Mike Kelley, Empathy Displacement…#7, 1990, acrylic on panel, found doll, painted wood box. Part 1: 24 × 19 inches. Part 2: 4 × 7⅞ × 9⅛ inches. Courtesy of Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Los Angeles.
This interview is excerpted from the book Mike Kelley, © 1992 A.R.T Press.
Los Angeles, March 21, 1991
John Miller Why don’t we start by going back to the birdhouse sculptures you made for your graduate show at Cal Arts in 1978. You ended up not only having a reductive object, but the normally “heroic” process of making art was reduced to craft. Even though there may not necessarily be much material difference between art and craft, I think the distinction turns on what an audience is led to invest in a certain set of objects or a certain set of practices; and those become adequate sublimatory vehicles. So in a way, you were confounding those expectations, parodying them.
Mike Kelley Yeah, I definitely was. At the time, people would generally talk about the birdhouses as formal jokes. People wouldn’t consider sublimation as an aspect of art production except in some heady, Freudian way, like, “Oh, these bad impulses are being nicely put into this object.” Instead of saying maybe it’s not so nice that these impulses are put into these objects. Maybe it’s pitiful that all these energies are pumped into a birdhouse. That’s what I realized I was going for, not some one-line joke like, “Here’s a birdhouse that’s minimalism.” Rather, here’s a structure that’s loaded with pathos, and you still don’t like it, you don’t feel sorry for it, you want to kick it. That’s what I wanted out of the thing—an artwork that you couldn’t raise, there was no way that you could make it better than it was. Its function as art actually makes it more uncomfortable.
JM It implies a kind of dysfunction.
MK Where art is some sort of interesting area where dysfunction is allowed.
JM Your performances exude a kind of black humor, but they were never terribly painful. They were sort of bland and slightly distasteful, but not excruciatingly so.
MK Burroughs was somebody that I liked as a student. I always hated the dry tone of surrealist literature. You could tell its associative qualities were programmatic. The great thing about Burroughs was that you could see all these references to stuff that you had grown up with: juvenile literature, pornography, science fiction, and detective novels. It’s all scrambled and turned into a quite private thing—really morose and at the same time howlingly funny.
JM Your performance pieces hit one over the head with point that would ultimately be negated.
MK The great thing about the performances (this was something that I learned by going from short things to very long things), was that the negation came through time. This was something that I also discovered in early modernist literature. I was really interested in time, in the writing of Gertrude Stein because there is a constancy of tone. You’re always in the present and she did it through reiteration; saying the same things over and over again, slightly reworded. What I liked—and this is something that you see in oral poetry, things that are pre-written like The Odyssey—is that they’re always in the constant present. Perhaps because people have a short attention span you can get away with illogical developments if you make them unfold over a long period of time. People will assume that it is logical because they can’t remember what happened before. So in my performances, say an hour into it, I would use the same terms, but I’d say something totally in opposition to what had been said half an hour earlier, and nobody would know.
JM I think that really gets at the ideological function of art, the way traditional art is set up to invite investment or belief.
MK I always said the performances were about belief systems. I thought of them as propaganda-gone-wrong. I think that after doing the performances for a number of years, and always denying that I had had a belief system of my own, they started falling apart. By the time I got to the Plato’s Cave performance I saw that certain themes came back again and again in my work. There’s sort of an ur-group of information that I was suppressing.
JM What would you say these repeated motifs were?
MK I think they’re really standardized kinds of repressed things in the culture—embarrassing things, like sexual dysfunction and the scatological. I started seeing throughout my work that a lot of these traditional, low comedy forms and subject matters were operating. I wanted to start to deal with that in a more conscious way. I think that’s why people say my work is more socially directed now. In much of the early work, I was accused of being apolitical or even of being a terrible person or a racist because I worked with inflammatory material and denied a point of view.
JM Much of your work hits upon things that haven’t been acknowledged, the anonymous side of what people do.
