Mike Kelley

Educational Complex, 1995, marks a breakthrough in Mike Kelley’s career, though not as one might expect. An architectural maquette combining all the schools the artist ever attended, it initiated Kelley’s work on Repressed Memory Syndrome, the pop-psychology notion that critics had grafted onto his earlier exhibitions. But if Educational Complex triggered the body of work presented at Wiels, it also managed to bracket the autobiographical sincerity behind any art-therapeutic revelation. Kelley’s “breakthrough” consisted of rendering his own liberally falsified biography as a foamcore campus, punctuated with the “dark zones” of repressed memories. After the critics mistook Kelley’s formal compositions for psychological afflictions, Kelley willfully misconstrued a psychological syndrome as an aesthetic model, preserving its paradigm while fabricating its traumas. Perhaps that is why, despite the outmodedness of RMS, Kelley’s exhibition “Educational Complex Onwards, 1995-2008” still proves so engaging: Set loose in Kelley’s oeuvre, trauma restores the classical notion of content to the art experience.

The “dark zones” of Educational Complex, occluded sections of the model corresponding to sites of putative abuse, reappear in Repressed Spatial Relationships Rendered as Fluid #1–6, 2006, a set of industrial mobiles. Each mobile dangles blocks of Plexiglas or brushed steel, representing traumatic hot spots like gyms and faculty bathrooms. A speaker appended to one mobile sibilates with white noise, possibly echoing a shower room, that pitiless incubation chamber of high school neuroses. In Kelley’s work, these neuroses come backed by reimagined torments, no less dreadful for being clichés. In the series “Timeless/Authorless,” 1995, grisly tales of abuse are presented as enlarged newspaper clippings, illustrated by yearbook photos. The abuse tales alternate with restaurant reviews of exotic cuisine. Beside the conventional arousals of food writing, abuse testimony comes to seem equally predictable—a mere narrative zone to be stuffed with graphic filler.

On the second floor, Sublevel, 1998, exhumes one zone of Educational Complex by enlarging its model of the CalArts basement (viewed by crawling under Educational Complex and lying on a child-size mattress). This waist-high labyrinth of plywood, whose inner surfaces are encrusted with lambent flesh-pink crystals, presents an eroticized visualization of the basement as both a site of abuse and the symbolic hub of the subconscious. A tunnel snaking under the structure leads to a metal chamber containing a card table and a shelf of obscure objects. This eerie antechamber has the restive quality of an empty stage, and Day is Done, presented on the third floor of Wiels, fleshes out the implicit scene. First presented in 2005, Day is Done is an ongoing project that reconstitutes the traumatic events invoked by Educational Complex, using the yearbook photos of “Timeless/Authorless” as visual cues. During the 365 filmed vignettes destined to compose the twenty-four-hour megawork, a vampire serenades an armchair, goths soliloquize in nature, and Joseph prostrates himself before Mary’s parents. Only four segments of the projected 365 are presented here, but the room still throngs with Kelley’s productions, a Gesamtkunstwerk revelation to Educational Complex’s pop-psychological repression. That said, the violent pageant of Kelley’s videos gets us no closer to the absences denoted by Educational Complex and its satellite projects. If anything, Day is Done mirrors, on one hand, a society “acting out,” and on the other, the artist playacting as liberated spirit—or misbehaving child.

Whatever the affective shortcomings of this mirror, in the context of “Educational Complex Onwards,” Day is Done becomes a carnivalesque coup de grace: The exhibition evolves into a complete aesthetic experience, drawing you in with the lure of access to a hidden imaginary and spitting you out by way of aggressive spectacle. In doing so, it reeducates the viewer about art’s function—being, in this case, neither to reveal nor to heal, but to traumatize. By the end, as with his 1988 installation of the same name, Kelley ensures that you “pay for your pleasure.”

Joanna Fiduccia