pills, sachets and assorted drug paraphernalia (a stray spoon, a cigarette lighter, an empty hypodermic syringe) accompanied by a party-sized mirror bearing a generous heap of white powder and a razor blade.

The not-quite-so-succinctly titled installation Fountain of Youth (Cleanliness is next to Godliness) is a more obviously artful display. It features an assortment of soaps and beauty products arrayed around a makeshift plastic fountain, garnished by a few plants in tinfoil pots and a variety of crudely decorative fabric cut-outs. Drugs was made in 1991 and Fountain of Youth a year later. One work suggests the prospect of a fast life and an early grave, while the other holds the promise of a pampered life and eternal youth. The choice would seem to be between the beauty of narcotics and the narcotic of beauty. But of course this is not a real choice, any more than a contrast between the drug business and the cosmetics industry is a genuine contrast. The fact of the matter is that most of the cast of characters who flit in and out of the works of Karen Kilimnik - the hard-living supermodels and fashion queens, the larger-than-life TV personalities and big-screen heart-throbs, the elegantly wasted rock stars - prefer to choose both: badness and beauty, high-living and everlasting life. In Kilimnik's world the archetypal bad girl (or bad boy, for that matter) and the goody-two-shoes - those opposing stereotypes whose bedroom dressing-tables might

  1. This essay's title is taken from a quotation in one of Karen Kilimnik's drawings from an episode in one of her favourite television shows, The Avengers.

  2. Drawings by Karen Kilimnik, Zürich: Kunsthalle Zürich and Edition Patrick Frey, 1997

  3. Collier Schorr, 'The Good, the Bad, and the Awfully Beautiful', Parkett, no.52, 1998, pp.29-37. The current essay is indebted to Schorr's discussion of a number of key aspects of Kilimnik's work including her relation to the Gothic, which is addressed below.

  4. Susanne Becker, Gothic Forms of Feminine Fictions, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1999, p.158

  5. Elizabeth Wright, Psychoanalytic Criticism: Theory and Practice, London and New York: Methuen, 1984,p.82

  6. S. Becker, op.cit., p.242

  7. Allan Lloyd Smith, 'Postmodernism/Gothicism' in Victor Sage and Adam Lloyd Smith (eds.) Modern Gothic: A Reader, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1996, p.7

  8. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, 'Raymond Pettibon: Return to Disorder and Disfiguration', October, no.92, Spring 2000, p.39. In citing Buchloh on Pettibon, I do not mean to suggest that his argument might be detached from its subject and applied problematically to Kilimnik, as there are significant differences as well as similarities between the work of these two near contemporaries.