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MoMA PS1 showcases the provocative work of CalArts Alumnus Mike Kelley

November 21, 2013
The Art Blog

by Elizabeth Johnson

Mike Kelley at MoMA PS1 – California performance and installation art connection

Joining the hipster crowd on a Sunday at PS1, San Francisco artist Lani Asher and I encounter Mike Kelley’s provocative, disturbing childhood themes in a cheerful, kid-friendly setting, circumnavigating strollers, toddlers and babies being lifted to see. Most of the kids giggle and enjoy the  spectacle, dazzled by the bright colors, dark spaces, catchy music and fuzzy toys. Shocking video images of fake porn and defecation, sighs, swoons, and screams don’t seem to faze them although the adults periodically turn away.

The most powerful work at PS1 is Horizontal Tracking Shot of Cross Section of Trauma Rooms, as it features private binge-watching (you sit in a corner behind a picket fence of colored panels and are conditioned to expect a carefully measured shock). Sitting in front of the three TVs ensures that you’ll get a certain jolt in a measured space of time, and recalls watching all three doors in “Let’s Make a Deal” right before the prize or dud is unveiled. Kelley’s clock-like audio syncs perfectly with colored rectangles that pass laterally across the screen, and then, at regular intervals, found Youtube footage. Clips of children crying or being tormented appear for one beat, just long enough to grab my attention and upset or unseat me. My shock is the payoff and I feel implicated in the children’s torment through my anticipation.

Lani and I climb the stairs to the second floor, arriving at Day is Done (2004-2005), Kelley’s most ambitious installation. His massive, multimedia, multi-narrative piece seduces, bores and entertains, generating an overlapping and confused sensory immersion. The kids love the chaos and pick up the beat, the collective noise level rises, and I can’t budge from in front of Extra Curricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #2. Three “train-dancers” and the Devil mesmerize me thanks to Kelley’s superb music synced with video and his framing and editing. Yet my attention is also attracted toward zombies and vampires punching the clock in the office next door, Extra Curricular…#3 through #7 and the operatic drama in a Fresno ranch house, Extra Curricula…#8. A guard scolds a mom for trying to wheel her stroller through a pathway made from a toilet stall, part of the Devil Barber scenario Extra Curricular…#25. Lani and I note that there are probably four times as many guards at PS1 as usual, all hired to protect Kelley’s subversive art. Kelley would be amused that they are safeguarding “the banal” and “the taboo,” and that they play their roles in uniform. Read more.

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