– Autumn/Winter 2013

Something I’ve Wanted to Do But Nobody Would Let Me: Mike Kelley’s ‘The Uncanny’

Valerie Smith

Tags: Jeff Koons, John Miller, Michael Fried, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Robert Gober, Valerie Smith

This is what I remember about an event that happened twenty years ago. I travelled to Los Angeles to make studio visits as research for ‘Sonsbeek 93’, an exhibition that I was organising for the following year, to take place in Arnhem, in the Netherlands.1 I knew I would see Mike Kelley, because we had known each other since he presented his projects Monkey Island and Confusion at Metro Pictures in New York in 1982,2 when I became smitten with his work and with his winning personality. I had never seen anything quite like these installations. There was stuff all over the walls, the floor and even hanging from the ceiling. I was particularly impressed with an ink drawing of a screaming mandrake root, its anthropomorphism and the sheer emotional impact of the image. And so started my little flirtation with him and his work.

Mike Kelley at his exhibition ‘The Uncanny’, Gemeentemuseum, Arnhem, the Netherlands, as part of ‘Sonsbeek 93’, 1993. Pictured in the foreground, clockwise from left to right: Jonathan Borofsky, Chattering Man Looking at Flying Figure and Flying Figure, both 1983/84; ‘Beverly Hill Mansion of Saudi Arabian Sheik Mohammed Al-Fassi Is Gutted by an Arson Fire’, 1980, blow-up press photograph; blow-up German police photograph, undated; and a display of anatomical educational and demonstration figures. All works by Mike Kelley © Estate of Mike Kelley. All rights protected. All images courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts By 1992 Mike was at his peak, and everyone wanted a piece of him and his

  1. Established by the Sonsbeek Foundation and the municipality of the city of Arnhem, the Sonsbeek exhibition is held approximately every seven years in Arnhem. The first Sonsbeek was held in 1949 as a celebration after the end of World War II. ‘Sonsbeek 93’ took place from 5 June until 26 September 1993, in Sonsbeek Park and in the floodplains on the periphery of the city. Artists included Mario Air, Paweł Althamer, Art Orient. Objet, Michael Asher, Mirosłav Bałka, Alighiero e Boetti, Tom Burr, Mark Dion, Pepe Espali., Blue Funk, Anna Gudj.nsd.ttir and Till Krause, Ann Hamilton, Christine and Irene Hohenbüchler, Zuzanna Janin, Mike Kelley, Yuri Leiderman, Mark Manders, Annette Messager, Juan Mu.oz, Jan van de Pavert, Keith Piper, Allen Ruppersberg, Eran Schaerf and Andreas Siekmann.

  2. ‘Monkey Island and Confusion’, Metro Pictures, New York, 18 September—9 October 1982.

  3. The Gemeentemuseum was a generalist museum, its name has since been changed to Museum voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem.

  4. Mike’s attitude was complex and often contradictory. Writing in 2004, he framed ‘The Uncanny’ as ‘somewhat of a joke on the idea of site specificity as a gesture of “resistance”’ to the art world's ‘recuperation of outmoded models of art production’. Yet he also ‘did not want it to be understood simply as a parody’. He wanted it both ways. However, ‘joke’ and ‘parody’ were never words used to describe ‘The Uncanny’ at any time during its installation for ‘Sonsbeek 93’. Mike Kelley, ‘A New Introduction to The Uncanny’, in The Uncanny by Mike Kelley, Artist (exh. cat.), Liverpool, Vienna and Cologne: Tate, Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien and Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther K.nig, 2004, p.9; and M. Kelley, ‘Playing with Dead Things: On the Uncanny’, in ibid., p.28.

  5. Ibid. The concept of an ‘exhibition within the exhibition’ was also intrinsic to a number of other projects in ‘Sonsbeek 93’, by Annette Messager, Irene and Christine Hohenbüchler and Allen Ruppersberg, among others.

  6. By the mid-1920s, Magic Realism and New Objectivity were fully articulated as painting trends by German and Italian critics, and both styles spread throughout Europe and the US between the 20s and 50s. Magic Realism is outwardly distinguished by a classical right-wing or verist left-wing depiction of common subjects that reveal a metaphysical or mysterious interiority. Dutch artists Mike would have seen in Arnhem include Edgar Fernhout, Raoul Hynckes, Dick Ket, Pyke Koch, Johan Mekkink, Wim Schumacher and Charley Toorop. In a sense, Mike could be said to have extended Magic Realism into three dimensions.

