The Freelance Mentalists.
Monday, March 05, 2012
  On Mike Kelley's "The Uncanny" (uncut)
As a special tribute to Mike Kelley, who last month checked out way ahead of schedule, we're posting the full, unedited version of John W.'s review of Kelley's 'Uncanny' exhibition in Vienna from 2004. (2015 update added at end!)

The Uncanny Exhibition of Mike Kelley


I.  The Main Exhibit

"The Uncanny", Mike Kelley's exhibition at MUMOK, is utterly brilliant, with something to delight everyone from John Waters to Walter Benjamin.  Sizewise, it would fill a floor of the Whitney and then some, and offers a motley and maniacally assembled collection of statues, ventriloquist's dummies, mannequins, reliquaries, anatomical models and so on.  In part it's intended to suggest the "Wunderkammer", or "cabinets of wonder", which originated in the Renaissance and were popular through the end of the 19th century.

The exhibition, whose themes come from Freud's 1919 essay on the uncanny, is actually a "re-configuration and extension" of a show that Kelley assembled in Arnhem (the Netherlands) in 1993, but with one crucial difference which I'll explain below.  This new version appeared at the Tate Liverpool earlier this year and now — since Kelley reportedly conceived the exhibition during several past visits here — it has "come home" to Vienna.  Also, as a complement to the exhibition, the movie theater up the street from me is presenting a series of films selected by Kelley — basics like "Frankenstein", "Freaks", "Eraserhead", "Dead Ringers", and the like.

Roughly half of "The Uncanny" comprises works by contemporary artists, with the other half constituting objects found and collected by Kelley.  The press materials claim that he himself is not actually credited as an artist for any of these objects, although in view of the way that they've been assembled and displayed, this is a slippery point.  A few years ago Luc Sante mentioned to me that once in an interview he had posited a link between "postmodernism" and "shopping" — with DJ'ing and curating being prime examples — and much of this exhibit appears to be the result of Kelley's gleeful and canny shopping sprees at various flea markets and thrift shops.

My previous exposure to Mike Kelley's work was rather limited, e.g. the cover to Sonic Youth's "Dirty" and a few isolated pieces.  As a result, I assumed that one aspect of "the uncanny" being explored here was sexual ambiguity:  specifically, the way that, in childhood, certain otherwise ordinary objects can be (mis)taken to have a sexual meaning and even cause sexual arousal.  I suspect that, if one were to take a group of first- and second-graders on a tour of the exhibition (and NOT fifth-graders, who by then know what the game is about and would titter and hoot at many of the displays) and then quiz them 10 or 20 years later, a significant portion of them will in the meantime have developed tastes for amputees, rubber raincoats, and anatomically correct male mannequins.

On the day after the opening there was a podium discussion with the artist.  At the Q&A session that followed, I asked the artist whether the ambiguity of strangeness-vs.-sexual-content was intentional.  He denied that the exhibit had anything to do with childhood sexuality.  (And incidentally, when another member of the audience then asked about the significance behind the couple dozen rubber squeeze toys on display in a glass case, he explained that he simply happened to collect them as noisemakers for his band, Destroy All Monsters, and that they are "outside what I consider appropriate to the rest of the show".)

Still, there are certainly many childhood Sexual Tales of Terror to be seen:

For the guys, there's the installation by Kristian Burford, whose point of departure is that old horror story from sleepaway camp:  "During the later period of Christopher's residence at boarding school he learnt that if the hand of a sleeping boy were to be submerged in tepid water, the boy would be made to wet his bed.  This has provided him with the subject for a short video," which is shown on a TV set "in a chamber that once served as his mother's sewing room."  Inside the tent-like room, itself suggesting a canopy bed, a full-size and decently endowed male mannequin lies with the tips of his fingers dangling into a bowl of water.  It's hard to say whether he is in modified fetal position or a state of erotic languor — after all, he's on his mother's spare bed.  The artist manages to turn the museumgoer's voyeurism back on itself, since in order to view the lushly furnished piece, it's necessary to peek through holes in the surrounding drapes.