MK When I first started working with crafts they were invisible to me also. The first piece I did with stuffed animals, for example, wasn’t even about stuffed animals but was about gifts. That was because the primary discussion in the art world at that time had to do with commodification. There were these Utopian ideas being bandied about, “Well, we can make an art object that can’t be commodified.” What’s that? That’s a gift. If I give you this art-thing, it’s going to escape the evils of capitalism. Well, of course that’s ridiculous, because if you give this thing to junior he owes you something. It might not be money, but he owes you something. The most terrible thing is that he doesn’t know what he owes you because there’s no price on the thing. Basically, gift giving is like indentured slavery or something. There’s no price, so you don’t know how much you owe. The commodity is the emotion. What’s being bought and sold is emotion. I did a piece called More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid. I said if each one of these toys took 600 hours to make then that’s 600 hours of love; and if I gave this to you, you owe me 600 hours of love; and that’s a lot. And if you can’t pay it back right away it keeps accumulating…
MK That’s more love that you can ever pay back. So what? You’re just fucked then. I wasn’t even thinking about the objects as objects, I was thinking about them as just hours-of-attention.
JM That’s what craft forms have come to signify. That was Thorstein Veblen’s critique of John Ruskin and William Morris—that the Arts and Crafts Movement was simply reverting to less efficient and less economical ways of doing things.
MK What? By going back to hand…
JM Hand-binding books and printing with woodblocks.
MK He missed the point. It’s more efficient in some ways because it loads the object with all this intense, ritual energy.
JM That was his point. In his terminology the distinction turned on it being a more conspicuous kind of consumption.
MK But of course that doesn’t work in relation to the family. Okay, say you give somebody this piece-of-shit thing, you can’t say it’s a piece of shit—it’s all totally repressed. You’ve got to say, “Oh, that’s wonderful!”
JM Don’t you think that all giving contains an element of aggression anyway? That’s not specific to modernity.
MK Yes, that aggression is obvious. But in terms of the family, it’s not so obvious. Anyway, after these craft objects accumulated for awhile I started to become aware of them as discrete objects—the particular morphologies of them. This is where my formal training came back.
JM Coupled with a psychological interest.
MK Yes, but I wondered what the psychology was. I could study them formally, and I understood how they operated socially, but I didn’t understand the interrelationship between the two. Why is this object formalized in this way? That’s what I’m interested in now.
JM When you first started doing the arrangements on the blankets and the afghans, you joked that they were like Haim Steinbach sculptures.
MK That’s true. I was thinking a lot about Haim Steinbach when I did them. Except I was trying to put all the things into them that I felt Haim left out of his. What I saw Haim Steinbach doing was working with the ideal—art about the commodity in terms of a classical notion of perfection. To do that you have to separate the objects from the world, put them on a stage or in a frame, like theatre or a movie. They are out of this world, that’s how his shelves function. Then the objects never change, they’re fetishized as being perpetually brand new. They’re not allowed to wear out. What I wanted was to have something that was worn yet not nostalgic. That was my problem, because in the tradition of most modern art things worn become a cypher for time. In almost all junk sculpture past Dada that’s true. It’s even true in surrealism. Worn things become a metaphor for…
JM They become nostalgic.
MK They become nostalgic. So the problem that I set for myself is to deal with something of our time that people can’t see as being of our time, they can only see it as of the past: a child’s worn toy. I wanted to say, no, this thing isn’t of the past, this thing’s here right now. It’s not some metaphor for childhood, this is something that an adult made. It was made maybe last week. If you’re seeing it of the past it’s because you’re meant to see it of the past. I’m interested in how that functions.
JM These craft items are supposed to be nostalgic by their very design.
MK They’re built to be nostalgic. That’s intensified in crafts because they are made with outmoded production techniques. It produces a nostalgia for a lost economy; but other things, like dolls, have to do with a certain psychology of morphology which I don’t quite understand. Dolls are designed to be projected onto as generically human. Handmade toys have a really strange presence especially when you compare them to the commercially made ones that are standardized. This is why they’re so weird, I think they are unconscious projections of the maker. The makers of the standardized things have gone through and excised anything that looks vaguely personal or idiosyncratic.
JM Or sexual.
