December 2007, Mike Kelley @ Jablonka Galerie

Mike Kelley, Kandors, 2007, Installation Jablonka Galerie, Berlin, 29.9.-22.12.07

Courtesy: Jablonka Galerie, Cologne/Berlin Photograph: Fredrik Nilsen

Mike Kelley
Jablonka Galerie, Berlin
September 29th – December 22nd 2007

There are many different Supermen. Over the years this fictional superhero has developed and grown, but also fled into alternate universes to start again, each writer and illustrator building on past continuity and deviating from it just enough to keep fans guessing and the story alive. In his new show at the Jablonka Galerie in Berlin, Mike Kelley (1954) returns to his themes of personal memory and popular culture, this time exploring them through the myth of Superman’s lost city of Kandor.
Before Superman’s home planet Krypton was destroyed and the hero forced to start his life on Earth, the villainous Brainiac stole Krypton’s capital, the city of Kandor, and shrunk it inside a bottle. Though thrilled to find intact proof of his past, Superman was for the longest time tragically unable to restore it to full size and kept it in his polar Fortress of Solitude as a mnemonic symbol of his destroyed homeland, an emblem of nostalgia for a place he never knew.

Inspired by Superman’s bottled city, Kelley searched 50 years of Kandor’s comic book appearances to find a wide range of visual interpretations. In Kandors, Kelley explores the variety that can grow in a never-ending, multi-authored narrative such as Superman’s.

Mike Kelley, Kandors, 2007, Installation Jablonka Galerie, Berlin, 29.9.-22.12.07
Courtesy: Jablonka Galerie, Cologne/Berlin Photograph: Fredrik Nilsen

The slightly darkened gallery space is lit by huge, glowing, colored glass bottles, perhaps the largest ever produced at the Czech Kavalier Glass factory. These are home to stylized, colorful resin versions of Kandor, some starkly modernist, others gnarly and organic, or glossy and towering. Peering into the glass bottles we see that the utopian, idealized nature of Kandor is made all the more poignant by its inaccessibility, the futuristic city only alive by virtue of its surrounding glass cage. In the exhibit, this is accentuated by the fact that the stylized bottles are all hooked up to well-used gas canisters, like memories on life support.

Like his use of reconstructions in Kandor-Con 2000 (2000) and Educational Complex (1995) – an architectural representation of every school he ever attended that was so true to his memories that entire sections were left unfinished since he could no longer remember them – he shows the act of true reconstruction to be impotent when faced with the vagaries of memory and fiction.

In Kandors, corresponding video projections show the bottles swirling with nebulous fumes, as if alive with twirling particles, and the holographic lightboxes display Pop Art-y close-ups from the original comic book frames, the bottled city dis- and re-appearing as you pass by. The show is set in a precise color scheme of childish pink, warm yellow, and glowing green. The constant, not unfriendly howling – reminiscent of the polar whistling one imagines would pierce Superman’s Fortress of Solitude – and the gently synthetic smell of resin tie the different elements together in a wide-eyed, magical atmosphere at odds with the scatological or caricatural installations Kelley is known for.

Though all of this may seem like a somewhat perverted exercise in geeky mythology, Kelley aims for a real interrogation of our own relationship with pop-cultural memory. In an interview with PBS’ Art:21, Kelley said:

"It’s hard to differentiate between personal memory and cultural memory because, for example, a lot of what I use in writing is associative and it comes from my own experience. But it’s very hard to, say, disentangle memories of films or books or cartoons or plays from real experience. It all gets mixed up. So in a way I don’t make such distinctions and I see it all as a kind of fiction."

Mike Kelley, Kandors, 2007, Installation Jablonka Galerie, Berlin, 29.9.-22.12.07
Courtesy: Jablonka Galerie, Cologne/Berlin  Photograph:Fredrik Nilsen

Where older installations or curated shows, like Day is Done (2005), The Uncanny (2004/1993), Half a Man (1987-91), were teeming with the grimier side of these memories and cultural fictions – reclaimed yearbook imagery, blow-up dolls, and discarded, homemade stuffed toys – this is a more high-gloss trip, equally immersive, but deceptive in its stylized sheen.

The only traces of trash aesthetic are the time-lapse videos of a grow-your-own crystal kit, slowly accumulating and de-cumulating colorful crystal ridges and valleys. While certainly in sync with the shapes and colors of the rest of the show, these seem most to reach out, existing in a realm more familiar than Krypton, more like the back-pages of local newspapers or the wee hours of sellevision.

Still, this is not mere homage; Kelley really feels the need to break this familiar fiction open, to show the artifice behind our visual culture:

"Always, my interest in popular forms was not to glorify them—because I really dislike popular culture in most cases. I think it’s garbage, but that’s the culture I live in and that’s the culture people speak. […] So all I can really do now is work with this dominant culture and flay it, rip it apart, reconfigure it, expose it."

Mike Kelley, Kandors, 2007, Installation Jablonka Galerie, Berlin, 29.9.-22.12.07
Courtesy: Jablonka Galerie, Cologne/Berlin  Photograph: Fredrik Nilsen

The whole set-up at the Jablonka Galerie suggests a complex expansion of a two-dimensional comic strip concept into three dimensions. The bottled sculptures are situated among futuristic home-design elements – space dividers, consoles, counters - that seem out of context, too spare. This counterintuitive homeliness is accentuated by the occasional ‘anachronistic’ prop – a woven basket, a discarded yellow shirt, or a kitschy porcelain bouquet. Anachronisms like this only add to the tension between the frozen state of the still, bottled Kandors and their sped-up projection counterparts, suggesting a distortion of the fabric of time, as if Superman just stepped out and the planet has forgotten which way to turn.

By titling the show Kandors, Kelley acknowledges the multiple nature of Superman’s cultural heritage, by extension challenging the notion of an objective representation of the past and portraying our (pop-) cultural memory as shifting and amorphous, multi-interpretable. Seen in this light, Kandors is a successful play on the flexibility of this kind of cultural knowledge and its inherent lack of objective truths, as well as a powerful meditation on the impossibility of reliving the past.

Florian Duijsens, 2007 Whitehot Magazine, Berlin

Florian Duijsens


Duijsens is a Berlin-based writer and story analyst. He
studied as a popular culture critic in both his native Netherlands and
the US. In the past years he has worked at a Japanese movie distribution company and written for academic journals, galleries, and architects, about the perils of emotion, the paradox of heroism, and the value of living.    


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