The girls are offered their own Sexual Tale of Terror in the form of Ron Mueck's hyperrealistic sculpture, "Ghost" (which, among several other webpages, can be seen at:
www.doffay.com/external_mueck.htm ).  It depicts an adolescent girl in a bathing suit, still not yet at ease with her own beauty.  Here's one version of the way the scene plays out in real life:  this month in phys.ed. they're doing the swimming unit.  When the co-ed group files out to the pool, the Nice Guy in class says to her, "Hey, I never realized before what nice long legs you have."  The girl answers, "No I don't.  I hate my legs."  He replies, "That's not true!  You have NICE legs."  Turning her head and holding back the tears, she says, "Please don't ever say anything about my legs again," and immediately resolves to start another diet as soon as she gets home.  The punchline is that Mueck succeeds in turning the viewer's pathos back on itself:  when you see the piece up close, in its full seven-foot-high scale, the temptation is to say, "Gee, she really _does_ look rather homely after all."

More horrors can be found in Christo's "3 Nudes on a Bed" (wrapped, of course, and guaranteed to induce claustrophobia) and Paul McCarthy's "Garden Dead Men" (castration anxiety — although this is not to overlook several dozen other items such as mummies, severed heads, limbs without bodies, and vice versa).

As for artistic intent:  the first 30 or so minutes of the podium discussion between Kelley and John Welchman (an art professor and critic who has collaborated with Kelley on books and other documentation) consisted of a sober and quite recondite examination of the history of polychromatic figurative sculpture and its recent revival.  It's useful to know that this is the focus of the show, since Kelley is deliberately concentrating on "what gets repressed from the culture and erased from art history" (e.g. several centuries' worth of statues found in Roman Catholic churches).  However, the FORM-related criterion in turn goes a long way to explain the CONTENT of the show, since the renewed interest in polychromatic figurative sculpture happened to come at a time when certain topics also emerged:  hence, we get none of George Segal's staid white monochromatic businessmen, but do get Nancy Grossman's bondage mask.

At the end of this very erudite public discussion I asked the woman sitting next to me, who was reporting on the show for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, whether Kelley and Welchman had been talking about the same show that I saw.  She admitted that she was wondering the same thing herself, and then asked me why the people who attended the opening didn't seem to find anything there funny.  She was right:  I had observed that about half of the hundreds of people looked on in mild appreciation, while the other half exhibited a poker-faced cluelessness.  I myself was bursting into belly laughs for days afterwards at not only the pieces themselves, but the various juxtapositions:

— In a glass case, we see plastic models of the death masks of Napoleon, Lincoln, and Beethoven; placed in a privileged position ABOVE them on the wall, however, is an anonymous "Death Mask of an Executed Robber and Murderer, circa 1900" (Luc Sante, call your office).

— The four aforementioned masks are positioned across from a "Portrait of Dennis Thompson" by Cynthia "Plaster Caster" Albritton, the ultimate groupie.

— In the main gallery a typical parish-church statue (read: tacky) of the Blessed Virgin Mary herself, with outstretched arms, faces a contented yet inscrutable stuffed baboon.

— Sitting unobtrusively off in one corner is a robot model of Andy Warhol:  when he was invited to a TV show to plug his book, "The Philosophy of Andy Warhol", he chose not to appear live and instead commissioned someone to construct this model, which was also equipped with a tape recording of him reading excerpts from the book.  (And note that (i) he was thus hearkening back to his Czechoslovakian roots, since the word "robot" was first coined by Karel Capek in 1923; and (ii) this same idea would later be taken up by Kraftwerk, who have gone on entire concert tours by sending robots in place of themselves.)

— Ironically, in a gallery full of human figures, the only piece involving human language is a life-size Erector-set-style robot by Jonathan Borofsky, which continually pronounces the word "chatter" in a mechanical voice.

— And towering over the entire main room of the exhibition is "Übermensch", a sculpture by Jake & Dinos Chapman, which consists of granite-grey plastic crags, on top of which is precariously perched a cartoonish life-size figure of Stephen Hawking.



II.  The "Harems"

As I mentioned above, compared with the original 1993 conception, there is one crucial new addition to this version of the exhibition.  At the very end, after viewing the main room, a passageway, and a smaller gallery, one enters the chamber containing "The Harems", whose title is a term taken from classic psychological literature, where it is used to describe the fetishistic activity of the collector.