MK It’s so obviously repressed that it becomes super-loaded. That’s something that you can only get in a commercially made thing. That effect is produced through removal. Classical objects have that feel. Repression is built into classical objects—something’s missing, and that’s their power.
Mike Kelley, Untitled, 1990, felt banner, 179 × 238 inches. Courtesy of Metro Pictures.
JM I’d like to talk about some of your recent pieces based on college fliers. When were these done?
MK They’re my most recent banners, done this year 1991. I made them and was very confused about them. I wanted them to be contemporary but invisible, and to be about something that people would associate with college life. I was worried about being typecast as someone who just deals with kitsch. So I thought, okay, I’ll just use an imaging mode that has to do with educated people but isn’t considered an art form. So I decided to use college handouts, bulletin-board fliers.
JM The handout is a low form, too.
MK But it’s so offhand that you don’t even think about it. You Magic Marker a message on paper and Xerox it. It doesn’t take any time really. Yet when I started working with them I was really interested in their particular aesthetic, of course, that’s changing now. I have a bunch of them printed that are made on home computers, they’re not handwritten. They use type and that’s a problem—should I use those or should I just stick to the handmade things? Should they have a gestural quality or is it okay to make ones that are purely machine derived? I think it is. I mean, what difference does it make?
JM It would be interesting to see if there is any difference.
MK But the ones I chose for the banners are done by hand, so they have a very personal graphic quality.
JM They remind me of personal ads, in a way. They try to target a very specific group.
MK Some of them are very specific, like looking for a female roommate. Some of them get real specific, like: a Christian, non-smoking, female roommate.
JM Or someone to play Pasolini in a student film.
MK When you look at them you don’t just think about the people that made them, you think about the whole group to which these people belong to, or to which you assume they belong to.
JM In a way, they’re a bit more like the birdhouses in terms of their blankness. They’re not at all overt.
MK That’s right, they’re very difficult to politicize. There’s nothing nasty about them. There’s nothing different about them from the originals except that they’re bigger and they’re made of felt.
JM I’m thinking of the afghan piece you called Zen Garden.
MK That really looked like a Zen garden.
JM But it also seemed to address interpretation. There were these lumps under the afghan and you didn’t know what they were, but you assumed that they were stuffed animals.
MK That’s what you suspect. It’s funny how that piece is interpreted. Because it is stuffed animals, people like to load it with psychological significance. They see the stuffed animals as hiding under the blanket; there’s some psychological crisis going on. That’s why I called it Zen Garden; I wanted to give it this peaceful, contemplative title so that anybody who started talking about the psychology of the animals hiding under the blanket would be forced to deal with a title which calls to mind a more contemplative activity.
Mike Kelley, Arena #8 (Leopard), 1990, stuffed animals, afghan, 12 × 65 × 43 inches. Courtesy of Metro Pictures.
JM With these floor sculptures, had you thought much about floor versus pedestal in minimalist sculpture?
MK Somewhat, I was thinking overtly of Barry Le Va’s scatter pieces. When I look at his work I think about system and anti-system. The enclosing architecture could be the system that contains the anti-system, the scatter. As in the Allan Kaprow work where he threw tires around, the Le Va pieces seem to be in a pattern that you can’t understand by just looking at it. In my work, the system and anti-system aren’t about architecture versus the material contained by it, they’re more about social systems. There are certain things you come to and say, that’s random or that’s not random. The placement on the floor makes you think of certain historic formal discussions. Yet the materials themselves deny that discussion because the materials related to hearth and home, and developmental kinds of issues. Of all my works, they are the most about categories, about confusion of category. You strive to categorize them.
JM Do you ever think of the stuffed-animal pieces in terms of the breakdown of the nuclear family?
MK Yes, I see that. Advertising still presents an idealized notion of the family, even if it doesn’t exist anymore.
JM In a way, even the newer craft objects still have that oddly dated quality. Maybe it’s just that a good number of them come from a nuclear family. Somehow we can’t picture them as coming from some other kind of family formation.
MK It would be interesting if we could find something that we could say is an object indicative of a single-parent situation or an extended family, but they wouldn’t be considered traditional. They would be considered oddities, and crafts are traditional. They reveal a mythos, not real-life situations.
