Interview With Mike Kelley
by Sérgio Bessa
Sérgio Bessa- When I heard last year that you were writing an essay on
Öyvind Fahlström I got very curious. Then I was told that you had actually
met him in the 1970s. There are many things your work has in common with
his, especially with regard to logic systems. Do you feel that you've been
influenced by his work?
Mike Kelley- I've always been a big fan of Fahlström. Even when I was in
my twenties, I liked the complexity of his work. But at first my interest in
systems came from my interest in literature. I was interested in the writings
of Raymond Roussel, and the way that kind of systematic approach freed you
from being too involved in the subject matter of the work and allowed you to
develop artworks without having to get so involved in personal interests. I
liked Roussel because of his word games. He could write a whole novel full of
incredible detail, completely exotic and amazing, and yet it wasn't some kind
of personal exploration. There was plenty of room within there to free-
associate, but there was also plenty of room to use things that were quite
alien to you.
SB- You wanted your work to have that kind of complexity?
MK- I wasn't so organized at that time, because I was trained as a formalist
and I was working against that somewhat. I was interested in the "new
novel," like the work of Burroughs and the "cut-up method." I also became
interested in Beuys' work, which was all based in mythic systems, a kind of
materialist approach to myth. I became interested in all those things. Then
when I came to California, most of my teachers were conceptualists, and
they were interested in more of a systems approach; but what I didn't like
was that they also had a reductivist approach, and I really liked the
maximalist approach of Fahlström and Beuys, people like that.
SB- A little more messy?
MK- Yes, and more worldly. I tempered the messiness of that earlier
approach with the reductivism of conceptualism at that point, and tried to
play with that a bit, but that didn't last very long. I started doing
performances, and that's what led me into doing all these projects that are
based to some degree in logic systems. But in the beginning, when I was
younger, my work was based more in visual analogies, but through the
influence of the conceptual artists it became a little more language-oriented.
SB- You mentioned earlier that you wanted to avoid getting involved in
personal interests, but in works such as "Monkey Island," for instance, your
point of departure was a childhood memory.
MK- Well, I never wanted to leave out the biographical; I just didn't want it
to be predominant. I wanted to treat biographical things as equal to fiction,
mixed with fictive elements or historical elements, and I didn't want to deny
that because, for example, I've always been interested in surrealist art, and I
liked that surrealist art had a program: it wasn't just about gushing, it was
about taking all these memories and then trying to put that material back
into a kind of sociological context. Which is something that I think was never
taken very seriously with the transition of surrealism into America. The
programmatic social aspect was left behind, and it all became really
subjective; but I always thought the analytic aspect of surrealism was not so
different from conceptualism.
SB- That's true. Fahlström also owes a lot to surrealism.
MK- Yes, specially in the early work. I was also, like him, really interested in
abstraction at a certain point. For example, he was doing concrete poetry. At
a certain period all my writings were abstract -- they were sound things and
poems, like some of the work of Raoul Hausmann or Schwitters. I found that
interesting, but then I got bored with it after a while, because it didn't have
any social resonance. And I really like Fahlström's use of, say, things taken
from the newspaper -- facts, big historical things mixed with minor things.
SB- I have recently found a great deal of scatology in Fahlström's work that I
didn't see at first.
MK- At the time when I first saw his work I never particularly focused on
that aspect of it. I was more interested in how he was able to take diverse
things and fit them into a system. But there are scatological elements,
especially in his drawings of Richard Nixon. At the time I thought of that
more in relation to the comedic politics of the New Left, especially the
Yippies. There was a lot of that kind of political scatological humor, which is
traditional low political humor -- this defaming kind of thing, like drawings of
the president on the toilet.
SB- I was puzzled at first because he is so cerebral and methodical, but on
the other hand there are times when these scatological impulses take over.
And it is quite explicit in some of his writings.
MK- I think it comes in a way from his politics, the New Left and the politics
of liberation. I think it's interesting to think about it in relation to the maps in
which he's using shapes of actual countries and then he just starts making
them up. This is a kind of fanciful having fun, playing with shapelessness.
