IN 1979, I was headed to New York from Los Angeles, and Mike decided to drive across the country with me to visit friends. On the way, we pulled into New Orleans. It was late at night and all the hotels were booked; the city held so many promises of a “good time.” Mike kept talking about it as a real haven for pleasure. We ended up finding some flop hotel downtown in a sleazy business area, far from the exciting, romantic French Quarter. We were exhausted and sort of delirious.
When we woke up in the morning, projected images of the city sidewalk were moving around the walls of our room. Secretaries and other business types were walking around the walls upside down. Someone had painted out the window with black paint, leaving only a small hole in the middle, and creating a giant pinhole camera in our room. It was like a perfect installation. Inside we were in this dank, depressing, run-down room, and yet the images were crisp and fresh and bustling with optimism. It was one of those moments: You could never properly explain to anyone how magical it felt. Of course, once we went outside, it was a completely mundane place.
From there we continued on to New York. But Mike soon went back to Los Angeles; he didn’t really like New York. I think LA is filled with midwesterners like him. He moved from one car city, Detroit, to another, even though he hated to drive. And the sprawl of LA allows for so much trash to happen: customization, self-expression in the home and in the garden, the salvation armies of forgotten gifts of guilt, Hollywood, the transient circus atmosphere . . . places to bury the work ethic of the Midwest. Mike was a ceaseless worker, but he harbored dreams of pleasure that he was perhaps never able to attain. His house turned into his studio, which he also jokingly called his pleasure palace. I have so many memories of Mike laughing, deep and loud and long; his laugh would make his whole body shake like a tunnel, a conduit. The expressions “laugh yourself silly” and “laugh yourself senseless” would, for Mike, mean “laugh yourself ecstatic,” till you ached and tears streamed down your face.
Mike brought his body into his performances, and when I recently looked back on an article I’d written in these pages in the mid-’80s on Mike, Raymond Pettibon, and Tony Oursler, I saw that I talked about Mike as a performance artist whose drawings and other works were not so much stand-alone pieces as they were props and diagrams for performanceslike instructions, aiming to involve the viewer in an awkward situation:
In a work entitled Buried Treasure, 1983, Kelley illustrates reward and punishment. The piece consists of two drawings in a vertical diptych. The top drawing shows a treasure chest sitting in a hole, while the bottom drawing shows a hole filled with garbage. Around the top of the lower drawing is written (right side up), “Someone else’s waste material”; written upside down along the bottom of the same drawing is the phrase “The reward comes only from strict adherence to directions.” Around the edges of the treasure-chest drawingbeginning across the top and going down the side, along the bottom and up the other sideis a text that begins, “The right hole must be examined carefully to exhume the nugget of satisfaction-treasure. . . . ” You have to twist your head upside down and sideways to follow the meandering text. Having done this you feel a little foolish, reduced to a lower statelike a dog digging a hole, following the scent of reward [“American Prayers,” Artforum , April 1985].
Mike dug a huge hole, but his sculptures, videos, recordings, writings, and drawings fill it in, heaped so high that they stand like a formidable mountain of gifts, rewards, like a monument to getting out from under.
Kim Gordon is an artist and musician based in Northampton, MA.