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Monday 09.21.09

« Cinema | Main | Lectures »

Mike Kelley and Michael Smith at SculptureCenter

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A Voyage of Growth and Discovery Installation view, Image c. 2009 SculptureCenter and the artists Photo: Jason Mandella

Voyages are an incredibly rich subject, let's briefly consider;

The Odyssey, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, King Kong, Francis Alÿs's paseos, Kubrick's 2001, The Heart of Darkness, Moby Dick, Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki, numerous HG Wells stories, Watteau's Pilgrimage to Cythera, Gulliver's Travels, Richard Long's walks, Star Wars A New Hope, Star Trek's 5year mission, Spinal Tap, Christina Rossetti's The Goblin Market, Swan Lake, The Wizard of Oz, the trials of Heracles, the quest for the Holy Grail, The Canterbury Tales, Saturday Night Fever, The Exodus, The Lord of the Rings, Pierre Huyghe's A Journey that Wasn't, Beowulf , The Epic of Gilgamesh, Leif Erikson, Gordon Lightfoot's the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Battlestar Galactica, The Ballad of John and Yoko, The Hajj, The Apollo program and Martin Luther King's march to Washington and subsequent I Have A Dream speech…

Needless to say voyages both fictional and real are a defining aspect of the human experience.

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Michael Smith as Baby Ikki at SculptureCenter

Not surprisingly then that Mike Kelley and Michael Smith's new show at SculptureCenter was the highlight (living artist wise) during my own recent travels to New York. Titled, A Voyage of Growth and Discovery, this joint show consisting of Burning Man video of Smith as Baby Ikki, stuffed animals, custom playground equipment, lights, streamers, a scrap metal sculpture of Ikki and dance music successfully conjured the engine of constant infancy that makes the United States what it is. As such it is more akin to Gulliver's Travels (a wide eyed person's experience amongst different systems of government and class) than the Odyssey (a bright man's struggle with the gods to return home). The difference is important. In fact, there is no home here and the experience is decidedly pre-intellectual (non judgemental) type, which has great resonance today when American's have elected Barak Obama and charged him to somehow re-imagine the American dream with new eyes amidst a time of great uncertainty.

Thus; civics, danger, discovery and uncertainty are the chief subjects here. For example the character of Baby Ikki (which Michael Smith has been doing for decades) cavorts amongst other burning man revelers in a way in which he is never fully initiated into the activity where he is inserted. It doesn't matter whether he is dancing with women, driving aardvark cars, walking through various camps… he's always the ambiguous outsider and completely unlike a real baby, he's an infantalized adult. Real babies happen to be insidiously demanding and ruthlessly efficient at organizing the activities of their caretakers, Ikki doesn't do that. Ikki is more like a jester cloaked in innocence, a totem connoting a way to look at the world anew in a necessarily ridiculous way. It's purposeful powerlessness.

In fact, it is Ikki's lack of caretakers which is so engrossing… we assume he needs them and yet he's wandering around the desert unattended. Sometimes he's walking of into the unpopulated hills, at other times into his own Winnebago where he plays with fire. We watch him because his ambiguously entertaining spectacle of innocence demands it of us as moral adults. If a real baby were to wander about, people's paternal instincts would kick in but since Ikki is a placebo baby he elicits placebo paternalism, which quite different and is something few artists explore… Jessica Jackson Hutchins being one of the few who addresses paternalism at all.

Smith's act is most interesting when four of the six screens simultaneously fade into a white out (via one of Burning Man's sand storms) and it's there that we experience Ikki's id… in one case a scene with a woman's torso and breasts with milk being poured over them. It's ambiguously sexy and nutritionally evocative with yet more fire imagery. It is a tantalizing glimpse both at an adult world and other things very understandable to babies. It is also hilarious. Only a baby artist can have their cake and eat it too, unless the other artist happens to be Mike Kelley.

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A Voyage of Growth and Discovery Installation view, Image c. 2009 SculptureCenter and the artists, Photo: Jason Mandella

For Voyage Kelley provides an elaborate ensemble of playground equipment, sometimes acting as a scaffold for the video screens. Everything is lit expertly like a circus and festooned with plush toys as well. The stuffed animals are analogs of Ikki too… wide eyed characters like Ernie from Sesame Street, with no cranky Bert's or the foul tempered Donald Ducks to spoil the party. One rocket ship shaped jungle gym has the toys climbing the inside like a wick or totem pole with the bottom toy seemingly holding up the entire ensemble as if it's a circus tumblers trick. I particularly liked how some gallery goers used the playground sculpture as festival seating co-opting the viewer as part of Ikki's experience as the subject of relentlessly empathetic voyeurism.

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Jerry Saltz at the opening of A Voyage of Growth and Discovery

Overall the resulting collaboration between Smith and Kelly feels like happening more than an exhibition and in fact the space transformed from an almost nostalgic experience with very few viewers into something "very present" not unlike New Years Eve in Times Square or a sporting event when more people filled the space. The crowd was essentially turning the entire congregation into a spectacle of spectators. When the space was full, suddenly and simultaneously everyone is aware that each is taking in the experience as both an individual and a group. Also, unlike a movie the videos aren't engrossing enough to make you forget one's surroundings and that's where Kelley's sculptures complete the show… they are there to catch your consciousness when Baby Ikki's antics make you look away. Looking away happens frequently because the artist clearly wants you to watch and sometimes it just better to not oblige.

Overall, Kelly's sculptures frame and augment the individual viewer's sense of place and thus uniqueness of perspective while civically acting as a plaza design. It isn't a replica of Burning Man at all and keeps the show from becoming Burning Man style narcissistic drivel.

Upon leaving the show I was struck at how different this experience had been from all of the other shows I'd seen that week in New York… most were exhibitions of objects (being self conscious of themselves as objects) and even Dan Graham's retrospective felt infinitely more self conscious (both in a good way and sometimes somewhat annoyingly self satisfied).

I've thought quite a bit about it and it's the level of generosity in Voyage that separates it from the pack in New York. Whereas, In LA, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Portland (where current shows like Faun Krieger, Jesse Hayward, Rose McCormick and MK Guth) all have a very welcoming level of sanction for the visitor built in… in fact we seem to expect this on the West Coast. For that reason I'm not sure Voyage would look so radical in Portland (where the Flaming Lips are currently looking for naked bike riders for their next video)… but in New York it's radical for the way it gives and gives. Still, Burning Man has been of ongoing interest to the art world for a decade and though this hardly sates that interest in the long term, it probably succeeds in being the fix New York needed as everybody tries to reinvent themselves, at least in a way that addresses how outright greed cannot sustain itself.

lastly, to evaluate the show in the history of journeys, I'd say it was successful though it isn't at the level of Moby Dick or Marco Polo by any stretch of the imagination. It's not really a voyage of ambition and the title's promise of "growth and discovery" is somewhat of a red herring. Instead, its gypsy soul is a bit anonymous and like Burning Man itself isn't so much unique as it is permissive of that anonymity. Instead, Voyage operates like the ginger one eats with sushi… it cleanses the palate allowing New Yorkers to depressurize their expectations and rediscover wonder before engaging the other shows the city always has to offer. In other words it is about seeing and thus it's a must see if you want to get the most out of seeing other shows right now, which is quite a feat.

Posted by Jeff Jahn on September 21, 2009 at 12:01 | Comments (0)


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