In this room, Mike Kelley has gathered several of his own personal collections, including horror and monster bubblegum cards (several series), marbles, soup spoons, shot glasses, business cards, a half-dozen unbent wire hangers which had been used to break into cars, and the aforementioned squeeze toys.  At the podium discussion, Kelley explained that "When you grow up in America, you're surrounded by things like this" and that this aspect might not come across to a European.

Covering the four walls of the room are the homemade flannel banners used at Catholic Mass (e.g. "He is arisen!", "Are you ready for Jesus?", accompanied by appropriate symbols such as chalice, host, lamb, etc.).  The banners not only imply sacred space, as do the various saints' statues and relics elsewhere in the exhibit, but immediately negate this sacred aspect through their status as banal "folk art".

Placed in the four corners of the room are video monitors which play back DVDs of Kelley's other collections:  comic books (from back when they were still in the 12- and 15-cent price range), postcards (several thousand of them), pinups (with hardcore porn stills far outnumbered by fashion shots and cosmetics ads) and, best of all, HIS RECORD COLLECTION.

The viewer not only gets to see the covers of all 3000-plus LPs of it, but hears a one-second sample from each one.  Entire decades of your life will pass before your eyes.  The added bonus, however, is that in addition to the historical and autobiographical, there's a hermeneutic level:  when you hear 12 consecutive blasts of James Brown and Parliament/Funkadelic samples, you're also hearing what amounts to a cut-up and condensed history of hiphop.  Likewise, when 15 snippets of Donna Summer and/or Giorgio Moroder go by, it becomes a mini-survey of house and techno.

My friend Joe Herter, a Friend of Dorothy who, like Kelley, grew up in Detroit and studied at the University of Michigan, insists that "In life, there are two kinds of people — those who are size queens, and those who wish they could be size queens!"  If that's the case, Mike Kelley's is not much bigger than mine:  he has more James Brown, I have more Parliament & Funkadelic; he has more Sun Ra on vinyl, I have more Ornette.  Though with that said, props are due:  he's got every record released on JCOA, along with most of Arista Freedom — not to mention all the 90s metal I never want to hear again (NiN, Ministry), exotica like Yma Sumac (are 5 really necessary?) and scads of African folk records from before the days of "world music", when they constituted a form of anthropological documentation.

I myself propose the dichotomy that in life there are "list-makers", and there are those who consider listmaking to be an unfathomable mental aberration.  And the various anti-listmakers and anti-collectionists will simply fume and froth at "the Harems" (Melissa Pierson, call your office) or, at best, view it with the condescension that a pathological condition deserves.  Kelley openly states that he considers collecting to be a form of compulsion, but I suggest that "the Harems" itself carries additional aspects of the Uncanny:

"The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them."  (Walter Benjamin, "Unpacking My Library")

"For what else is [a] collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?"  (Ibid.)

I would go one step further than Benjamin and propose that the uncanniness of a collection lies in its illusion of TOTALITY.  This is the same principle by which the I Ching posits that there are only 64 possible situations in the universe; the Tarot has it covered with 72 cards.  To the mind of the 10-year-old collector, having the entire American League laid out in front of you is something greater than the Britannica and the O.E.D. put together.

Moreover, still another aspect of the Uncanny is that of infinity (for example, in the realization that in order to collect the entire set, theoretically you really might have to buy an infinite number of packs of cards, or at least every single one ever manufactured), and likewise, of the process by which something is assigned an imputed economic value (the entire set seems to immediately take on a value at least one order of magnitude greater than the price of the packs of cards that make it up).  And lastly, there is a kind of stochastic uncanniness here, in the illusion that assembling (any?) 3000 albums can somehow sum up an entire musical culture.

While the mania of the collector, within the context of the exhibition, is meant to suggest repetition compulsion, I think that Kelley is also unintentionally drawing on another aspect of the Detroit myth.  After all, to a stoned Surrealist, the assembled array of business cards suggests an aerial view of finished cars outside a Michigan factory.  To quote Kodwo Eshun quoting Juan Atkins (one of the three Detroit bruthas responsible for creating techno):  "Berry Gordy built the Motown sound on the same principles as the conveyor belt system of Ford ... Today the plants don't work that way.  They use computers and robots to build the cars ... I'm probably more interested in Ford's robots than Berry Gordy's music."  So all at once, the Detroit auto industry suggests repetition AND robots AND the noise so beloved by not only the Stooges and MC5, but Mike Kelley's own noise band, Destroy All Monsters.

