Mike Kelley. Categorical Imperative and Morgue - Plug In #13

Plug In #13. Foto Peter Cox

Mike Kelley. Categorical Imperative and Morgue Plug In #13

16/09/2006 - 04/03/2007

‘Categorical Imperative’ and ‘Morgue’ are two projects I produced especially for a two-person exhibition with Franz West, in Brussels, in 1999. The idea behind these two projects was a simple one: to use everything I had in storage that was left over from other projects.

‘Categorical Imperative’ consists of three-dimensional objects, while ‘Morgue’ is made up of two-dimensional images. All of these items were things that I had saved for some reason; they were interesting enough to keep, but had never been appropriate for use in previous works, though some of the images used in the ‘Morgue’ collages were source materials for earlier projects. In most cases these things are not collectibles, they are not things that I acquired because I liked them aesthetically in and of themselves; they were things I picked up specifically to make art out of. These two projects were a way to ‘clean house’ in a sense, not only literally but mentally as well. I was interested in why I had saved all of this stuff (in some cases these are things I have kept for over twenty years) and in why these things had never been ‘right’ for aesthetic usage. I thought this exercise would force me to confront some of my artistic preconceptions.

Relative to these preconceptions, my first idea for the Brussels exhibition was to make a series of discrete sculptures out of these leftovers, somewhat in the manner of previous accumulation works I had made before with craft materials. In those works I paired things based on visual similarities or metonymic relationships. I did not stick with this decision for very long. Once I had sorted all of my raw materials into various rough categories I found that few of them lent themselves to interesting compositional arrangement. The first group i composed, Black and Yellow, was sewn together and had fixed object relationships. This piece struck me as too ‘aesthetic’, especially when compared to the groupings composed of objects that simply did not lend themselves to merger. After this work I no longer sewed, or otherwise attached, objects together. I simply dumped them into piles or, in some cases where the grouping contains clothing or other wearables, I arranged them on manikins. I lost interest in trying to make fixed compositions; I felt that doing so produced objects that looked far too much like traditional Dada-influenced junk sculpture.

One of the effects that I wanted to avoid was the ‘nostalgic’ overtone present in much junk assemblage. This led me to make the sculptures where various objects are arranged on obviously new furniture-like constructions. These works strike me as quite narrative in their effect because of the associative qualities of the furniture’s design. One looks somewhat like a dorm room desk, another like a child’s play station, and a third like a patriotic display or study area. All call to mind some missing protagonist whose psychology is implied via the choice of objects displayed, and their relationship to the design particulars of their furniture-like pedestals. These works also resulted somewhat from the fact that the objects displayed upon them simply did not look good upon the floor. In some cases, as in the case of framed pictures, the objects require a vertical orientation.

I became interested in seeing all of the groupings together in a mass, where they could be compared and contrasted, and I wanted a controlled diversity within that mass. A collection of objects of a variety of sizes, heights, and weights looks more interesting than one low plane of similarly scaled material. So, despite the fact that I had given up trying to make objects that had fixed compositions, I still proceeded to think about the entire project in a formalized manner. Even though the individual groupings within the ‘Categorical Imperative’ project have no fixed placement relative to each other, they were constructed with diversity in mind; there was some consideration of proportional relationships within the project that would exist despite how it was specifically composed in a given architectural space.
This formal consideration is not my dominant interest in this work however. I am more interested in the process of categorization, in the various criteria that I used in organizing the objects into groups. This corresponds to a general trend in my work of the last couple of years, which is a historical focus, or at least a kind of play with the historical roots of my conception of the formal. This ‘historical outlook’ led me to adopt a kind of ‘show and tell’ approach to the work, to add a textual element to it that explains how and why I came to have all of this stuff. Adopting this approach finally freed me from the nagging feeling that I had to produce discrete and finished works. Categorical Imperative', and to a lesser extant ‘Morgue’, simply became archives, and thusly did not require compositional attention. I say that in the case of Morgue this is not quite true because, being collages, they are fixed and cannot be adjusted. Yet, as these collages proceeded I strove, less and less, to compose them artistically until, by the end, I was simply fitting the images together like a mosaic.The categorical concern is more apparent than a compositional one. This is most obvious in the collages where the categories become mixed or unrecognizable. When a category is not easily recognized, I believe the viewer tries to find recourse in the composition of the collage to provide meaning. But, these collages are just not that interesting compositionally, so the ones that are not clearly organized by type look pointless. I made the collages before I started working with the three dimensional objects. They were done very quickly, almost as a kind of warm-up exercise for the ‘Categorical Imperative’ project.

I have tried to not get too caught up in questions of style relative to the textual component of this work. The texts consist of flatfooted recollections related to the various archive elements. I want to present these texts, in spoken form, on a CD that the viewer can listen to as they tour the exhibition. This format of presenting information is common in museums. At the exhibition in Brussels, because this explanatory text was not yet completed, I tried to provide some of this information via a live performance done at the opening event. This performance was done extemporaneously. I talked about some of the categories and various individual objects, accompanied by a local musical group named Fan Club Orchestra, whose music is a kind of raw improvisational electronica. Because of this live interaction I found it impossible to present the material in as uninflected a manner as I had hoped to. It was hard to resist responding vocally to the rhythms of the music and to other sound considerations. The performance became more musical, and theatrical, than I had anticipated. Because of this, the audience probably did not take in very much of what I was talking about.In many ways, relative to my stated intentions, ‘Categorical Imperative’ is a failure, and somewhat intentionally so. Even though I say that the piece has a primarily historical orientation at this point, this is not how I think the general viewer understands it. Even if one listens to all of the textual material that I provide to explicate these things, I do not think that this experience supersedes the strong visual, and formal, impact of the work. Nor do these texts say anything especially interesting about aesthetics. They are simply personal anecdotes and musings. Only the physical presence of the storyteller himself could, possibly, be strong enough to give these piles of junk some semblance of ‘historical’ relevance. My presence would be the historical point of reference that would give all of these disconnected objects some common ground, one rooted in some notion of the psychological, and thus shift the focus away from a formalist reading. But the work, on its own, is not capable of conveying this aura of the psychological. And, I must say, I am not particularly interested in such a read - one so linked to my personal history and psychology. I think, in the end, that the work is more interesting, and humorous, in its pretense to illustrate some kind of grand social aesthetic history, than as an example of the random droppings of an individual. Though, I suppose that this latter understanding of this accumulation of objects as ‘psychological evidence’ could be understood, politically, as supporting the importance of a theory of minor histories as opposed to ‘major History’ - which is an idea that I do subscribe to.    

Mike Kelley

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