Mike Kelley at Hauser & Wirth
By Lorraine Heitzman
Through January 21st
Lacking a physical presence, memories are enigmatic and ephemeral things that may haunt us for unknown reasons or reveal the truth embedded and enshrouded in a reconstructed past. Such moments of longing and revelation are powerful and transformative which explains their appeal to artists and why many artists including musicians, authors, and filmmakers have sought to capture the nature of memories, to make the fleeting past become a visceral reality. Mike Kelley’s late body of work embraces the vicissitudes of memory and Kandors 1999-2011 at Hauser & Wirth stands out for including some of his most emotionally accessible and quietly beautiful work.
The Kandor series began in 1999 when Kelley was asked to participate in a show at the Kunstmuseum Bonn that addressed the upcoming millennium. Artists were encouraged to explore new media from the past and Kelley, familiar with Superman, though not an aficionado, determined that he would use the popular saga of Kandor as the means to search the past via new and old technologies while engaging with a large audience. His entry was Kandor-Con 2000 and all the work at Hauser & Wirth evolved from this original premise, the Kandors, the series of large, colored bottles, the lenticulars, drawings, and video projections.
According to the DC Comics legend, the villain Brainiac reduced the city of Kandor, where Superman was born, to fit within a bottle, thereby preserving the city and its inhabitants in perpetuity. Subsequently, Superman was able to secure Kandor and keep it within his Fortress of Solitude but was unable to restore the city to its original state. While the lore of Kandor was expanded over the years, the artist found it curious that the comic imagery was wildly inconsistent and he exploited the myriad representations of the city as well as the psychological aspects of Superman’s conundrum. That Superman was alienated and unable to save his past or insure the future of Kandor surely resonated with Kelley. One only has to see this work to feel the pathos that pervades the show. Superman, though heroic, is ultimately helpless and alone.
In Kandor-Con 2000, he proposed a crowd-sourced image bank and an interactive website connecting with Superman fans worldwide via the new escalating Internet phenomenon. Kelley delved into the comic myth surrounding Superman’s birthplace. The first rooms of the show are bright and industrious with the flavor of a sideshow. Model-makers are present, interpreting buildings from Kandor that eventually are made into three-dimensional architectural models. A sculpture dominates the gallery with cast steel representations of multiple buildings, emphasizing the collaborative nature that Kelley envisioned for Kandor-Con 2000.
Even without knowing the engaging story behind the art and the tragedy of Kelley’s premature death, the show is a powerful and emotional experience. The most compelling works are the Kandors themselves. In a darkened room, the breathtaking installation of Kandors Full Set is on display, made up of twenty-one miniaturized, glowing metropolises. The cities, each self-illuminated and void of people, are jewel-like in an array of colors and geometric shapes. They are platonic ideals of cities without any people or messy details to disturb their iconic qualities. Perfect and soulless, they have a haunted air and appear frozen in time, purified by memory like sea glass whose imperfections are erased by the repeated action of the waves. Twenty-one oversized, tinted glass bottles also inhabit the space, empty vessels made to house the cities and an engineering feat in their own right. Other Kandors exist on life support, needing gas tanks to deliver their precious atmosphere, but even these sculptures give weight to the form as well as to the meaning and psychology of dependency and loss.
In later sculptures and installations belonging to this series, Kelley’s work became increasingly tactile, dark and crude. Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude) inhabits a room illuminated by a large video projection of Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #36 (Vice Anglais). One must remove one’s shoes and crouch like a supplicant to enter the cave-like Kandor 10B that looks to be made of stone and large charcoal cinders. In contrast to the menacing appearance of the cave, a bejeweled display beckons inside. Perhaps these are the crystals from Krypton that Superman keeps along with his city, but what is more interesting is the battered gas tank and hoses behind the cave. Nothing here is as pristine or pretty as his earlier Kandors. A cynicism has crept in as well as an ugliness that wasn’t apparent before; these are dark times. Even the video, though a campy horror flick of sorts, is menacing, yet the thread of memory, loss and heartbreak is the constant throughout the show. Whether the form is beautiful or ugly, and whether it exists as a collaborative effort or a solitary pursuit, Kelley masterfully shows us that the cost of living is steep. He embraces both sides of the journey with an eye always turned towards the truth. Superman’s longing for reunion and his perfect, idealized memories of Kandor are conjoined with the artist’s quest for reconciling his past and his drive to realize his artistic vision. Over a decade, Kelley created a poignant and all-encompassing work of Superman’s, (and Everyman’s) dilemma: That living is a painful proposition, a tragicomedy full of longing and love, and sometimes even laughter.
Kandors 1999-2011 continues at Hauser & Wirth LA through January 21, 2018