And he's contextualizing this shape, giving it meaning, and then he just goes
back and makes another one. So meaning is really floating in his work, but
meaning isn't denied, it's not nihilist, and that's what I really liked about the
SB- His work was never self-indulgent.
MK- I didn't really like a lot of expressionist work, or mystical works, where
chaos is this unbounded thing, and you never contextualize it, you never
bother to make it mean anything. It's always either outside of meaning or
incapable of meaning, and I don't think that that's how you think, I don't
think that's how you approach the world. You always make things mean
something -- you might abandon them, but you make things mean
something for the moment because you need to do that. So artwork for me
has always been the production of a provisional reality, and then you
produce another one, and you produce another one, and you produce
another one. But you have to take it seriously; otherwise it doesn't have any
psychological or social function at all.
SB- Are you familiar with Fahlström's writings and poetry?
MK- Only the works that were translated into English. The manifesto in which
he talks about "bisociation" was a very important piece of writing for me. I
was taken with the idea, and I thought it was an interesting manner of
working. I don't remember the writing particularly very much, but at the time
it seemed to be about having two concepts and finding a resonance between
them in order to produce a third concept. I was interested in that, especially
since in my school I was being trained in a pretty starchy, formalist way.
There was a tendency to think about art in a very primary way -- basic laws,
singularity, things being finished and things being of themselves --
essentially based on Greenbergian ideas.
SB- This is exactly what makes it possible for me to associate your work to
Fahlström's. "Plato's Cave," for example, has a kind of relentless energy in
moving from one issue to the next, and back again, so that we, the readers,
never find a safe area to rest. Did you have all these issues laid out before
you from the outset, or there were things added as the work progressed?
MK- That particular work started with the issue of the possessive, but once it
got rolling I just gave that whole thing up. I didn't even expand on it. And
the work became more about developing the themes textually. But a lot of
that development was quite formal as well, arising out of various researches
into all these various themes. I would write on each subject, and then I
would weave them together based on language association and image
association, things like that. It became more a process of developing a text.
Now, certain of these issues would be discussed, or brought up, but they
weren't often expanded upon. The work isn't either didactic or poetic. In all
the performances, the way they function through time is that there's
contradiction, and so a certain sort of thought is contradicted later on. In
general you can say that the work, because of these three themes, is playing
with, or maybe debunking these metaphysical myths. But that's not really
the point of the work. The point is more a structural one.
SB- Perhaps one might be misled by the title, which gives the reader these
three very loaded ideas to associate.
MK- The title already has the issue inherent in it. It already raises the issue
of deconstruction of those myths. I wouldn't have to do anything more than
that -- to make the title -- if that was the point of the work. The point of the
work was the experience of it in real time -- the time-based work -- and
that's why the final outcome is more a structural work. I don't know if you
looked at the book, or if you were able to find a copy of the text, but you'll
see it's more about flow, about dwelling on subject matter. It is mean-
spiritedly committed, sometimes at the expense of the found texts, which I
scramble and invert and do other things with. But again, it is more a matter
of playing with it. And again, the work wasn't designed to be didactic, and it
doesn't function didactically or hold up to philosophical scrutiny on that level.
It's more play with language and ideas. But it is, in its subject matter, kind of
heroic. And I played with that concept in relation to the presentation of
myself as some kind of self-conscious rock star, playing with the heroic
performer -- sort of a pseudo-Jim Morrison performance. But it didn't get to
stay there -- it didn't maintain that pose; it kept falling apart.
SB- But there was a need to engage the viewer, and make him or her see it
your way. The invitation to engage in "spelunking in the cave," as opposed to
accepting the Platonic model.
MK- That is sort of a joke I make. If you were going into the cave with your
back towards the light, you'd never get to reality -- you'd just go into
SB- But if you accept the joke the whole work becomes about misreading.
MK- My work pretty much has been the glorification of misreading, and not
just one misreading but a lot of misreading. At least at that point it was.
SB- Is "Plato's Cave" typical of your process of working? Is that how you
usually go about it?
MK- I am less programmatic than I used to be. At times, I pick the theme
and work with it, and sometimes it stays there and turns into something
else; but at a certain point I would decide that, "Well, here is the leitmotif,"
and I stuck with it. Generally I try to pick something that will allow some
development, some kind of open-ended motif, or some kind of historic
situation that I try to jam with.