JM That basis in myth reminds me of something that Brecht said, that “folk art is bad art.”
MK I agree with that. After the NEA controversies I was considering applying for a folk art grant because they so obviously exist to promote traditional values. I mean, what’s the difference between this folk and that folk? They’re not talking about Folk Art, they’re talking about particular folks they want to support. If I applied for a folk art grant, how would it be determined if what I did was folk art or not? I think that’s the only politically correct thing to do nowadays.
Mike Kelley, Arena #4 (Zen Garden), 1990, stuffed animals under afghan, 72 × 52 inches. Courtesy of Metro Pictures.
JM It would be a coup for you to get a folk art grant.
MK It would be great. We’ve talked about crafts and how there’s no history of crafts. There’s no history of conspiracy theory either. When people start writing about that, outside of it, trying to decode it, trying to actually examine why these certain networks of information are always operative in conspiracy theory, that will be a really interesting thing. Then we’ll really learn something about our society. I don’t think that there’s anybody in the academic world who will even go near conspiracy theory at this point. Once it starts to become obvious how it is a motivating factor in real life, then people will start to write about it as a mythology or an idealogy. I’m really interested in that. My friend Jim Shaw is one of the few artists that I know who seems to be able to deal with conspiracy theory in any enlightening manner in art. I feel it in Cady Noland, Peter Nagy, Survival Research Laboratories, Tony Oursler, and Raymond Pettibon also. I think you’ll start to see a lot more artists working with that kind of stuff. It has already happened in literature with people like Robert Anton Wilson and Phillip K. Dick and William Burroughs. In the past, Oyvind Fahlstrom worked with that somewhat. I feel connected with that. How about you?
JM Conspiracy theory? It makes me wonder what the dividing line is between conspiracy theory and just outright paranoia.
MK Paranoia is a fear that is too ludicrous to be taken seriously, but conspiracy theory has a veneer of validity, like art. You can trace it, it’s based on historical information, it can be catalogued.
JM There’s a hiding strain in the coffin pieces, the Empathy Displacement works.
MK Well, that’s an important part of those works, that they’re hidden—that’s it. The empathy displacement has to do with how you empathize with a doll and the fact that the more you empathize with something the more you don’t see it for what it is because you see it as you. Blowing these images of dolls up to the human scale and having them so deadly rendered makes you more aware of the strangeness of the morphology, how it differs from you. If you saw that thing walking down the street you wouldn’t go near it, it becomes hard to project onto.
JM The object tends to invite the viewer to see it as human and then you turn around and say, let’s make it human.
MK Then you don’t want to see it anymore, right? I know that wouldn’t happen by just blowing them up because you’d just say that it’s just a picture of the thing. You had to have something to empathize with, so I put the thing that you empathize with in a box in front of the painting. You assume the object of empathy is in the box. You assume the painting is an accurate depiction of the thing that is in the box, and you can prove that because there is a window you can look through, but you’re not allowed to.
JM After the Gulf War, Fox Network showed butchered bodies of animals in the Kuwait City Zoo that were, oddly, more moving than all the piles of corpses.
MK You can’t feel for the people who are dying because that’s too close to home; but if you can go through the secondary device of the animals, then you can feel intense emotion. The plight of those people is too horrible to imagine. I know as a child I always found puppet shows very frightening, also cartoons—especially the deadest cartoons like Hanna-Barbera cartoons. I believe they frightened me because of the intense deadness of the depictions. They were barely moving but they were alive, they were like walking corpses.
JM Baudelaire preferred backdrop painting to the academic landscape painting of the day for that reason: because the artifice is seen as artifice. For him, the well-rendered landscape was completely uninteresting, too naturalistic.
MK The most frightening media thing I can remember from my childhood was a children’s TV program about a puppet in one of these little prosceniums who was supposed to be on an endless stairway and falls off into nothingness. You just hear the voice: “Ooooooooo…” For years that has been my ideal. If I could make something that moving, that could have you frightened for the rest of your life, and all it was was a piece of clay that falls off a piece of cardboard… That so much emotion could be invested in this piece of shit—that’s amazing.