Mucho Gracias, Gerry
and here's my '95 George Clinton interview
MIKE KELLEY AND MEME by Gerry Fialka
Artist Mike Kelley continues to inspire and perplex me. His Menippean meme of archeology and anthropology as art nurtures and empowers us. His acclaimed influence will flourish, and the shock of his suicide will not let up. Sanctifying stoic simultaneity?
We had similar backgrounds, raised Catholic in the early 50's in southeast Michigan. We were both pictured in hometown newspapers for winning high school poster design contests. We studied art and psychology at the University of Michigan in the '70s, and spent the last 3 decades in Los Angeles. We both got into sewing. We ventured into dumpster diving - one man's trash is another man's art medium. We both mined the relationships of '60s subcultures to social-political concerns. We got our jobs and lives as mixed up as possible. We were both scraggly ass white dudes, knee deep in reverently satirizing what we dearly love.
We non-conformists are all alike, digging Captain Beefheart, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Iggy & The Stooges, Sun Ra, John Cage, John Lee Hooker, MC5, and Funkadelic. Our art consumption crossed into Dada, Fluxus, Jack Smith, Robert Crumb, and Joseph Beuys who wrote his own new chapter to James Joyce's Finnegans Wake ("where the hand of man never set foot"). Beuys said "Make the secrets productive." In his 1981 artwork Meditations on a Can of Vernors, Mike asked about the gnome mascot of this product - Vernor's ginger ale pop can: "does he have a secret?" He added, "I'm attracted to these overtones of secrecy."
I was duly astonished in Diane Kirkpatrick's History of Art class at U of M in Ann Arbor when Mike, dressed in a Catholic girl's Holy Communion dress yelped psycho-babble poetry through three reel-to-reel tape players presaging digital delay soundscapes. We shared an appreciation for Frank Zappa, who pioneered this idea of studio as instrument. Mike said: "Performances were about belief systems. I thought of them as propaganda-gone-wrong." Frank asked the question: "Who are the brain police?"
Unlike many, Mike achieved renown but did not desert his street roots. I was truly grateful for his not only responding to my interview requests, but actually following through. His generous contributions to LA's literary art center, Beyond Baroque have been befittingly appreciated. The upstairs gallery is now dedicated to Mike. He did not require any rental fee when we screened his feature film Day Is Done at our 7 Dudley Cinema series, knowing that we are all-volunteer, always-free-admission and welcome the homeless.
As Ken Johnson wrote in the New York Times August 17, 2012: "Mike Kelley, the celebrated Los Angeles artist who took his own life at 57 this year, was a hero to many. But partly because he so determinedly defied traditional laws of stylistic consistency and coherence, the number of people who fully grasped what he was about is probably small." Small? Hell, I'd put that closer to zero. And that's probably what Mike wanted. I feel Mike's art was constantly mocking his own existential despair. Could anyone really ever get Mike? And more important, were we supposed to?
McLuhan nailed it - "Understanding is NOT having a point of view" - even as he teased folks to believe his percepts were theories. Similarly, Mike said: "I tend to use writers and theories for my own ends." Kelley merged language and image to transform art and noise into a transcenDANCE.
Robert Pincus, reviewing Kelley's Monkey Island show at Beyond Baroque in Art In America, September 1983, noted, "He attempts to understand rather than judge, to analyze human drives and desires, to dissect our foibles."
In Artforum, May 2012, Ann Goldstein reinforces that duality: "Mike used binary structures as a means to communicate as an artist, setting up correspondence between order and chaos, the analytical and the associative, the practical and the speculative, belief systems and propaganda, the every day and the uncanny."
In that same issue, Tony Oursler explained "...signature Mike: First, we are struck by an anarchic and often biting humor, which unfolds to reveal a deeply mysterious yet considered logic, which then evaporates back into our world, leaving us to ponder our predicament." Percept pondering as plunder?
The exuberant embrace of contradiction is key to experiencing Mike Kelley. As Duchamp said "The artist in the future would be a person who points his finger" and, "I want to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste." Pointing at that meme, are you looking at the finger or the meme?
The word "meme" (the double me) relates to cultural transmission and memory. It was the center of my two Kelley interviews. The Pacifica Radio one was 18 years ago, and the Bergamot Station one (before a live audience) was 8 years ago. I was hoping to do a third one in 2014, thus making each ten years apart.
A few Kelley responses:
G- What artist would you like to do your portrait?
M- One of the cave artists.
G- If you were in a vat of vomit, and somebody threw a bag of shit at your head, what would you do?
G- Tell me something good you never had and never want.
At Bergamot, we discussed a New York Times article about kid’s art and Dali. He recalled a Popeye cartoon that affected him deeply as a child and he started to cry. After realizing he had gotten to us all emotionally, he turned to me and said, "Boo hoo, I'm crying." Pratfall pathos?
