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Indepth Arts News:

"Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy: Collaborative Works"
2000-03-17 until 2000-05-28
Power Plant
Toronto, ON, CA Canada

For a number of years, Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy - Los Angeles artists who have independently established their influence on the international art world - have also worked collaboratively. The exhibition at The Power Plant represents the first time their jointly conceived works have been presented in North America.

Since 1987, Kelley and McCarthy have collaborated on three major installations and five videos as well as producing two series of photographs, design of the Sod and Sodie Sock catalogue and a double CD of performances in Tokyo with Japanese noise musician Violent Onsen Geisha. Their collaborations incorporate all the components of their individual works: installation, sculpture, painting, photography, drawing, video and performances. The works draw upon complementary themes from both artists' celebrated careers. But Kelley and McCarthy's installations and videotapes are not just a collaging of individual elements that we can trace back to their separate origins. Aside from the resulting new aesthetic hybrid, their collaborative compromise is more a collusion or conspiracy whose social dimensions cannot be predetermined at the onset; it is far-ranging in its critique.

Both artists are interested in repressive family structures, so it is perhaps no surprise that their first collaboration should take up the theme of the family's dirty secrets. In 1987, when McCarthy asked Kelley to perform in a video, he offered only the instructions I am the father, you are the son. After all, training for society starts in the family and the subjection to authority begins with the relation of son to father. Tellingly entitled Family Tyranny: Modeling and Molding, the videotape opens with the text The father begat the son. The son begat the father. But this is not only a keyhole peek into the household where the reproduction of authority is replayed in family abuse. The video is modeled on a typical 1950s television fix-it, hobby show. In a wood-paneled television set/basement workshop, the father prepares a white concoction made out of processed foodstuffs. Using a makeshift styrofoam ball on a stick as a mock boy's head, he shows how to force the liquid through a funnel down the throat of the child, saying My daddy made me do this. You can do this to your son, too.

The architectural set here is both a hidden site of discipline and a surveillance device. As the latter, the set and the camera become one - a means through which society peers into the family, most effectively through the apparatus of television which instructs individuals as to society's dominant values. What was enacted there by Kelley and McCarthy became a prototype for their subsequent collaborations.

Kelley and McCarthy's collaborative interests extended to society's conditioning - through its institutions and cultural representations - of the individual and repression of his or her sexual instincts. In their installations and videotapes, architecture is used as both a model of these social formations and as a structural framework that incorporates the artists' analyses of contradictory cultural phenomena.

Kelley and McCarthy's first true collaboration, Heidi: Midlife Crisis Trauma Center and Negative Media-Engram Abreaction Release Zone (1992), registers some of these complex contrarieties. Made for exhibition in Vienna, the work is an architectural construction and videotape based on Joanna Spyri's children story Heidi, with its oppositions of city and country, culture and nature. We chose to work with the novel Heidi, Kelley wrote, because it offered many opportunities to work with doublings and polarities which seemed appropriate for a collaborative work.

Like cultural anthropologists, the artists examined the structural dichotomies and ideological underpinnings of a story in which nature stands for health and culture represents sickness. But Kelley and McCarthy exacerbated this opposition by piling on further contrarieties. In one construction, they combined the Alpine chalet and city house of Spyri's story using the architecture of Viennese modernist and author of Ornament and Crime, Adolf Loos, as the model for part of the exterior and the Frankfurt bedroom of Heidi's sick girl counterpart. So, to the contrasts of country/city, nature/culture, health/sickness, they added that of traditional kitsch/modernist art. With the incorporation of Loos and his anti-decoration dogma into this scenario, Kelley and McCarthy's Heidi also becomes more obviously what McCarthy has referred to as a lesson in aesthetics, situating itself, like all of their collaborations, in dialogue with other art movements and works of art.

With an insistence on the role of beauty as correctness (to quote McCarthy again), we are once again in the realm of discipline. Bodies, as well as art, must be subjected to corrective discipline. On the model of the misshapen body of the child, behaviour needs orthopaedic correction. Heidi's Alm Mountain setting, representing nature itself, offers this curative power. One segment of the videotape is titled ornament and education, referring to the fact that the children, Heidi and Peter, are subjected to different forms of instruction and regulation of behaviour (Peter needs more correction as he seems to be the degenerate product of inbreeding); throughout the tape, Loo's admonition of criminal degeneration seems applied to the family unit itself, as if proof that the ornate Alpine chalet might as well have been a disguised hillbilly shack - its decorative exterior hiding unwholesome and lewd behaviour such as beatings, scopophilia, incest and bestiality.