SB- How exactly do you see it changing now?
MK- After the "Plato's Cave" piece, none of the pieces culminated in a
performance anymore, like "Half a Man." There wasn't really any kind of end
to the work. And at that point I started going back and doing things in older
styles. I decided I wanted to play against notions of development and
history. In the other work I was always substituting one logic system for
another logic system, but they were all discrete. But now I'm more interested
in my work not being discrete. I want to go back and make works from any
of these series and just continue them.
SB- So you are not closing a body of work. You begin it and leave it open?
MK- Right, I just leave it open, endlessly morphing. And they morph from
one into the other. In fact, I have maybe three or four projects now, but I
can't differentiate them, except maybe by major themes. They blend into
SB- Have you shown any of these projects?
MK- Yes. I'd say the "Missing Time" project is one of those. I've been also
doing some sci-fi related works, and a work about the "Land-O-Lakes" butter
princess. All these works are separate projects, but there are thematic
crossovers. I let them flow one into the other, and I don't care so much
about having to tie up an end with them. Even the performances were
pseudo endings, because they didn't make any sense, so they weren't
coherent logic systems. Still, they had the effect on the audience of being a
coherent logic system, because they were dramatic, and people felt moved
by them. They had an impulse to believe, as you have in theater. In a certain
way I was relying on people's impulses to project meaning and closure onto
works. And that is especially easy to do in time-based works, because they
can't remember what happened -- it's too confusing. So now I'm more
interested in that projection, in playing with it more overtly, especially in the
"Missing Time" projects. I'm interested in how people project personae onto
me, and onto historic figures. I make works about that.
SB- Was "Missing Time" a critique of the art education system?
MK- I'd say it was more about a kind of Oedipus relationship, a pseudo
Oedipus relationship to your master, whether that's your family, your
teacher, or your culture -- the patriarchy -- and doing works that seem to be
in line with the tenets of your training. So the school model was really the
positioning of a place, but I was also interested in the composition of the
model, which was composed as a formal painting. The model doesn't tell you
anything particularly, but it does tell something about composition. The
paintings were a kind of joke, sort of gestural formal paintings with the
intrusion of pulpish elements, which gives everything a kind of dysfunctional
edge, perhaps giving the whole thing the air of child abuse. Which is what I
was going for. And then I wrote all these abuse scenarios that were meant to
look like newspaper clippings, which gave them the veneer of truth, to look
like news. They looked like something real, cut out of a newspaper, but they
were complete fabrications or fantasies.
SB- How do you think people received this show?
MK- I don't think they got it.
SB- I thought the show was very dry, and I knew people would react to
MK- You said that before, but I don't understand what that means, because I
don't think it was visually any drier than my previous work, except maybe
the stuffed-animal works, but people just like those because they allow them
SB- Maybe, but compared to the black-and-white drawings that you've done
in the past, pieces such as the photos of children's paintings accompanied by
texts, this work was hard to approach.
MK- The black-and-white drawings have a certain amount of visual oomph
they're simple imagery, really. They're like posters, nicely designed, but in
actuality I think from the "Half a Man" series onward I allowed the viewer
more. Because the early drawings are quite reduced, in that I wouldn't allow
myself to use any color, but on the other hand I felt, "Why is my world so
restricted to this presentational mode?" and that's when I started using craft
material. Now I'm more interested in using materials that have certain kinds
of cultural qualities in themselves, the way an architectural model has a
certain kind of pretty quality that is inherent to it, and in going back and
doing paintings again and allowing myself to do something that I really
wouldn't allow myself to do because I was embarrassed by it. So I've been in
shows in Europe, for example, in recent years that were only paintings, and
people go into those and may think that I returned to paintings, but people
have gotten really lazy in recent years, and they don't want to look at what
the work is about, they just want to fetishize the painting qualities of things.
SB- I don't really believe that the black-and-white drawings were any less
demanding than the new work you're doing now. They were never indulgent
or showy, they were never about draftsmanship.