He really perked our commonality with his enthusiasm for James Brown. We discussed the sign he saw at a Brown concert that read "Future Shock TV." Toffler meets soul music - how "fun key" can you get? Mike's confidence with suspended judgment was an epiphany for me. Kelley conjured Brown's certainties: "I've got a move that tells me what to do" and "I feel good, I knew that I would." Mike's howling laugh echoed James Brown's ear-piercing shriek, "Serious as cancer."
Mike was profoundly moved by William Burroughs, who said "Language is a virus." Malcolm Gladwell wrote, "A meme is an idea that behaves like a virus - that moves through a population, taking hold in each person it infects." Self-referential slapstick? Situationist psychoanalysis?
Another commonality we shared was a Bunuelian point of view, and Mike could mimic the master. Before the Bergamot interview, I asked Mike if we could discuss his having said that art is making your sickness everybody else's. He agreed, then craftily, before the audience, denied he had ever said it: "Art is some sort of interesting area where dysfunction is allowed." And Mike's idea of a cure was to paint with Mercurochrome.
Kelley was thrilled when the New York Times called The Poetics Project "the most irritating show in New York City." Mike reconfigured planned failure. He claimed, "I became an artist to fail. I wanted to do something that rules out success and makes sure I'm not a useful member of society." Paradoxical tricksterism? Frank Zappa said "I am a failure, but not a miserable failure." Fellow Michigander filmmaker Paul Schrader quipped "The role of the artist is to attempt to sell out, but fail." Kelley reinvented this whole push-pull creative-memory-syndrome failure trope into a resonating cycle.
How and why does one turn a breakdown into a breakthrough? Perhaps I fail at writing this article, merely aggrandizing myself in comparisons with Mike. Maybe I am in denial, but does suicide connote failure? Was he more heart than head? Are we all trying to be that way? Writer Emily Colette called that "Becketty I-can't-go-on-I'll-go-on kind of way." Samuel Beckett himself urged, "Try again, Fail again. Fail better." Deep down inside did Mike want acknowledgement at being a failure? Simulacrum sanctuary?
"He who washes his hands of life utters all he has in his heart." - Saadi
Kelley jockeyed his Janus-like doubleness in more ways than two ... in Joycean "laughtears" liquidity. He enlightened, entertained and enraged simultaneously. The poet W.H. Auden pondered whether art pacifies or activates. Gurdjieff said "Laughter is the reconciliation of yes and no." As the Sufis say, "Life is a dream and death is waking up." Nicole Rudick's "In God's Oasis" essay about Mike's home in Ann Arbor, surveys how that household would "break through into unsuspected worlds” that "generate a tension between attraction and repulsion."
What meta-memes influenced his death? He was one of the founding members of the proto-punk noise group Destroy All Monsters, who wrote about "the beauty of death" and how "death was endlessly interesting." One major literary influence on Mike was Comte de Lautremont, who also committed suicide. One of Mike's last works had Superman reciting Sylvia Plath. Kelley's first aspiration was to be a writer. So, why did he choose this exit?
What was cluster-fuckin' in that sensitive emotional core? Does one become what one beholds? Alan Watts pointed out: "Camus said there is only one serious philosophical question which is whether or not to commit suicide."
Duchamping at the bit, I wait for the resurrection of Mike Kelley on the astral plane. In Foul Perfection, Kelley’s 2003 MIT collection of essays and criticism, my 1994 interview is referenced: “art has a ‘syntax … (that’s) like a written piece of language.’ ” Language creates an addicting matrix of pattern recognition, and taxes our ability to uncover and cope with its hidden effects. Words can evoke more than their meaning. Whose sin? Whose tax?
Can anyone ever really get Mike? And if anyone had, would he still be living? His exit plan neither mystifies nor clarifies. Did anyone really get him while he was alive? Does his suicide make this all the more unclear? Duchamp made one door for two doorways in the corner of a room as a piece of art in 1927. Which doorway did Mike chose for his exit?
"A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music... and then people crowd about the poet and say to him: 'Sing for us soon again,' that is as much as to say. 'May new sufferings torment your soul.'" - Kierkegaard
In the end, does the end justify the memes?
--- Gerry Fialka, a put-on artist who puts on events http://www.laughtears.com/ - PXL THIS Film Festival, 7 Dudley Cinema, Documental, http://venicewake.org/, lectures world-wide on experimental film, avant-garde art, and subversive social media. His new workshop/lecture is entitled How To Correctly Misread Mike Kelley As Menippean Meme.