The degeneration of ideals, as they travel from the Alps to Appalachia, is a theme that passes through the installation and the videotape as Heidi traces the vestiges of the Old World in American popular culture, whether it be Disneyland's Matterhorn or Hollywood's Frankenstein. With its reliance on props, as well as its reversals and inversions of roles, the videotape Heidi is itself a hybrid monster. Heidi becomes Americanized in a sort of dysfunctional horror film, McCarthy has said. Through its references to the horror genre, such as to Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the European origins of this ideal childhood innocence are displaced by the nightmare of a dysfunctional American family.

This dialogue between European and America continues in An Architecture Composed of the Paintings of Richard M. Powers and Francis Picabia (1997) and Sodie Sock Comp O.S.O. (1998-2000). The former's labyrinthine installation, built of stretched canvases, derived from Kelley's interest in American science-fiction illustrator Richard Powers and McCarthy's interest in French Dadaist-Modernist painter Francis Picabia. This conjunction of names and images and the degraded or elevated practices they represent - one mass media, the other museum-sanctioned - was a conjecture to be worked out. Picabia's abstractions and girlie paintings and Power's biomorphic, futuristic landscapes destined for book covers have been rendered in billboard scale by an L.A. sign painter. One walks through the corridors of Powers' landscape dioramas to reach the main event of Picabia's soft-core porn palace.

Architecture is not only a test site for cultural diagnostics, but a metaphor for the human body as well. Kelley and McCarthy's send up of military life, the installation Sod and Sodie Sock Comp O.S.O. (1998), joined their myth analysis of the abject comic book anti-hero Sad Sack with a degraded bodily regime regulated by the strict order and hierarchy of the army. The original installation is composed of diverse military materials (American, German, Austrian) to reproduce a military tent compound pitched in a defeated former Nazi country (it was first shown in Vienna) that served as the set for the performance. The performances were recorded and edited into the unfinished videotape shown in The Power Plant exhibition. In this work, American military imperialism is aligned to the victorious formalism of American art critic Clement Greenberg and the modernist art he championed. But what the artists see as the phallic monumentality of the formalist sculptural tradition is brought low in the comic servility of the Sad Sack character. As well, monolithic verticality is opposed to the horizontal disposition of the lowly actions - centred on the body - that take place within the compound. The artists use Wilhelm Reich's and George Bataille's writing on the authoritarian ideology of the family and the mass psychology of facism to unite the themes of their work - the army camp replicates the structure of the family where repression originates.

A couple of stand-alone videotapes, Fresh Acconci (1995) and Out O'Actions (1998), more directly relate to performance history. Fresh Acconci addresses the then-renewed interest in the (nude) body in performance art. Kelley and McCarthy adapted a set of Vito Acconci video performances from the early 1970s and restaged them by substituting a cast of nude Hollywood actors for the artist. In this videotape, the genre of haunted house films is allied with soft-core porn art direction. According to the artists, Fresh Acconci postulates that the body-art of today performs the function of a specialized sub-cultural erotica for the artworld despite its deconstructive pretensions.

Out O'Actions chronicles the artists' commissioned response to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art's exhibition Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object 1949 - 1979. Thinking that the exhibition excluded real-time events by concentrating on performance residue, they devised an artist-run alternative space adjacent to the exhibition and invited other performance artists to exhibit. They documented their navigation through the bureaucracy of the museum and the footage that the artists collected was then edited according to Kurt Kren's film documentation of performance artist Otto Muehl's action Mama und Papa from 1964 and is presented as a double projection.

Kelley and McCarthy's installations allow a complex of issues to be addressed but never necessarily to be resolved. This seems only natural in an enterprise drawn from interests of two distinct artistic personalities. This dialogical relationship informs the structure of the works themselves. The linkage between architecture and the body as mediated through video, the reciprocity between various institutions of culture that nonetheless hierarchically enforce the distinctions between high and low, and the dialogue between Europe and America as carried on in social theory, art practice and popular culture memory are the dominating themes that recur in their works.

- Philip Monk

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