Portraits of Artists 07

Conversation with Mike Kelley

Timothy Martin: Maybe you can describe a little bit these pieces in "documenta", the "Orgone Box", these constructions that you make. They're in part a reaction or an answer or whatever or a change from doing these handicraft or sort of women's work stuff and also go into some new areas. Could you describe the work in terms of the gender shift?

Mike Kelley: Well, in the development of the work I had done using craft materials, at first I wasn't aware of this at all, but as I started working more and more I realized that there was a gender component to it, that there was a tendency to read the work in gender issues. It wasn't normal or somehow appropriate for a male to be working with these kind of materials. And so, the notion of role playing came up. Oddly enough, especially in Europe, I'm known primarily for those pieces. People say when they see a doily, "Oh, it's Mike Kelley art." It was a funny thing: On one hand this inappropriateness of a male working with this and making it seem a little strange or odd, and on the other hand it's becoming a signature like "That's Mike Kelley's stuff." So I decided that for "documenta 9" – I already had quit making the work with the craft materials – I would go and do some works that you might perceive as particularly male. But after people were having a certain history of seeing my work and thinking about gender, they might be able then to have the same questions about this work that you would expect me to make, in kind of cultural cliché terms, with the same kind of questioning attitude that you had before, and that was my interest. The work's harked back to some of my earliest sculptural work, like some work I did in the early seventies, that were these birdhouses. I just built up these birdhouses out of "How To"-manuals. At that point I really saw them as being culturally blank, as being equivalent to Minimalism, except sort of blue-collar form of Minimalism.

TM: That was the general reading of those pieces, critically as well.

MK: Yeah, that a birdhouse is so blank that it doesn't mean anything. It is such a convention that it is empty. But then, when I look back on these works, that's not true. It only was blank for me from my cultural background, from sort of a white, suburban background – that's what Dad would make in the basement. And that was it when I realized from other cultures' point of view or from even other classes' that these things were exotic objects. I thought I should maybe try to do that more consciously, more consciously aware of, that these things are just as much, inhabit just as much the area of role playing, as doing things that are more obvious. So, I decided to make six or seven sculptures in the same material, basically plywood, like the kind of thing a man in America who had a workshop in his basement would make: simple home weekend projects; but they would each sort of have a different persona maybe, in some way.

TM: When did you start to use some textiles, about the mid-eighties or so, even before the "1000 Love Hours"-piece.?

MK: "More Love Hours."

TM: "More Love Hours." But when you picked that up, that wasn't a blank, that was consciously playing with something you weren't supposed to play with, you were playing with girls' toys, you were playing with dolls.

MK: Well, not at first. I wasn't aware of that at first. When I first bought all those things, I wanted to use home made gifts that were in a family context. And the most readily-available ones were things made by women and children, because maybe they had more free time – like retired women and children.

TM: . on a conventional craft project.

MK: Right. So it was easier for me to acquire large amounts of these gifts. The first project wasn't specifically about gender, it was about the notion of gift and the politics of gift. But then, once I had all the stuff in the house, I started sitting around sewing it together. I started becoming really aware that this in itself is interesting and I ought to play upon this. Like these people who would walk in, they would just laugh, "There's Mike sitting in this huge pile of doilies sewing them together." Everybody thought that was funny. And then, everybody thought I was crazy. When I first did that work nobody got it. They said, "This looks like seventies feminist art. What are you doing? This is ugly." And then I think the documenta-work on it had put it one step further. You know, it's like if I start doing faked male work, then that's very confusing because: who's making it?

TM: Yeah, once the expectation from you is that you have a certain gender inversion system or something. It's the same thing as becoming your initial awareness of the gender inscription of something that you did for other purposes. (.) Describe a bit the pieces at "documenta," what they are and how they are men's work.

MK: Well, they're men's work just because. say, after I made them I was thinking a lot of that movie "The Stepfather", which is a movie that a lot of women I know responded to. The scenario is about this man who marries into a widow's family and adopts the family and he's just looking for the perfect family. Then, when they don't live up to these perfect expectations, as no family ever can, he kills them and adopts a new identity and moves on. There's always these scenes with him down, venting his pent-up aggressions in his wood-shop. Everything he makes is just like out of a magazine, like his whole identity, his whole notion of reality is like pre-given and that's why the world can never please him, and he has to kill one family and move to the next. And that seems sort of analogous to what I had done in these sculptures.

TM: What's interesting right there is also that it cants that home-madness, that "made in your home workshop"-madness into something pathological as well. It doesn't sanctify it by any labour value thing, a return to the home. 

MK: Well, it would seem it was presented as just being about venting energy. That's also how a lot of people have discussed crafts anyway, as just being a way for people in industrialized cultures who have free time to get rid of their boredom. So, you invent something for them to do, to vent pent-up energy. But anyway, what I decided to do was like: let's make some of these things, but let's think about; let's be different men with different interests.

TM: Right.

MK: So, the first one I made was an "Orgone Shed", as I call it. I went and bought one of these backyard lawn mower sheds you put together and I used that as the metal-liner to produce an Orgone Box or Reichian Orgone Box. It was built directly from a manual, you know, a Reich Foundation Manual on how to build an Orgone Box.
Then I built a "Colleemer Bench", a bench to give yourself enemas. That was built directly from a manual for these people who are really into this digestive health discussion. It was all built pretty much the same: they're built simply but aesthetically, you know, like the kind of thing you could build at home. They have a similar aesthetic, yet each one implies a different interest or ideology on the part of the maker. So, you start to look at them as somehow portraits of a certain kind of person or a person of a certain ideological persuasion or things like that. 
Another one is a "Primalling Box", but it's turned into a speaker cabinet, so it's like the private made public. (.) The function of the "Primalling Box" is to keep, so the neighbours don't hear you screaming, but in this case it's like a speaker cabinet: all your screaming just blows out the front, so it's like primal music or brute music. 
One of them is a "Torture Table" of the kind commonly described in true crime literature, and it is almost always described the same, you know. It is like this simple plywood thing nailed to saw horses.
Another one is a giant "Breadboard". A breadboard is like one of the simplest ways to pass the time: All you need is a board and a saw; you can cut a breadboard, but this one is made to the size of a massage table. And then, it has these kind of paddles and other breadboards that I have collected on the side.
There is another one that is an outdoor construction site "Portable Toilet" and it has been rigged with a sound system so that if you used it it would amplify any noise you made inside. The sound is loud enough that the resonating chamber of the toilet causes it to feedback constantly, so there is this constant energy release and vibration of the toilet.
So, after I made them, I realized that all the structures were about either accumulation or release of energy or fluids, which I thought was an interesting thing, but I had not really thought about that when I made them; like the "Orgone Shed" is about the build-up of a certain kind of life force energy. The "Colleemer Bench" is about the cleansing out of impurities. The primalling thing is about the release of pent-up anxieties. The torture table is about the evisceration or, from the killer's point of view, about the release of some sort of pent-up energy. The toilet is about the release of fluids and then, in this particular case, it is amplified and the whole thing itself becomes an energy module. So, I thought that was interesting that they operated in that way, and then, perhaps, if you see them as ideological models, then you can see the ideologies despite their differences as being equivalent to that in some way on that basic level.

TM: You do not go out of your way to judge these ideologies.

MK: No, I.

TM: They are useful. in their native form.

MK: No, it is not my place. I am not out to do that. I think everybody has their own opinion of these ideologies, and that is their business. I just want to deal with the conventions of them and show how there is these certain metaphoric connections about them at root. That is what the work is about.

(Vienna, November 1992)