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Interview with Mike Kelley on accumulating the uncanny in his new Tate Liverpool show

The Californian post-conceptualist plays the role of artist, curator and collector in his latest piece

Right from his early 1970s performances which used an abundance of assembled props and drawings to illustrate wildly meandering incantatory narratives, up to his better known soft-toy pieces with their wall- and floorfuls of thrift-store stuffed toys and hand-knitted rugs, as well as the most recent videos and architectural environments, Detroit-born, Los-Angeles based artist Mike Kelley has explored the indefinable, irrational emotions and urges that underpin our everyday existence. It is not altogether surprising, therefore, that he would feel an affinity with Sigmund Freud’s notion of “the uncanny”, defined by the great psychoanalyst as “that class of the terrifying which leads us back to something long known to us, once very familiar”.

In 1993 Kelley put together an exhibition at the Gementeem Museum, Arnhem, devoted to this theme. It consisted largely of figurative sculptures, ancient and contemporary along with a range of non-art objects and photographs, all of which, according to the artist “had an uncanny aura about them”. These were shown in conjunction with a separate room full of objects collected by Kelley himself, which he dubbed “The harems”.

Now, over a decade later, Mike Kelley is revisiting and expanding this project at Tate Liverpool with a range of new works of art, including pieces by British artists such as Damien Hirst, the Chapman Brothers and John Isaacs.

The Art Newspaper: Has your interpretation of “the uncanny” shifted in any way in the time between the exhibition you are currently installing and its original showing in Arnhem in 1993?

Mike Kelly: Not greatly, because, to tell you the truth, this exhibition was remounted very quickly to fill a hole. This is not a show I had planned on redoing at any time soon, and so I hadn’t been thinking about it for a very long time, and I had quickly to address the institutional ramifications of remounting it, more than the thematics of it.

The original show was geared specifically towards art-world concerns of that time; I was addressing polychrome figurative sculpture which had made a re-emergence but was still somewhat unusual.

Now, of course, it’s a real mainstay of contemporary art production. So the show hasn’t changed in that regard, though I think if I had had more time, I would have broadened my exploration of the uncanny fully to address more contemporary works which don’t have the same body references, and which I think of as more of a post-modern problematic.

TAN: You say in your introduction to the exhibition that a lot of the new work that you have included does not even really answer the description of “uncanny”.

MK: I don’t think it does, but at the same time I think it raises other issues about reality that seem to be more similar to notions of simulacra, as defined by French social theorist Jean Baudrillard. My definition of the uncanny is more to do with a physical response to works of art and I don’t think that the simulacra experience produces that.

TAN: Nonetheless you still include more recent art like that of Damien Hirst or Gavin Turk, albeit in a way that perhaps was not so specific to your original intent.

MK: To tell you the truth, the idea to add the new things was something that I had misgivings about because I didn’t know if it would fit the theme of the show. But, of course, to do this show again and not show all this contemporary work seemed ridiculous.

TAN: Looking down the exhibit list for this show, I see that pieces of “art with a capital A” from various periods are mixed with a lot of non-art objects: stuffed animals, anatomical models, even male and female blow-up sex dolls. What is the relationship of the works of art to these other pieces?

MK: In the original “Uncanny” exhibition I decided not to make any distinction between specific works of art and these other kinds of things. In this show too, I see it more like an exhibition of dolls and full-scale dolls, and I don’t make such distinctions.

TAN: In your essay for the 1993 “Uncanny” show, you stated that the photographs you selected for inclusion, even when they are fine art photographs such as those of Cindy Sherman, are simply there as documentation of figurative sculpture, not as works of art in their own right. Does this still hold true for the current show? Are you redefining the things that you select?

MK: Exactly. It doesn’t matter to me whether they are works of art or not. I don’t make much of a distinction between a Damien Hirst and a stuffed animal. Since Pop Art, a lot of work has threatened those distinctions anyway, and I think by now the distinctions don’t even hold up any more. Except for talking about market or audience I don’t know how much difference there truly is between, say, a Madame Tussauds figure or a work by Gavin Turk.

