Mike Kelley’s retrospective at Brussels’ fantastically reconstructed brewery, Wiels, surveys the time period from 1995 to the present. The works exhibited emerge from Kelley’s ‘Educational Complex’ project, covering the themes begun in that work. Repressed memory syndrome, social conditioning, rituals and adolescence are dissected in a plethora of media and approaches. Kelley’s incisive, often humorous observations and appropriations provide a sharp insight into the world we inhabit, albeit through a veneer of the carnivalesque. Kelley and Wiels’ major achievement with this retrospective is to provide the viewer with works that come together as a cohesive whole, yet could each stand exhibited alone.
‘Educational Complex’, the starting point here, is a white, clinical looking architectural model of every educational establishment Kelley has attended, alongside his childhood home in Detroit. The zones Kelley could not remember were left blank, a reference to Repressed Memory Syndrome, where a failure of memory was interpreted as evidence of trauma or abuse. Repressed Memory Syndrome, now much discarded as a theory, was epidemic as a diagnosis within psychology at the end of the 20th century. The blank zones in Kelley’s reconstruction evoke an eerie sort of institutionalisation, the uncanny aspect typical to Kelley’s ongoing interest in the Freudian definition. Memory is a central tenet of Kelley’s work, with misunderstandings and partially invented or confused autobiography emergent in many works.
‘Memory Ware’, the large canvases Kelley has drenched in buttons, badges, trinkets and costume jewellery from 2000 to the present, visually manifest the debris of pop culture. One can view ‘Memory Ware’ quite comfortably alongside ‘The Harems’, collections Kelley has accumulated from childhood, originally exhibited as part of his curatorial project ‘The Uncanny’. The act of collecting signifies for Kelley the incomplete, a castration anxiety. The focus on collecting is also associated with Kelley’s ongoing preoccupation with adolescence as liminal and formative to adult experience. Pieces such as ‘Butter Coloured Vision of the Land O’ Lakes Girl, Peche Island’ (2001) evoke the faded adolescent memories common to his work. In this set-up photograph of an atypical Indian Maiden, Kelley’s source was a memory of finding an illustration that appeared on the Land O’ Lakes butter packaging sexually attractive. The memory here, as with other works, stems from a material source of Kelley’s youth. The focus on the materialism of youth is again explored in ‘Pasolini’, (1990) a felt banner based on flyers found on university notice boards, in this case requiring an amateur actor to play the eponymous Italian cinema giant.
However, despite this dredging up of ephemera from his past, Kelley does not fall in to a nostalgia trap. His critique of the reductive trend in diagnosing Repressed Memory Syndrome rises again in ‘Sublevel’ (1998). In this work, the viewer may crawl into an uncomfortably tight space based on the sublevel floor plan of his former college, the California Institute of the Arts. The lining of this sculpture is cast with bubblegum pink resin, moulded to evoke the inside of a geode. The juxtaposition here of functional architecture and almost unearthly, jagged pink edges is, according to Kelley, based on descriptions of the interiors of alien spacecrafts, as retold by the ‘victims’ of UFO abduction. The legitimacy of memory is again challenged, as well as a return to the metaphor of institutionalisation as a kind of abuse with the recurring reference to his alma mater.
Another dimension of Kelley’s oeuvre can be determined in the focus on ‘low’ culture with the use of the UFO abductions as a reference point, more so the fodder of the Weekly World News than fine art. This interest in low culture however should not be confused with latent pop art tendencies however; rather Kelley’s interests lie more with a contemporary kind of folk art. His focus is never on celebrity, or major pop cultural artefacts, rather the products of the school play, craft objects or local legend.
These aspects of his work comes into fruition most successfully with his recent work, ‘Day Is Done’, (2005) a true Gesamtkunstwerk incorporating film, sculpture and installation. Kelley began collecting images from high school yearbooks and local newspapers, using them as sources for his major reconstruction of localized ritual, entertainment and activities. Here, we come across a film entitled ‘Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction # 1 (A Domestic Scene)’, played on a television next to the set on which it was filmed. Zoning in on a shabby apartment, the film details the volatile relationship of two male flatmates, hammed up to the max by amateur actors. References to Sylvia Plath are made by the melodramatic character contemplating suicide, whilst the other reassures him in an altogether unnerving manner. The set is based entirely, as is the actors’ appearance and clothes on one of Kelley’s found photographs, yet the dialogue and drama invented by Kelley. Elsewhere in the rooms dedicated to ‘Day is Done’ large reprints of the original black and white images and reconstructions saturated with colour stand side by side, creating a patchwork of characters and activities.
Although ‘Day is Done’ is undeniably a shift in direction for Kelley in its scale, this retrospective leads the viewer in a journey towards the total fulfillment of Kelley’s major concerns from the last decade. His strength as an artist as highlighted by this retrospective is his position as a modern day Rabelais, refusing to romanticise the material he appropriates and the ideas he works from, any more than denigrate them. Rather, the world is re-presented to us through a filter of hilarity; albeit one that retains an extraordinary observational sense.