Mike Kelley

Mike Kelley

Reviews: Books

John Miller:

Mike Kelley

Educational Complex

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Historically, the model has afforded architects the means by which to experiment with and express their ideas in physical form. Operating as an adjunct for the real thing (i.e., a proposed building), the perceived literalness of a model is perhaps its most cunning, yet underexploited, characteristic. For example, architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen refers to the model as a “privileged instrument of negotiation in architecture."1 Although models offer a certain degree of accessibility through physical and material presence, Cohen acknowledges that the purported objectivity of a model is “obviously an illusion."2 That is, as discursive and spatial instruments, architectural models possess a duality of ideation and communication.3
     In 1976, for the Idea as Model exhibition at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York, architect Peter Eisenman invited participants to submit architectural models that were conceptual in nature (meaning, about an idea), rather than the direct (or literal) representation of a building.4 Building upon his interest in the intersection between architecture and Conceptual Art, Eisenman attempted to demonstrate that the model afforded the freedom to explore architectural ideas outside of the discipline’s traditionally objective preoccupations.5 Despite his intent, most of the models entered in the exhibition resorted to architectural convention, with the exception of architecturally trained artist Gordon Matta-Clark’s unwelcome contribution, Window Blow-Out (1976).

Figure 9 (p.40)
The spray painting of Educational Complex, 1995, by Dave Muller.
Photograph by Fredrik Nilsen. 
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     Through this installation cum performance, Matta-Clark rescinded his initial proposal (the cutting up of the institute’s windowless seminar room) and at the last minute opted to shoot out the windows of the institute with an air rifle.6 Although not a “model,” Matta-Clark’s violent act exposed an emergent artistic fascination, and often antagonist relationship, with architecture. Architectural theorist Sylvia Lavin refers to this period in the 1970s, where artists like Matta-Clark and Robert Smithson altered “the relationship between building and architecture,” as “dearchitecturization."7 By engaging in the construction and deconstruction of buildings, as well as the redistribution of their parts, artists recast how art was produced and experienced.
     Since the 1970s, architecture has served as the site and subject through which a radical rethinking of the visual arts has occurred. The plethora of artists who produce sculptures and installations akin to architecture—Michael Asher, Wim Delvoye, Thomas Demand, Dan Graham, Josiah McElheny, Michael C. McMillen, Roxy Paine, Tom Sachs, Rachel Whiteread, Andrea Zittel, and so on—suggests an ongoing fascination with the capacity for buildings to operate as both literal and conceptual vessels for subjective expression.8 But what are the implications of artists working in the guise of architectural production, and more specifically, how might artists expose architects to the conceptual (i.e., discursive) potential of the architectural model?
     For artist Mike Kelley (1954–2012) and his self-proclaimed “bias against architecture,” the architectural model operates as a rhetorical instrument to express subjective ideas through a seemingly objective guise.9 In Educational Complex (1995)—a gridded tabletop model (8’ w x 16’ l x 50” h) composed of scaled representations of all the institutions where he attended school, as well as his childhood home in suburban Detroit, all constructed from memory—Kelley deployed seemingly banal architectural forms not so much as an appraisal of architecture per se, but rather as a vehicle to launch multiple forms of institutional critique. A collection of white generic buildings, encased in Plexiglas and resting on sawhorses, the sculpture also features a mattress placed on the floor beneath a hole cut into its base, suggesting that this is not an architectural model as we know it.

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Figure 10 (p. 41)
A studio view of Mike Kelley with Educational Complex, 1995.
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     John Miller’s Mike Kelley: Educational Complex offers a substantive glimpse into not only the ideas and theories behind this enigmatic work but likewise its making. The beauty of the One Works book series, in which a single author analyzes a single work of contemporary art, is that it allows for a thorough yet concise reading of an otherwise complex and difficult to assess project. Despite the plethora of essays and monographs published about Kelley’s artistic output, this book provides a welcome close reading of one sculpture. Focused on unpacking the creation and reception of Educational Complex, Miller dispenses with obtuse theoretical musings, relying instead on a directness that delivers an informative and at times entertaining read.
     Miller—an artist, musician, writer, and currently a Professor of Professional Practice in Art History at Barnard College in New York, where he has taught since 2000—was also Kelley’s longtime friend, colleague, and collaborator, since the two first met as MFA students at CalArts in 1978. The premise of the book is to explore how and why Educational Complex marks a transformation in Kelley’s work from “carnivalesque inversion[s] of social hierarchy” to “cooler, more detached modes of representation[s]” (p. 94). Specifically, Miller unpacks Kelley’s use of the term “complex” as three distinctly different yet simultaneous conditions: “an architectural configuration, a psychological syndrome or a political apparatus” (p. 18). Miller explains how Kelley “exploits these possibilities to test the institution of art as an ideological horizon, linking them to a dialectic between the sublime and the uncanny” (p. 18). A sculpture masquerading as an architectural model, Educational Complex is described by Miller as “cool and detached” and Kelley’s “most impersonal work” (p. 17).
     According to Miller, “The antagonism between Kelley and his audience, both real and imagined, concerns the dynamics of projection” (p. 16). Although at first glance the sculpture looks like a pristine composition of modern buildings, a closer inspection reveals a network of nonsensical spaces, representative of the artist’s incomplete memory. Rather than an accurate rendition of the buildings in which Kelley was educated and raised, Miller discusses how “the piece is fundamentally incoherent; Kelley asks his viewers to contemplate what is not there, the identifiable parts serve primarily to frame this gaping absence” (p. 18). Educational Complex employed “not only generic forms of architecture, but also the popular fantasies associated with ritual sexual abuse and false memory syndrome” (p. 94). Kelley, who was frustrated by the critical misreading of his earlier works as nostalgic and traumatic, conceived of this “pseudo-biography” to taunt his viewers (p. 16). “On this basis,” Miller writes, “Educational Complex functions as a subterfuge, ostensibly limiting any criticism aimed at it to projection” (p. 17).