TAN: How are you going to install these things? Will there be a sense of the Wunderkammer in the installation?

MK: A bit. It’s all mixed together, though I’m trying to work a little bit against the Wunderkammer idea in that I’m not interested in it being seen like a show of curiosities or a sideshow. At the same time I’m also trying to work against it being seen as a kind of a sculpture installation, but more like groupings of figures in which narrative interconnections are intimated.

TAN: Are you organising them thematically or aesthetically? I do not imagine you are going to do them chronologically.

MK: No, that would be antithetical to the theme. I’m proposing that these things produce a kind of effect on the viewer that isn’t really determined by historical considerations. There are certain things that are very obvious: you have animals and things that relate to stuffed animals; you have figures which look dead; you’ve got figures which are more like a straight portrait sculpture. So those are three kinds of main categories. Then there are other ones that seem to be more like body parts than whole figures; and then you’ve got things that seem to be decomposed or morphed or monstrous. So there are very broad categories. I might mix some of them up to give a sort of narrative overtone: I haven’t really figured it all out yet.

TAN: Can you talk about the “Harems”, the separate room of objects collected by you, but now owned by one of your collectors? The term “harem” describes a fetishist’s accumulation. You have said that you do not see this as a personal archive or a giant assemblage, more of a discourse on the notion of collecting.

MK: Yes, and I know that I’ll probably get some flack for showing this material. People may think it’s self-aggrandising, or something, but to me it’s no different from anybody else’s collections. They’re just examples of a person’s changing and developing relation to collecting and organising materials. I’ve noticed already that there’s a tendency for people to think the pieces focus on childhood or adolescence, when in actuality they are from all periods of my life. There are boring collections of business cards and spoons and things like that. So it’s really just like saying, “Look, here are all these collections from all these different periods, and this whole show is just another kind of collection”.

TAN: Is the collector who owns it, Kourosh Larizadeh, also adding his own stuff to it?

MK: In certain cases he’s continuing to add to it. In fact, it’s only because of him that I’m doing this show. Tate approached Kourosh to borrow these pieces, and that forced me to deal with their installation. I didn’t want them to be shown on their own; to me the “Harems” can’t be shown by themselves; they’re just not a work of art.

TAN: What is the relationship between the “Harems” and the “Uncanny”? Is it the cross referencing of different modes of accumulation?

MK: The show is about one definition of the uncanny. One that has to do with mortality and the confusion over whether things are alive or dead, and the experience of looking at something that reminds you of the condition of being mortal.

I also wanted to have a secondary room in which that definition is changed completely. In this room the “uncanny” is more about being taken over by subconscious forces, things beyond your control, and about the kind of fears and confusions this raises.

I thought that this room would show how, over a lifetime, one continuously tries to organise things and organise the world, and how one is attracted to things and tries to make sense of them.

One of these is the basic impulse to collect, which I think can be akin to being taken over by something else. On the other hand, collections can never be complete, there is always something missing and those missing things become charged, either with desire or anxiety.

TAN: So is this exhibition a work in progress, one that will never be complete or finite?

MK: In my work in general I am interested in how things are never finished and in revisiting and reconfiguring the same works again and again. I use elements from one piece to make another. Everything is in flux and nothing is ever finished: two months later things change their meaning and I have to make something new in response.

Biography

Born: 1954, Detroit, lives and works in Los Angeles Education: University of Michigan School of Art, Ann Arbor, (1972-76), California Institute of the Arts, Valencia (1976-78) Currently showing: “The uncanny”, Tate Liverpool, until 3 May Solo shows: 2002: "Reversals, recyclings", Metro Pictures, New York, New York; "The poetry of form”; Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris;"Test Room.”, Galerie Art et Public, Geneva,Switzerland