The impressive Mike Kelley retrospective currently on view at MoMA PS1 — appropriately titled Mike Kelley — is a strong contender for Best Exhibition of 2013. The show was certainly the most ambitious. Organized after the artist’s unexpected death in 2012, the exhibition successfully avoids any complications from fast-tracking one of largest shows of the year, and the most comprehensive of the artist’s career, portraying an artist whose diverse practice and influence are still being surmised.
The sprawling exhibition occupies all three floors of the museum, a tactic recently employed in the equally daunting ecological-survey, Expo1, an unexpected summer blockbuster. Spearheaded by Klaus Biesenbach in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Expo1 examined the damaging effects of industrialization, consumption, and mass media. The current retrospective shares many of these themes, but it approaches them on a much smaller scale, affording an empathetic view of what it is actually like to live under these conditions. The former takes a global perspective, considering the widespread erosion of our natural environment at the end of the twentieth century, where global warming, the obliteration of natural resources, and widespread poverty have become the status quo. The latter functions on a personal, psychological scale, accounting for the distress of an individual psyche within a corroding cultural/natural system (e.g., the collapse of Detroit in the 1970s, or the crass L.A. art scene of the 1980s). Both exhibitions signal a subtle, yet pervasive, existential crisis under late capitalism.
In addition to his early experiments in video and expanded sculptural form — teased through various methods of cultural appropriation — Mike Kelley provides a unique perspective on the artist’s engagement with sound, music, and experimental performance, as heard during a listening session conducted by art historian Branden W. Joseph and artist James Hoff last weekend.
Mike Kelley thus engages another curatorial trope from 2013: the supposed arrival of sound art. It is problematic to say that “sound has arrived” – as many have noted, it’s been here for decades – but 2013 will be remembered for the conversations surrounding sound as an artistic medium, as well as the widespread acceptance of sound within a larger gallery and museum context. Sound has been institutionalized, even monetized, as bastions of fine art like The Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum embrace, or even commission, works in a medium they have historically ignored. There is no doubt that “sound is here,” but we must acknowledge the institutional parameters and economic conditions under which it is being admitted.
Fortunately, sound feels welcomed and quite natural at MoMA PS1, an institution that has long supported sound art and experimental music. Kelley’s engagement with sound and music is an integral aspect of his work, and the presence of such works in this show, including documentation of his 1978 performance piece, Perspectaphone, wherein the artist illustrates the ways in which sound contributes (or confuses) our perception of space and scale, is part of a wider acknowledgement of the aural paradigm in large museum exhibitions.
Mike Kelley claims a number of other sound-based works, including an audio installation in the central stairwell, a handful of boomboxes strewn about the galleries, and an immersive multimedia environment recalling John Cage and Lejaren Hiller’s infamous 1969 performance, HPSCHD. In Blind Country (1989), a surreal, fetishistic film on the second floor, a segment of which depicts Kelley writhing on the floor, touching, tasting, and listening to everything around him, the artist calmly proclaims: “Sight is the least sensitive of the senses.” Sensuality is a core theme of the exhibition — and sound is one of its best triggers.
Destroy All Monsters was first formed in 1973 by artists Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Lynn Rovner, and Cary Loren, then students at the University of Michigan. Following several decades of obscurity, the project has recently gone through something of a resurgence, as a younger generation takes notes of the work. This process was partly jumpstarted by writer Byron Coley and musician Thurston Moore, whose Ecstatic Peace and Father Yod labels co-released the group’s early years, 1973-76, as a 3xcd boxset in 1994.
Musically, Destroy All Monsters evade any clear categorization, and effortlessly (perhaps carelessly) glide through various styles, including psychedelic rock, garage rock, rhythm and blues, punk, free jazz, krautrock, and even improvised noise. While listening to the first “block of sound” — part of which was later revealed as the 1975 recording, “That’s My Ideal” — one envisioned a teenage Velvet Underground cover band, recording directly to tape in a carpeted Detroit basement, dubbing the session into oblivion. Later, one sensed the influence of Sun Ra, MC5, the Stooges, Faust, the Germs, and even Throbbing Gristle (members of which, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti, performed later in the evening, literally shaking the walls of the VW Performance Dome).
Indeed, Joseph fondly recounted Kelley’s own take on his musical background: “I was too young to be a hippy and too old to be a punk.”
According to Joseph, the eclectic style that Destroy All Monsters embraced in the mid-1970s was at its core an “assemblage-aesthetic.” By paraphrasing and appropriating musical tropes from the previous decade, now tinged with an air of free improvisation and punk irreverence, the artists sought to slowly, methodically dismantle rock-and-roll architecture. As Hoff noted, this act of dismantling was a sort of cure-all for the “cultural hangover” of the 1960s — Joseph called it an “aftermath moment” — that allowed Destroy All Monsters to reinvigorate counter-culture music after-the-fact.
In many ways, this aesthetic framework can be applied to Kelley’s overall artistic practice, a point recognized by Joseph as he argued that the musical experiments of Destroy All Monsters laid the groundwork for Kelley’s own understanding of postmodernism. Indeed, we should remember the artistic environment Kelley found himself working within during the mid-1970s as a new student at CalArts.
As Hoff revealed, Kelley initially went to the school to work with Morton Subotnik and Allan Kaprow. However, Kelley had the misfortune of arriving after Kaprow’s temporary teaching position ended. Instead, he found himself working within a hotbed of conceptualism, studying under the likes of Laurie Anderson, Douglas Huebler, Michael Asher, and John Baldessari. It is largely because of this environment, as Joseph noted, that Kelley could focus on “interrogating the frame,” investigating and puncturing the boundaries of art, music, and performance.
Mike Kelley is on view through February 2, 2013.
Charles Eppley is an art historian and sound enthusiast from Brooklyn, NY.