I myself experienced two different senses of the uncanny on separate viewings of "the Harems".  One standing case displays a couple dozen announcement flyers of the sort that can be found in any college-town coffee shop or laundromat:  "Apartment to Share", "Tutoring in Japanese", "Actor Needed to Play Pier Paolo Pasolini" (yikes).  The first time that I visited the show, I was struck by their collective uncanny quality, since one has to look very closely to spot any clues as to time or place (all but 2 or 3 don't list any year whatsoever; only 2 or 3 indicate UCLA as a location).  Kelley cited Edward Hopper as an influence on the exhibition, and the flyers suggest an informational analogue to the visual aspect of a Hopper painting:  life somewhere in America, in some unspecified decade in some unspecified college town.  On my second visit, however, I took a much closer look and discovered announcements for EVENTS THAT I HAD ACTUALLY ATTENDED — specifically, concerts by Sun Ra, James Newton, and Cassandra Wilson at Koncepts Cultural Gallery in Oakland (and to make it even weirder, I was wearing one of my Sun Ra T-shirts when I noticed this).

Most importantly, however, the inclusion of "the Harems" means that there are two very different ways of reading the exhibition.  At the podium discussion I mentioned to Kelley that, since the visitor generally reaches "the Harems" only after he/she has seen the entire exhibition, it seems to be a culmination of the entire thing, and is thereby a commentary on the processes of valorization and canonization with regard to the works on display elsewhere in the show.  Kelley demurred, and apparently considers "the Harems" to be almost an afterthought.  Nevertheless, one interpretation is that, in a show which is so concerned with representations of the human body, this final sanctum of fetishes and cultural memorabilia amounts to the "brain" of the whole operation.



III.  Final Comments

After the opening I thought about the notable absence of camp at the exhibition (with the exception of Cindy Sherman, who is of course camp by definition).  Kelley's reason for this, given at the podium discussion, is that camp is simply not uncanny.  But moreover, I maintain that a camp item always has quotes around it, whereas with the show's chockablock arrangement of artworks and non-artworks, EVERYTHING is in quotes vis-à-vis everything else.  And there are no camp-style inside jokes here, because Kelley genuinely likes all this stuff; we all do.

And commendably, aside from the pinups of cosmetic ads, there are no brand names to be seen anywhere:  given the trash-culture orientation of the show, this is an achievement in itself.  Kelley explains, "Mass media has no psychology -- it's [only] a psychology of money."

Lastly, there's the issue of where Uncle Sigmund fits in with all of this.  For those of you outside Austria, I need to emphasize that, as I was once told, "Freud is not taken seriously here — he was FROM here," i.e. he had to go elsewhere in order to be taken seriously.  A couple of years ago, the Sunday book section of the main Vienna newspaper published an article about Freud; the lead to the article basically read, "After nearly a century, Freud's ideas are being seriously contested, while in Austria they never achieved acceptance in the first place" (i.e. "see? we were right all along").  His concepts are not common currency here, and the entire psychotherapeutic culture in the U.S. which derives from Freud exists in a far different form, if at all (and believe me, living in Austria while the term "passive-aggressive" is entirely unknown is like living among a tribe of Eskimos who don't have any words for snow).

Nevertheless, I imagine that Kelley's exhibition would be utter catnip for a number of Central European writers who appeared around or just after Freud — e.g. Rilke, Musil (cf. Törless), Gombrowicz, and especially Bruno Schulz (cf. his "Treatise on Mannequins").  And meanwhile it's one trashy, trippy delight for the amateur semiotician in all of us.

                                    --John Wojtowicz
(for the ‘04 Andy’s Robot Mix of this piece, see the link posted below in “Jukebox Reflections (Passing By)” 
2015 update!
High John, Happy New Year! Have you seen this tape of Mike Kelley's performance piece with Sonic Youth? I haven't had time to check it yet, but promising introduction (link to vid after) http://dangerousminds.net/comments/mike_kelley_fronts_sonic_youth_1986

 
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