MK- At the time, though, because it was before the return of pop in the art
world, the general criticism couldn't get past the fact that they looked like
cartoons. They only saw them in terms of high and low issues, and it was
really frustrating for me, and I just said forget about it. Now the art world
has changed so much in the last six or seven years, and become so
dominated by pop strategies, that these old drawings look really natural now;
but at the time there was a kind of rigor I could see in them that other
people couldn't see. At the time, people talked about them as if they were
cut out of a comic book, and how they were about "aesthetics of the low."
SB- ...or adolescence.
MK- Yes, or adolescence or childhood or something like that, just kind of
numskull, bad-boy issues, as if I were doing this work to be naughty. I even
go back and do work like that on occasion, because I know what it looks like,
but I'm more interested in these other problems. I'm more interested in the
problem of making a painting that people will look at sincerely in terms of the
handed-down qualities. I think almost all my work has that quality now, and
it's overtly historical.
SB- It's almost a surrealist strategy in a sense, the fact that you're allowing
yourself to work in a way that is taboo -- at least in regard to what most
people expect your work to be.
MK- Abstract-surrealism was an attempt to break with bourgeois picturing
techniques, but Magritte and Dali were interested in utilizing those
techniques. In my work the social pact of imaging is foregrounded, there's
less focus on individual psyche and more on social psyche.
SB- I have always been very curious about a group of work that made
reference to Wilhelm Reich, I don't think you gave a title to it, but you had
an orgone shed, an enema table etc. How do you think that body of work
MK- Well, it was pretty much ignored. But then most of my work has been
pretty much ignored since the stuffed animals.
SB- It was a very strong show, and I was expecting a good reaction to it, but
it was frustrating to see that no one seemed to care.
MK- I hate to say this, but I think a lot of my work is reactive to what people
say about the previous work. And that work was really a reaction against the
discussions surrounding the craft works. There was a lot of discussion about
them in relation to feminism and gender politics. It wasn't exactly what my
interest was. Because that was a PC period, I thought that people got caught
up with the assumption that everything that's sewn is about women, when I
gave plenty of clues that my work wasn't about that. I didn't see why people
kept clinging to this idea. And really their doing this was just about politics, it
was about trying to use my work as a springboard to talk about how women
artists have been unfairly treated in art history. I don't mind that, but that's
not what I was doing. So I thought, I'll just do some work that is really male.
And then I thought, I'll just use different male archetypes.
SB- It was a very macho show.
MK- Yes, it was a very macho show. But then it was about playing with
different kinds of psychology, so it wasn't a unified macho image, except in
terms of material. It was like going into a rental wood shop and having a
bunch of different men make a bunch of stuff with the same tools. That was
the way I was thinking about it: "Here's the guy who's into orgone therapy,
and here's the guy who's into..." -- you know, a lot of it was about self help,
but it had a kind of psychological/body pathology overtone to it. That's what
gave it continuity, and the materials also gave it continuity, but there wasn't
any kind of unifying theme. Even formally there wasn't much connecting the
pieces, besides the fact that there was a kind of general furniture orientation.
But never was any of that discussed in any review of that work. I thought it
was screamingly obvious, and I wrote about it and told people what it was
about. This latest body of work, "Missing Time," has almost only been shown
in Europe, which is funny because the whole repressed-memory syndrome
phenomenon isn't so prevalent there, and they have a really different
relationship to art and all of this material; they will never understand it. And
then the people here just essentially refuse to look at it.
SB- Perhaps it was too painful for some people to go through it, because it
came around a time when a lot of stories about abuse were coming out, like
the little girl in Long Island who was abducted by her uncle and kept in a
dungeon that he had built, stories like that. And then your show was talking
about people empowering themselves through craft, through these very
MK- Yes. That show is what got me interested in architecture -- exactly what
you're saying, that you can have this kind of craft, or produce these kinds of
spaces that have a really highly charged negative overtone, and they have
the veneer of homeyness, but then they are very frightening. That's when I
decided to build schools; I said "Well, let's expand this to a larger scale," to
an institutional scale, instead of something like a cubbyhole -- you can have
a giant cubbyhole that has the same horrific tone. And that's what I tried to
do with this educational complex. I'm going to do new buildings where I
actually build full-scale rooms -- it's like building one room as an educational
complex. There will be mixtures of various styles, and still have cult
overtones, or torture rooms, or sex rooms, or something like that. But
they're going to look more like stage sets. They won't look like rooms. They'll
look like paintings, like three-dimensional paintings.