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Figure 21 (p. 68)
More Love Hours than Can Ever Be Repaid, 1987, comprised of found handmade stuffed animals, as well as afghans on canvas, with dried corn. Also pictured is The Wages of Sin, 1987, comprised of wax candles on a metal and wood base. Courtesy Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Los Angeles. Photograph by Douglas M. Parker Studio.
Figure 24 (p. 71)
Craft Morphology Flow Chart, 1991, comprised of found handmade stuffed animals arranged on thirty-two tables, sixty black-and-white photographs, and a drawing. As exhibited at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven in 1977. Photograph by Peter Cox.
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     At 124 pages, Mike Kelley: Educational Complex feels more like an art novella, occupying a territory between scholarly journal article and memoir. The book is organized into four parts: the first focuses on the making of Kelley’s Educational Complex, including the context out of which the sculpture was conceived and first exhibited; the second explores Kelley’s relationship to institutional critique, in terms of both art education and the arts; the third interrogates the role of psychoanalytic theory in Kelley’s work—and more specifically Sigmund Freud’s notions of the uncanny—as well as how Educational Complex was inspired by false readings of the artist’s previous works as expressions of (sexual) trauma, or repressed memory syndrome; and the fourth and final section positions Kelley’s work within a larger context of critical theory in the 1990s, including his “dim view of post-structuralism,” and how the artist “looks to the ‘just past’ to map the ideological confines of the present” (p. 107). Woven into the text are three distinct sections of black-and-white and color images: seventeen are of Educational Complex, including documentation of its making in Kelley’s studio (formerly a garage); seventeen are other works by Kelley, produced between 1980 and 2011; and eight works by other artists are included to contextualize Kelley’s practice—a few of these more obviously akin to the architectural nature of Educational Complex.
     The accessibility of Miller’s art historical text, paired with its commitment to unpacking a sculpture that is more or less an enormous complex of ambiguous architectural models, reveals how and why Kelley engages with both the form and content of architecture to address larger artistic and societal preoccupations. Exploiting the communicative possibilities of architectural representation, Miller exposes how Kelley grasped at the mundane and banal dimensions of the built environment as a means to deny viewers and critics the visual delights afforded by his earlier, and often radically misinterpreted, works. In lieu of the plush, colorful, and complex qualities of his previous sculptures (e.g., More Love Hours than Can Ever Be Repaid [1987] and Craft Morphology Flow Chart [1991]), Miller evidences how and why Kelly employs everyday architecture to critique the institutionalization of art—namely, art education and art criticism. Miller writes, “The appearance of these combined buildings, not surprisingly, fails to meet utopian expectations, suggesting instead a labyrinth of bland conventionality—or conventional blandness” (p. 14).  

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     Whereas most art historical texts privilege a formal reading of the completed work, Miller’s approach is refreshing in its capacity to engage on a multiplicity of levels. Clearly organized and written, the book serves as a concise road map to not only Kelley’s Educational Complex but also his artistic oeuvre. Architectural audiences will find particular delight in its insight into the praxis, or making, of an artwork (sculpture)—in particular the negotiation between concept and craft, or idea and ideation. One of the most fascinating inclusions in this book, particularly for architects, is the story of how the models were conceived and constructed. Accompanied by photographs of its making in Kelley’s garage, Miller explains how the architecting of Educational Complex involved employing recent SCI-ARC graduates to assist Kelley with spatializing and materializing this mnemonic complex of “all the schools the artist ever attended plus his childhood home” (p. 13). Although Kelley anticipated that the work would take three and a half months to complete, the complexity of the models and his high craft standards resulted in an eighteen-month turnaround (p. 21). Apparently, Kelley underestimated the complexity of crafting a large architectural model, initially assuming it “would be just ‘a foam-core and hot-glue exercise’” (p. 22). 