  7. Adrian Searle, ‘Inside the Mind of an Insane Collector’, The Guardian, 24 February 2004, available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2004/feb/24/1 (last accessed on 25 July 2013).

  8. ‘Mike Kelley: The Uncanny’, Tate Liverpool, 20 February—3 May 2004; Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna, 15 July—31 October 2004.

  9. ‘Pictures’ (Artists Space, New York, 24 September—27 October 1977) was an exhibition curated by Douglas Crimp that included works by Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and Philip Smith.

  10. ‘Post-Human’, FAE Musée d'Art Contemporain, Pully, Lausanne (14 June—13 September 1992); Castello di Rivoli, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli (24 September—22 November 1992); Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art, Athens (3 December 1992—14 February 1993); and Deichtorhallen Hamburg (12 March—9 May 1993). The exhibition was curated by Jeffrey Deitch and included, among others, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Damien Hirst, Mike Kelley, Karen Kilimnik, Martin Kippenberger, Jeff Koons, Paul McCarthy, Cady Noland, Thomas Ruff, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith and Jeff Wall. Roughly a fourth of the artists Deitch included in ‘Post-Human’ were also in ‘The Uncanny’. For Kelley's reflection on ‘Post-Human’, see a letter to the author from Autumn 1992, reproduced in Sonsbeek 93 (exh. cat.), Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 1993, p.36.

  11. The ‘Me generation’ was a term coined by writer Tom Wolfe to refer to the generation born during the 1950s and early 60s baby boom in the US. See T. Wolfe, ‘The Me Decade’, New York Magazine, 23 August 1976, available at http://nymag.com/news/features/45938 (last accessed on 25 July 2013).

  12. Letter from the artist, autumn 1992, reproduced in Sonsbeek 93, op. cit., 1993, p.36. See also M. Kelley, ‘Playing with Dead Things: On the Uncanny’, in The Uncanny, op. cit., p.36.

  13. Mike Kelley received his MFA degree from CalArts in 1978. See http://www.metropicturesgallery.com/ exhibitions/2012-01-19_john-miller (last accessed on 25 July 2013).

  14. Letter from the artist, Autumn 1992, reproduced in Sonsbeek 93, op. cit., 1993, p.36. See also M. Kelley, ‘Playing with Dead Things: On the Uncanny’, in The Uncanny, op. cit., p.36.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Ibid. See also John Knight, ‘The Pathetic Aesthetic: Making Do With What Is’, Los Angeles Times, 14 August 1990, available at http://articles.latimes.com/1990-08-14/entertainment/ ca-505_1_pathetic-aesthetic (last accessed on 25 July 2013).

  17. M. Kelley, ‘Playing with Dead Things’, op. cit., p.27.

  18. See Michael Fried, ‘Art and Objecthood’, Artforum, no.5, June 1967, pp.12—23. Mike’s argument for a physical, material, fragmentary and phenomenological experience is entirely antithetical to Fried’s claim for an instantaneous and unitary visual experience of painting.

  19. M. Kelley, ‘Playing with Dead Things’, op. cit., p.26.

  20. Letter from the artist, January—February 2013, reproduced in Sonsbeek 93, op. cit., p.137.

  21. Michael Taussig, Walter Benjamin’s Grave, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006, p.140.

  22. T. McEvilley, ‘Interview with Mike Kelley’, Sonsbeek 93, op. cit., p.139.

  23. Ibid.

  24. M. Kelley, ‘Playing with Dead Things’, op. cit., p.37.

  25. In this regard, see Karl Schenker’s 1920s photographs of wax mannequins modelling clothes. These were included in 'The Uncanny' and are reproduced in The Uncanny, op. cit., p.77.

  26. M. Kelley, ‘Playing with Dead Things’, op. cit., p.30. Mike picked this expression up from Jack Burnham, Beyond Modern Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of This Century, New York: Braziller, 1968, p.185. Recent exhibitions such as ‘Bunte G.tter: Die Farbigkeit antiker Skulptur’ (‘Gods in Colour: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity’, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 13 November 2012—29 September 2013) are, however, changing this perception.

