With more than thirty years of work, ranging from soiled stuffed animals to elaborate, messy performances and sprawling installations, Mike Kelley's practice has been both adventurous and perverse. Particular themes—including repressed and recovered memory, notions of the sublime, religion, education, and sexuality—are consistently recycled to radically different ends. From the late 1970s into the 1980s, much of his work consisted of complicated, chaotic live performances that referred to various philosophical and sociological sources; along with his drawings and "craft" sculptures of the time, these consistently employed the scatological to both inquisitive and darkly humorous ends. By the mid-1990s, Kelley had begun an ongoing analysis of institutionalized education systems, based on his interest in "repressed memory syndrome," a psychological term used most commonly—and controversially—in connection with the recovery of repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse; at the same time, he began to explore more stylized and polished modes of production.
The mysterious synthetic forms in his latest series, Kandors, 2007, represent the latest and perhaps most sophisticated manifestation of the artist's increasing departure from his messy, anarchic origins. Kandors consists of sculptures, lightboxes, and video projections—including Kandor 20, 2007—relating to the fictional city of Kandor, the capitol of Superman's home planet Krypton. Currently (2008) Kandor 20 joins six other works from this series in a visually spectacular installation in CMA's Hall of Sculpture as part of Life on Mars, the 2008 Carnegie International. The artist first began using Kandor as source material in Kandor-Con 2000, featured in an exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Bonn in 2000. Kelley's particular interest in the fictive city emerged from his observation of a lack of continuity in its depiction in Superman comics. In Superman mythos, the villain Brainiac steals and shrinks Kandor into a bottle, which Superman then recovers. For this series, Kelley has re-envisioned and abstracted this narrative with painted glass "bottles" (hand blown at the Kavalier Glass factory in Sazava in the Czech Republic) and resin cities bathed in the glow of luminescent lights. Plinths and minimalist architectural elements are connected to the bottles via respiratory tubing, evoking the tubes used to pump air to the city's inhabitants. Each Kandor also has video projection of a swirling tornado of movement within a bottle accompanied by an ambient soundtrack (synthesized and new-age music composed by the artist as well as "emotive" sounds). Kandor 20 consists of four elements: an uncovered city, a pink bottle, a large Plexiglas sculpture connected to the bottle by a tube, and a video projection. In this minimalist disco meets alchemist's laboratory, Kelley generates both a visual spectacle and a powerful metaphor for the inconsistency of memory, truth, and perception of the world around us.
[Adapted from acquisition narrative]