Figure 15 (p. 46)
Educational Complex, 1995, photographed in Mike Kelley’s studio.
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Figure 1 (p. 33)
Mike Kelley, Educational Complex, 1995.
On display in Toward a Utopian Arts Complex at Metro Pictures, New York, 1995.
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     Part of the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and currently on view in their new building designed by Renzo Piano, Educational Complex was first exhibited in 1995 at Metro Pictures in New York as the focal point of Kelley’s solo show entitled Toward a Utopian Arts Complex (p. 13). Although Miller draws a thematic connection between the exhibit and Plato’s views on society and education, as well as Kelley’s criticism of Utopias, he overlooks what could be a blatant reference to Le Corbusier’s canonical 1923 text Toward an Architecture (Vers une architecture).10 Even Kelley himself refers to the sculpture as “a kind of modernist architecture,” adding that its apparent orderliness masks its dysfunctionality.11 Yet Miller does acknowledge how Anthony Vidler’s The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (1992) “served as an unexpectedly direct inspiration for Educational Complex,” which resulted in the artist getting in touch with the architectural historian, who in turn ended up writing about the work (p. 24).12
     It is important to keep in mind that Mike Kelley: Educational Complex is written by an artist and art historian, who is not making a point of deliberately addressing an architectural audience. Hence, readers hoping to find an overtly architectural analysis of Kelley’s sculpture may, in fact, be disappointed. Yet the profound value of Miller’s book is not merely how it sheds light on the inception and reception of an important contemporary work, but expressly how it reengages architecture with Conceptual Art. Namely, Mike Kelley: Educational Complex reminds us that the architectural model is both a discursive and spatial instrument, which can be deployed to exploit both its objective and subjective qualities. In Miller’s words, Kelley exposes how “the apprehension of space is an ongoing endeavour, not a final aggregate—even if the apparent fixity of architecture suggests otherwise” (p. 19).

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  1. Jean-Louis Cohen, “Models and the Exhibition of Architecture,” in The Art of Architecture Exhibitions, ed. Kristin Feireiss (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2001), 25.
  2. “Models could claim a certain legibility and objectivity, which are obviously an illusion” (ibid.).
  3. “In the Baroque period, models continued to be both instruments of dialogue between architects, sovereigns and religious orders, and instruments for the development of complex spatial schemes” (ibid.).
  4. In the preface to the Idea as Model exhibition catalog, Eisenman states: “This exhibition had its origins in a long-standing intuition of mine that a model of a building could be something other than a narrative record of a project or a building. It seemed that models, like architectural drawings, could well have an artistic or conceptual existence of their own, one which was relatively independent of the project that they represented.” See Peter Eisenman, “Preface,” in Idea as Model (New York: Rizzoli, 1981), 1.
  5. In a 1970 issue of Design Quarterly devoted to the subject of Conceptual Architecture, Peter Eisenman went so far as to dispense with the architectural object altogether. His essay, “Notes on Conceptual Architecture”—four pages comprised of only footnote numbers suspended in space—suggested that, like Conceptual Art, the architectural idea was more important than its material presence or objecthood. See Peter D. Eisenman, “Notes on Conceptual Architecture: Towards a Definition,” in Design Quarterly, ed. John Margolies (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1970), 1–5.
  6. See Pamela Lee, Object to Be Destroyed (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 115.
  7. “What is most important is that, in the process of dearchitecturization, architecture became an operational model for the combined effects of rethinking the nature of medium and materiality in the arts, the transformation of the passive viewer into an active participant, and the development of an environmental approach to the space of art. Each of these shifts is evident in much of the cultural production of the decade, but architecture was the only discipline that hosted them all.” Sylvia Lavin, ed., Everything Loose Will Land: 1970s Art and Architecture in Los Angeles (West Hollywood, CA, and Nürnberg, Germany: MAK Center and Verlag für modern Kunst Nürnberg, 2013), 27.
  8. For contemporary discussions on the relationship between art and architecture, see Hal Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2011); Isabelle Loring Wallace and Nora Wendl, eds., Contemporary Art about Architecture: A Strange Utility (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013).
  9. “With this project I’m dealing with my bias against architecture, but a couple of projects warmed me up to it.” Mike Kelley, Mike Kelley: Minor Histories: Statements, Conversations, Proposals, ed. John C. Welchman (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 325.
  10. In the introduction to Le Corbusier: Toward an Architecture, Jean-Louis Cohen states how the book’s title has been repeatedly mistranslated as “toward a new architecture.” See Cohen, Le Corbusier: Toward an Architecture, trans. John Goodman (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007), 49.
  11. Mike Kelley, Whitney Museum of American Art, “Audio Guide Stop for Mike Kelley, Educational Complex, 1995,”
  12. http://whitney.org/WatchAndListen?play_id=437 (accessed July 24, 2016).
  13. Antony Vidler, “Deep Space/Repressed Memory: Mike Kelley’s Educational Complex,” in Warped Space: Art, Architecture and Anxiety in Modern Architecture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).
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Mike Kelley - John Miller - MOCA U - MOCAtv

Artist, writer and musician John Miller met Mike Kelley as graduate students at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Miller explains how the concepts of school and education influenced Kelley's work, particularly "Educational Complex" (1995), an architectural model of every school the artist attended.
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