  27. For the story of the blow-up image of ‘Beverly Hill Mansion of Saudi Arabian Sheik Mohammed Al-Fassi’, see M. Kelley, ‘Playing with Dead Things’, op. cit., pp.30—31.

  28. Ibid., p.36. However, in stark contrast with Mike’s interpretation, Koons has stated that his work has a profoundly Christian mission: ‘I’ve always thought of myself as the young boy in the back pushing the pig, pushing in the belief of trying to make work that would communicate to people that their own cultural and personal history up to that moment was absolutely perfect — and that that would give them a foundation to move forward in life.’ Jeff Koons, speaking on the US television series Art21 (‘Art of the Twenty-First Century, Season 5: Fantasy’), 2009, available at http://www.pbs.org/art21/images/jeff-koons/ushering-in-banality-1988 (last accessed on 25 July 2013).

  29. M. Kelley, ‘Playing with Dead Things’, op. cit., p.28.

  30. Freud and Rodin did not know each other, but their individual collections of ancient statuary numbered around 4,000 and 6,000 respectively. See http://www.musee-rodin.fr/en/rodin/educational-files/ multiples-fragments-assemblages. For Freud's collection, see http://www.freud.org.uk/about/ collections (both last accessed on 25 July 2013).

  31. M. Kelley, ‘Playing with Dead Things’, op. cit., p.32.

  32. Ibid.

  33. Cindy Sherman in conversation with Therese Lichtenstein, Journal of Contemporary Art, vol.5, no.2, 1992, pp.78—88, available at http://www.jca-online.com/sherman.html (last accessed on 25 July 2013).

  34. M. Kelley, ‘A New Introduction to The Uncanny’, op. cit., p.10.

  35. The Arabic root of the word haram means ‘something forbidden or kept safe’. See http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=harem (last accessed on 25 July 2013).

  36. M. Kelley, ‘A New Introduction to The Uncanny’, op. cit., p.12.

  37. Ibid.

  38. Ibid., p.12. They were used in Kelley’s video Banana Man (1982).

  39. M. Kelley, speaking on the US television series Art21 (‘Art21 Exclusive. Mike Kelley: Day Is Done’), 2010, available at http://www.art21.org/videos/short-mike-kelley-day-is-done (last accessed on 25 July 2013).

  40. M. Kelley, ‘A New Introduction to The Uncanny’, op. cit., p.11.

  41. Ibid.

  42. Ibid., pp.11—12.

  43. See John Miller, ‘Mike Kelley’, BOMB, no.38, Winter 1992, available at http://bombsite.com/issues/38/articles/1502; and J. Miller, ‘From My Institution to Yours, A Personal Remembrance’, 19 January 2012, available at http://www.metropicturesgallery.com/exhibitions/2012-01-19_johnmiller (both last accessed on 25 July 2013).

  44. The importance of the gaps in his collections has extensions in later work on repressed memory syndrome. See Mike reading from his ‘Recovered Memory #4’, recorded in his interview with Gerry Fialka, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6D6lmIMyyc (last accessed on 25 July 2013).

  45. See Susan Freudenheim, ‘Singular Commitment’, Los Angeles Times, 27 January 2002, available at http://articles.latimes.com/2002/jan/27/news/lv-collect27/4 (last accessed on 25 July 2013).

  46. M. Kelley, ‘A New Introduction to The Uncanny’, op. cit., p.11.

  47. Ibid.

  48. Ibid., pp.11—12.

  49. Ibid., p.12. Tate Liverpool’s loan request to Kourosh Larizadeh for The Harems assumed they were art.

  50. M. Kelley, ‘A New Introduction to The Uncanny’, op. cit., p.12.

  51. Yet another version of ‘The Uncanny’ appeared, for instance, in Massimiliano Gioni’s ‘8th Gwangju Biennale: 10,000 Lives’ (3 September—7 November 2010) as a tribute to the artist, and was again referenced in Gioni’s ‘The Encyclopaedic Palace’, Venice Biennale, 1 June—24 November 2013.