(This is Part Two in a series of responses to Mike Kelley's retrospective at MOMA PS 1 in New York City. The show is amazingly thorough, and Mike Kelley was so amazingly prolific, I can't just write one post and move on.)
In one suite of classrooms at the MOMA PS 1 (a renovated public school that now showcases MOMA contemporary art), Mike Kelley's Kandor variations and obsessions nest side by side like universes collapsing and blurring together. The whole sensation is like a lava-lamp blooming into philosophy, glow-in-the-dark sci-fi kitsch wrestled and edited into thesis. Kandor is the capitol city of Krypton, Superman's home planet, and in comic-book narratives it sits inside a bottle within Superman's Fortress of Solitude, fully populated and filled with intrigue and tragedy. The architecture of Kandor morphs from comic book to comic book, and it's never been represented fully in any of the Superman movies, so Kelley has full access to a range of representations and shapes and ghosts that haven't really fully entered the pop consciousness outside of a few fan-boy fantasies. That vacuum between "knowing" Superman through the movies or through a segment about Superman movies on Entertainment Tonight, and "knowing" him in a fevered, pointed, meticulous manner allows Kelley transformative powers. He's a wizard in those rooms inside PS 1, spinning out Kandors in all shapes and sizes, meditating without meditating on the meanings of each one. It's like he's trying to disappear into the magic lamps he manufactures, trying to find the dream to fit the fever. There's an endless variety of glows and glimmers, like Christmas aboard a space-station, or a 1950s kid's chemistry set growing out of itself and into a thought you should not think.
You want to be able to eat parts of these luminescent fruit-cake Metropolises; you want to return to your grandma's living room, the one filled with weird colored little bottles; you want to splash on iridescent perfume that smells like a school-teacher's wrist.
Kelley conjures. He makes a world for himself here, one that he can't live in, and yet one that he can wish for when no one else is around. That sense of yearning burns through the very idea of Kandor, a city in a bottle in a fortress of solitude, and you start to imagine the busy streets, the floating smoke, the interiors of plush bars and restaurants, bedrooms and ballrooms and government offices. At times Kelley perches Kandor bottles bubbling with light and oxygen orbs on makeshift stage backdrops and you can walk around to see what's behind. In one of these set-ups is a silver wash bucket; behind another a simple brown basket. It's like you've stumbled backstage, which is probably where Mike Kelley thrived when he was alive, even when he was front and center. He seems to adore that hushed static intensity of mundane little items stored away. He seems to try to reach through the phantasmagorical rainbows he makes so he can sit with a janitor on his break and have a smoke.
With the Kandor pieces Kelley merges school-boy myth with a sort of creepy-pervert sweetness that almost seems too beautiful, too precious, to witness, and it is, but Kandor is also a trap, a nightmare of smallness that Kelley knows is a dead end.
And yet look how beautiful it is to be so terrifically small.