Mike Kelley’s Theater of the Absurd


Installation view of Kandor 17 and projections of Kandor bottles, 2007.


Helen A. Harrison


For the current exhibition, “Mike Kelley 1954-2012,” which pays tribute to an artist who made his reputation as a self-described anarchist and hippie in the 1980s, the entire south wing of the Watermill Center has been transformed into a venue for Kelley’s video and installation art. In contrast to the cool formalism of Robert Wilson, the center’s founder and artistic director, Kelley’s is an art of excess, deliberately piling on the visual and auditory stimuli, physical and emotional obsessions, social and political critiques, not to mention heavy applications of postmodern irony and slapstick humor.

Selected by the German art collector Harald Falckenberg, the show surveys Kelley’s career from his days at CalArts, where he and his fellow students made performance videos and played together in rock bands, to the project he was working on at the time of his death (an apparent suicide) in January. Four galleries featuring videos are filled with overlapping soundtracks and thumping music by The Poetics, a band he formed in the late 1970s with Tony Oursler, his frequent collaborator. There are also earphones for specific sound tracks, which helps cut down on the aural confusion, but then sensory overload is all part of the package. You just have to go with it. There’s plenty of narrative content, but don’t expect a coherent story line.

Much of the content deals with social, sexual, religious and political themes, treated with mockery and theatrical exaggeration. In “Family Tyranny,” for example, Kelley and fellow artist Paul McCarthy engage in a parody of parental control and infantile rebellion that also refers to institutionalized force-feeding and torture. Lots and lots of unappetizing food, broken furniture, toys and old clothes come into play—there can’t have been a dumpster in Los Angeles that Kelley didn’t dive into. In “Heidi,” also made with McCarthy, masks and dolls play roles that blur the lines between love and hate, affection and aggression.

Far from being innovative, much of this anti-establishment nose-thumbing has its roots in Dada and Surrealist performance, codified in Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, and its post-World War II offspring, the Theater of the Absurd. Kelley’s final video project—the short title, “Vice Anglais,” refers to the English penchant for erotic spanking—could be the background action in Peter Weiss’s 1963 play “Marat/Sade.” There’s even a direct acknowledgment of Surrealist precedent in “Kappa,” a 1986 video collaboration that includes a clip from Buñuel and Dalí’s film,“Un Chien Andalou,” a classic made 57 years earlier. Kelley piles it on with more panache, overloads the special effects and does it in garish color, but his aesthetic is straight out of an avant-garde that led the countercultural charge a quarter century before he was born.

Kelley’s Kandor Project, on the other hand, is a genuine act of radical imagination, equal parts obsession, analysis and creative play. In the 12 years before his death, Kelley interpreted the fictional city of Kandor, birthplace of Kal-El (a.k.a. Superman), which was miniaturized and preserved in a bell jar. The project began with a 1999 video of an actor in a Superman costume reciting selections from Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” as he contemplates a model of Kandor. Other aspects involved growing crystals, making architectural models, and commissioning what are said to be the largest bell jars ever made, in which various chemicals bubble and seethe.

The two galleries devoted to elements of the Kandor Project are both visually engaging and conceptually fascinating. Not only do they illustrate the power of pop culture to inspire and impel the imagination, they also acknowledge the absurdity of Kelley’s endeavor, which envisioned, among other fantasies, an international Kandor-themed convention modeled on Comic-Con. A banner detailing the convention’s budget contrasts the original $17,000 outlay with projected costs topping $10 billion, showing that Kelley was not afraid to turn a mocking eye on himself.

The exhibition, which will be on view through September 16, may be visited by appointment. For timed admission, go to http://watermillcenter.org/events/mikekelley19542012. A $20 donation is suggested.