For the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam to choose Mike Kelley for their reopening exhibition was, to say the least, symbolic. The Stedelijk opened its newly refurbished and expanded premises in September last year, after years (and years) of highly controversial, heavily debated and stupendously overpriced refurbishments. The enormous white bath tub that is now hovering in front of the institution’s old facade, (brainchild of Benthem Crouwel Architects), the white washed walls and sterile interior, leave little room to reminisce and ponder over what was once a rustic building with creaking floorboards and quaint brick walls. Taking the escalator inside the tub, which is inevitable if you want to see what’s inside, feels as if you’re moving through the architects’ rendering – it’s lifeless, plastic and cold. The visual and physical experience, as well as the €127 million ($170 million) price tag have made the memory of the old building in many ways an uncomfortable one. It’s something rather not mentioned, or thought about for too long. It’s brushed over in conversation because, in all honesty, it hurts.
It’s either complete self-unawareness or ultimate bravery that a museum that has gone through such an awkward moment in time, and which has to deal with the unpleasant consequences of its decisions, chose the current exhibition to start this new era with. The show is, mainly because it was unexpectedly forced into becoming a retrospective after Kelley’s sudden death on the 1st of February last year, the largest exhibition of the artist’s work to date. It takes visitors systematically through the stages of Kelley’s development as an artist and thinker, and displays him, rightly, as one of the most diverse and broadly talented visual artists of our time. Above all, it shows him as a master in dissecting memory and digging up awkward historical moments – themes that reoccur especially throughout the artist’s later work.
Starting in the bath tub’s basement, the first couple of rooms exhibit Kelley’s earliest sketches made while still at CalArts. Also on view are instruments that were used for his Early Performative Sculptures and Objects (1977-79), referencing his immersion in performance art and anti-establishment punk. His bird houses reveal influences from his teachers, conceptual leaders John Baldessari, David Askevold and Douglas Huebler. But as with many artists, Kelley’s work only began to mature after he finished art school and was left to his own devices. The works in the next rooms, including Pay For Your Pleasure (1988), testify this.
The starting point of what could later be seen as the artist’s main theme are works like Half a Man (1987-92). This series comprises stuffed animals sewn together in compromising, often sexually provocative positions. For Kelley they were a comment on the commodity discourse and gift culture, on the fact people often end up with pointless and unwanted objects and the herewith related guilt. The fierce reaction these works evoked in American society (it was generally assumed that Kelley had experienced a disturbed, utterly fucked up childhood) is what made him, unafraid and unashamedly, delve into subjects like trauma and memory loss.
What followed are works like Educational Complex (1995), a large-scale model of every institution Kelley ever attended as well as his parent’s house. The buildings are pristine white, and the spaces between them to be interpreted as memory blanks – empty places where trauma could have happened, and which were – eventually – to be filled. Works like the John Glenn Memorial Detroit River Reclamation Project (1968 -1972) touches on a similar, though less personal vein. The giant sculpture covered in mosaics is part of a larger project exploring the history and neglected remnants of Detroit, the city of Kelley’s youth. Things were to get more extreme.
On the first floor of the Stedelijk, where the exhibition continues, the gallery has been made to display Day is Done (2005), which once filled the entire Gagosian Gallery on West 24th Street, New York. The multi-faceted multimedia installation brings together Kelley’s ideas in grotesque installations and moving images, which feature sweating barbers that jerk off behind bathroom doors and singing teenagers with a colgate smiles who perform pop songs in cowboy hats – both equally disturbing. Childhood trauma is here brought to the fore, with no white walls or censorship to hide it. It’s an overwhelming, nightmarish experience, which is tantalising and stomach turing all the same.
After this overwhelming visual and sonic encounter it’s a pleasant surprise to then walk into a room filled with Kandors – Kelley’s softest and most aesthetically pleasing works. Based on the Kryptonian city of Superman’s childhood, which was miniaturised by Braniac and captured in a bottle, Kelley created ten different versions that light up the room with an almost magical illumination and peaceful glow. Heart warming sculptures depicting something inherently sad.
A few video works follow in the museum’s surprisingly great theatre, after which the exhibition – rather abruptly – ends. There’s no ‘the end’ sign and before you know it you’re released into the wild where you’re reminded of the harsh reality that is the museum itself. The cold, white spaces that follow make you realise what a pleasure and privilege it was to be immersed in Kelley’s universe, where there was no hesitation, shame or fear, to show us all that life encompasses.