SB- What is your work for Documenta about?
MK- "The Poetics" is an overtly historical piece. Tony Oursler and I were in a
band together in the late 1970s and early 1980s, "The Poetics," so I
suggested to him that we pick up that work and develop it into a new body of
work. The first thing we did was remix all these old tapes; we're going to
make a CD box set, a reissue. And then we did all this video stuff, real
straight documentary footage of interviews and landscape, the environment
and things like that. But then we're also doing things that are scripted, and
things that look like reality television. So, it's kind of a play with how you
picture history, and in a really particular way rock history. Basically, what
we're doing is going back and remaking works that we were going to make
then, but never did. What we were thinking about was this kind of trope of
conceptual art that was about when it was designed in your mind -- this
whole thing about backdating, and the controversy surrounding several
artists who have made works that people claim that they backdated, and all
SB- Didn't Yoko Ono did something like that a few years ago?
MK- Yes, and I think Robert Morris has done this; he's built things from his
notebooks, and they were dated the year in which they were designed. This
has always been a major tenet of that kind of conceptualism. So we're doing
that, but it doesn't look anything like that, you know, it's just very weird. A
lot of the work was designed to be seen almost in a nightclub kind of
environment, really garish. And then we're doing a fanzine and a CD box set.
And there'll be a room with video projections and sculptures and all this stuff.
So it will be part art show, part historical kiosk.
SB- Are you going back to performance with this work?
MK- No, I'm just doing music again. I haven't been performing, I've just
been making music. When I was young, I took music very seriously as a kind
of analogue of my visual production, but when I started performing I gave
music up. I saw the theater, and these performances, as a kind of sculptural
music. I thought it was more serious, more analytical, or more
deconstructive or something, so if I played music then it was purely for
relaxation, and I didn't think about it as art. Recently I've felt compelled to
make music again, but because of the way I've looked at it, I've had a hard
time justifying it to myself as art. So this was a way for me to approach it --
as a problem of historical constructions -- to think of the pieces as visual
tropes of history or something like that. That would allow me to start doing
the music as a kind of theater, without worrying about the quality of the
music. It's analogous to my return to painting; I don't have to care whether
the paintings or the music themselves are good in any traditional sense.
SB- In a sense it is going back to performance, just not a public
MK- Not with me as actor. The problem became that I couldn't be on the
stage anymore, but I don't have any problem with doing this work with
media, or playing music, where the focus isn't on me personally.
SB- I always wondered whether performance was a means to help you build
MK- The way I came to it was that the whole body of work was the
performance. Then people called the part at the end the performance, but I
thought the whole thing was the performance, and then the part on the stage
was just the end of the performance. There was the social cliché of what a
performance is, but I thought of the whole thing as performance. I thought of
my work as operating very much within a Beuysian tradition, and that it was
about the whole thing. You can compartmentalize certain things off, not so
much for any real reason, but that's the convention of presentation. People
can't take in the whole thing. They can only take a chunk at a time. So
really, it's more about using the social code, or visual language, so that
people understand what you're doing.
SB- When you mention Beuys, do you also identify with the "shamanistic"
element of his work, or the whole idea of "healing?"
MK- No, no, I mean no. I've always been against primitivism in art. I just
don't like the word "Shamanism" because it always hooks into the New Age,
or into neo-primitivism. The word is so colored by these implications that I
refuse to use it. Within that kind of dialogue people use other words -- like
"the trickster," or "the warrior," and all these terms that people bandy about,
but it all goes back to clichés of tribalism. I just won't use that kind of
language. I only use language of the industrial environment. The problem
with the metaphysics of Beuys is that it allows people to see his work as
based on timeless principles, and not to see it as a constructed myth. I
dislike that about Beuys' work, even though I feel that his work is so much
more, because if you look at its logic, it is very funny. And the more you look
at it, the more humor you see in it. It's sort of absurdist. People miss that,
people don't talk about that. I don't like the connection of artist to priest.