by Hannah Sage Kay
HAUSER & WIRTH LOS ANGELES | October 21, 2017 – January 21, 2018
Mike Kelley, Still from ‘Superman Recites Selections from “The Bell Jar” and Other Works by Sylvia Plath’, 1999. Video. Art © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. All Rights Reserved / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts and Hauser & Wirth.
Los Angeles, a city guilty of forgetting its architectural history, produced Mike Kelley, an artist intent on remembering the mythical, sci-fi city of Kandor. As the capital of Superman's home world and the embodiment of “an outdated image of the future,” Kandor served as Kelley's inspiration for a twelve-year long project and meditation on themes of cultural memory, passing time, and visions of utopia. Mike Kelley: Kandors 1999–2011 at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles brings together the largest collection of this series to date in the United States, including twenty works on paper that have never before been seen by the public.
When prompted by a group exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Bonn to examine “new media of the past” on the eve of millennial transition, Kelley began to explore the archives of an avid Superman comic book collector and found that the vast swath of Kandor’s depictions, by its many illustrators, lacked consistency. From the archive, Kelley selected twenty Kandor illustrations on which all works of the resulting series, no matter how tangential, would be based. Spanning a multitude of forms and mediums—from handblown glass bottles, to brightly colored cities molded in resin, to projections of swirling gasses and particles, to linear pencil drawings on paper, and shapeshifting lenticular light boxes—every work on view originates from one of these twenty Kandor images and concludes with a contemplation of its socio-symbolic value. By magnifying the stylistic, architectural, and compositional inconsistencies present within the original comic frames, Kelley highlights the vagaries and mythologies of memory—the tendency to forget and invent a (new) past.
Preserved in a glass bottle and housed in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, the miniaturized city of Kandor remains as the only surviving relic of the planet Krypton. As such, it serves as a constant reminder of Superman’s past and an emblem of the life he was denied. The sense of longing elicited by Kandor’s image parallels the culture of mythology present amongst the community of Superman fans who religiously collect, debate, and identify with the comic-book’s narrative. Kelley thus taps into the cult of cultural mythos surrounding Superman: enlivening a fiction to expose an omnipresent human desire to imagine, to live, to mourn a life not lost, but never had.
Published two years before Kelley initiated this project, Norman Klein’s The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory (1997) reconstructs an image of Los Angeles in much the same way that Kelley reconstructs an image of Kandor: through an auto-ethnographic method of synthesizing fragmented memories and shared cultural experiences into a past image of the future, as remembered in the present. Or an “imago,” as Klein calls it: an idealized image left behind in the mind after time and memory have eroded its context, its detail, its truth and specificity.
Twenty delicate pencil drawings of each Kandor, on view for the first time, serve as a point of reference for the entire series, toeing the line between their comic referents and their sculptural counterparts. However, Kelley’s fluid and seemingly imprecise line quality suggests the fuzzy outline of a memory—an imago—as Klein might say.
Mike Kelley, Kandor-Con 2000, 1999/2007. Mixed media installation with video, sound, dimensions variable. Installation view, ‘Kandor-Con 2000,’ Jablonka Galerie at Technische Universität in cooperation with Harald Falckenberg, Cologne, Germany, 2007. Art © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. All Rights Reserved / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Deichtorhallen Hamburg / Falckenberg Collection. Courtesy the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Lepkowski Studios, Berlin.
Kandor-Con 2000, the first installment of the Kandors series, presents a comic-con-like installation of drawings, videos, and 3D models. Announcing the city’s expected completion date on a large yellow billboard as January 419500 AD, this installation epitomizes a forever unattainable utopian ideal: a state of perfection, which is constantly worked towards yet never achieved. Two architectural model-makers, present for the duration of the exhibition, create white foamboard models representing Kandor as they envision it. After passing through this futile attempt at reconstructing a fictional city, the viewer will find themselves in a darkened room with Kandors Full Set, a display of all twenty glass Kandor bottles and resin cities based on the illustrations Kelley chose from the archive. Each successive room of the exhibit draws the viewer deeper within the city of Kandor, as imagined by its comic-book illustrators, the architectural model-makers, and Kelley.
Kandor #12 further transports the viewer inside a comic frame. Having cropped the original illustration to focus primarily on the bell jar and its immediate surroundings, Kelley three-dimensionally reproduced all elements of the composition so that the viewer could walk into the fictional space: around the bell jar, behind the long brown set of drawers, and up to the chartreuse green background. Klein says, “If we concentrate, the imago seems to be waiting for us intact… It remains where we put it, but the details around it get lost, as if they were haunted, somewhat contaminated, but empty. Imagos are the sculpture that stands in the foreground next to negative space.” Kandor #12 manifests this illusion. Only as specific as the original comic book illustration prescribed, Kelley’s immersive sculptural version omits the details that often fade away with time and memory.
The Book & Printed Matter Lab, a non-commercial academic oasis within the Hauser & Wirth complex, also attempts to reconstruct a fragmented memory of another fragmented memory: Kelley’s process of creating a three-dimensional, sculptural, lived version of the formerly two-dimensional, incongruently imagined city of Kandor. Archival materials from the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts shed light on the twelve-year development and production of these works, from their conceptual underpinnings to their physical manifestations. Videos of Kelley in his studio, sketches of Kandor-Con 2000, and color tests for the glass bottles illustrate Kelley’s process of working through ideas and challenges, but more specifically they evidence his depth of immersion within the themes and media of the series.
Mike Kelley: Kandors 1999–2011 resurrects an otherworldly environment and effectively simulates a lived imago. In doing so, Kelley successfully brings the realities of memory, repression, and utopia to light in an exhibit that dwarfs the viewer in its fecundity and scope.
ContributorHannah Sage Kay
Hannah Sage Kay is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.