GERRY FIALKA's Otherzine articles-
Fall 2012 - Mike Kelley And Meme (scroll down for SPECIAL FEATURES and OUTTAKES)
- due online Sept 12
Spring 2012 - Occupy Awake:Conscious Mapmakers On World Wide Watch
Fall 2011 - McLuhan's City As Classroom Flips Into All-At-Onceness As Classroom
Spring 2011 - McLuhan & WikiLeaks: 'Hoedown' and 'Hendiadys'
Spring 2010 - Looking Glass - Review of Millennium Film Journal #51 http://www.othercinema.com/otherzine/?issueid=23&article_id=99
Spring 2009 - Dream Awake -HOW JOYCE INVENTED OTHER CINEMA & DISGUISED IT AS A BOOK
Gerry Fialka Lecture-Workshop:
The Hows & Whys of Correctly Misreading Mike Kelley As Menippean Meme -
Art Historian-performance artist Fialka delves deep into the many layers of Kelly's art, which involved found objects, textile banners, drawings, assemblage, collage, noise music, performance, film and video. Writing in The New York Times, in 2012, Holland Cotter described Kelley as, "one of the most influential American artists of the past quarter century and a pungent commentator on American class, popular culture and youthful rebellion." Fialka probes the interconnections of Kelley with Marcel Duchamp, Donkey basketball, James Joyce, McLuhan, Menippean Satire, Sun Ra, James Brown and more. Just as there is really no ending to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, there is no ending to exploring and rediscovering Kelley's meme anew. Examine misreading Kelley as "the artist as nihilistic Bad Boy, unrestrained Monster from the Id, intent on nothing but disturbing the peace" - Steven Stern catalogue essay for Kelley's Hermaphrodite Drawings, Gagosian Gallery, 2007.
Fall 2012 - Mike Kelley And Meme - SPECIAL FEATURES:
Special thanks to Suzy Williams, Jules Minton, Roberto Palazzo, Mark Hardin, Mike Mosher, Hank Rosenfeld, Geoff Seelinger, Christine Metropolis, Craig Baldwin, Rocco of Angel City Books & Records, Herve DeJordy, Billy Stern, Fred Dewey and Steve DeGroodt.
"What if Ajax's suicide was simply motivated by an aversion to speech, rather than by shame? As a response to shame, suicide is at least respectable, but using suicide as an easy way to attain silence is definitely a sign of weakness. You don't cut off your nose to spite your face - that's too easy - instead, you should succumb to ugliness rather than win false mastery over it. Silence must be attained by sheer force of will, not cheap mechanics. A blowfish inflates to frighten enemies that it cannot defeat in one-on-one combat. A body swells death, as if proud." - Mike Kelley, Minor Histories MIT 2004
Rothko's image as a tortured artist is well illustrated by Lee Seldes's description of his suicide: "The enormous patch of congealed blood was the ultimate work of art, the final dramatic gesture, the true, most poignant action painting." Lee Seldes, The Legacy of Mark Rothko (New York: Penguin Books, 1979) - FOOTNOTE #5 PAGE 101, from Mike Kelley, Minor Histories MIT 2004
"One of the enduring myths of the avant-garde is that of the artist maudit - driven to insanity or death, offering up his genius and life for the sins of the philistine bourgeoisie." - Sheldon Nodelman, Art In America, Oct 2006
When I asked Sun Ra how his show differed from James Brown performance, Sun Ra replied, "James Brown gives the people what they want; I give them what they need." - from Mike Kelley, Minor Histories MIT 2004
"People are really visually illiterate. They learn to read in school, but they don’t learn to decode images. They’re not taught to look at films and recognize them as things that are put together. They see film as a kind of nature, like trees. They don’t say, “Oh yeah, somebody made that; somebody cut that.” They don’t think about visual things that way. So, visual culture just surrounds them, but people are oblivious to it." - Kelley http://www.art21.org/texts/mike-kelley/interview-mike-kelley-day-is-done
From the catalogue essay by Steven Stern for Kelley's Hermaphrodite Drawings, Gagosian Gallery, 2007-
"misreading...the artist as nihilistic Bad Boy, unrestrained Monster from the Id, intent on nothing but disturbing the peace" .... "shuttling uneasily between revulsion and a strange sort of giddy pleasure" ....
"I make art in order to give other people my problems." - Mike Kelley
"It’s all about inversions of power…which is very typical of folk forms that perform carnivalesque functions—where you get to break the mold of how you’re supposed to act or look. In that sense, it’s analogous to the traditional social role of art in the avant-garde, but it’s a very restrained one. And I’m just trying to show that relationship between the traditional avant-garde and the carnivalesque social function of these folk rituals, as I guess you’d call them." - Mike Kelley
Please vote on the title of my workshop/lecture. Should it be:
1- Mike Kelley As Menippean Meme
2- How to Correctly Misread Mike Kelley As Menippean Meme
3- How to Incorrectly Misread Mike Kelley As Menippean Meme
4 - The Hows & Whys of Correctly Misreading Mike Kelley As Menippean Meme
Outtakes from my article-
(one man's trash is another man's art medium, "me die uhm").
and all the radical experimenters that John Sinclair and J.C. Crawford hoicked up. Still do.
"How could you make content ambiguous?”... "That's what I think art can do - make things visible."... "Critical joys." He barked endless paradoxical insights
Duchamping at the bit, I wait for the resurrection of Mike Kelley on the astral plane, leaking all over the curb in de twat, mesh again. He will always be the wise sage shamanistically enlightening myriad memes of Menippean mysteries, miasmic morphologies and memory mamafeastas.
“A burning would has come to dance inane.” - james joyce Finnegans Wake,
"An artist is one who kids him self most gracefully." - captain beefheart