What Makes the Worm Growl 

Mike Kelley's health plan

Wednesday, Jan 20 1999
Photo by Anne Fishbein
"On this side, it's this manifesto, and then on the other side, these are all quotes from international newspapers for the stalker who was obsessed with Steven Spielberg, who had these rape fantasies about him. Just a kind of reiteration. Rewrites of the story. And then this is this article from the London Sunday Telegraph talking about the new California paparazzi laws."

Mike Kelley's in his living room, showing me the poster for his upcoming exhibit of celebrity-sexual-surrogate artwork made out of pillows and movie posters and sound and a tent and attendees. And other stuff. Part of the manifesto:


I propose that these ritualized public figures be required by law to put in time at government-sponsored sex clinics, where they will be accessible to all . . . . Once everyone finds within their grasp the means to pleasure on a daily basis, a ritualized arena of spectacular fantasy figures will serve no cultural purpose. People will construct their own desire free from the effect of any prefabricated standard. Within a generation, sexual repression will cease to be a major factor as a cause for mental and physical illness. . . .

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"It's somewhat tongue-in-cheek, because what I'm offering at the show is obviously a super-coarse substitute for the media figure. It's reducing sexuality to simple tactility, so that they're just like pillows."

"Sort of pillows to --?"

"Yeah. Sort of like when you're in your bed and you're holding your pillow as a surrogate for your fantasies. And each one is aligned with a movie poster, so the pillows are personified as the figures from the posters. And then there's little sound bites taken from the films, and they're looped. So you'll hear, say, the grunting of Dolph Lundgren paired with the heavy breathing of Jean-Claude Van Damme."

Initially, Kelley was hesitant to show this work in L.A., where people might rush to judge its surface. "I was thinking people would go, 'Aw, fuck. He's blathering about Hollywood' or something. But it's like -- 'Well, so what? I'm gonna do it.' That's why I did a poster, so that I could frame it in some way. So I decided to do this poster that would be sent out with the invitation -- which is kind of extravagant -- and then frame it within local politics specifically -- like the paparazzi law -- and then expand that into some more-national politics, like health care, and how all these things are intertwined. That way people don't go in and say, 'Oh -- it's some asshole being a parasite off the movie industry,' which is what movie-industry people tend to think about everyone else in L.A."

Over the past few decades, Kelley has developed into one of civilization's finest semiotic technicians, if not shamans. And he has aged well -- aged in ways I hope we'd all hope to age: in terms not of liver spots and gravity but of the depth, efficiency and grace of thinking. Kelley's work tends to, among other things, expose public language as an ever-present proprietary construct the ritualized misinterpretations of which have brought on shitloads of cultural havoc. And we usually get a little taste of the havoc.

"In most cases," he says, "I think people are visually unconscious. In school, we learn to read and write, but they don't have classes in Looking At Things. So when we look at TV or films or magazines or paintings, there's no sense of understanding that as a created world. People see the visual world as a natural world, unlike the world of language. And so our approach toward that world is one of unease when it breaks its sense of naturalism."

For example, celebrity-sexual-surrogates made out of pillows and movie posters and so on.

"I did these pieces because I was at the video store and got a box of free film posters. And they'd been sitting around for a long time, so I decided to rent every movie that I have a poster for. I rented all these movies, and I pulled out the little sections of sound that interested me and sampled and looped them. And that led me to the sculptural thing. I said, 'Well, I just want a comfortable thing to listen to the sounds with.' Like a pillow. So you can lie in your bed and hug your pillow while you're listening to the sound. So the aesthetics of a lot of the pieces are, in a lot of cases, playing off the posters. In some cases not."

A few of the pieces were exhibited last year in group shows, in L.A. and around Europe. In those exhibits, all the sound clips played constantly and simultaneously, making for pretty rough sonic borders. "You just hear this roar," says Kelley, "which kind of takes the pleasure away. So I'm thinking maybe they should be played one at a time. Then the problem is, What do you do with them when the sound isn't there? Do you leave them and look at them? I was thinking maybe I should cover them with a sheet or something -- like they've gone to sleep; like they're birds. And then take the sheet off when it's time to sing, or whatever they do."

Cogitating on sheets draped birdcagedly over silent, fluffable celebrities, I ask, for some reason, "Are there any canopies in this?"

"No canopies. But there is a tent you can go inside."

"A camping tent, or a Moroccan tent?"

"A little half-dome, two-person camping tent. Except I've made the inside look sort of like a Moroccan tent. So it's all red, with red pillows, and it's got a brass kind of Middle Eastern lamp in the middle, so it's very lush and sensuous. Outside it looks kind of like a stylized igloo. And it has a little head on top. The head is this dental-hygiene character named Timmy the Tooth. And he just talks about 'the hole' all the time, talking about a cavity. He goes, 'Look at the size of that hole! Look at that hole! Look at the size of that hole!' And there's a hole, and you can go inside the tent. Inside the tent is the mouth cut from the worm from Tremors, which is this horror film about man-eating worms that are under the ground. And they have these kind of vagina-dentata mouths. So you're inside this kind of red, lush cavity, kind of lounging, but then there's this Tremors vagina-dentata mouth, and it just growls at you. It makes the worm growl like 'wWRROWWRrrwwRRROWWRR!!!' and then someone's screaming like 'WAHH! WAHH! WAHH! THEY'RE GONNA EAT ME!'

"So that one is the most luxurious of them."

Possibly under the influence of Kelley's worm impersonation, I let rip with a bitch-and-whine about the film industry for a while, which leads us to faux-compete for The Worst Job I Ever Had. My choking-from-behind-a-faulty-gas-mask-while-lugging-15-gallon-vats-of-E-6-chemicals-for-six-bucks-an-hour almost wins . . .

"When I first got out of school," says Kelley, "I had a job working at the Tippi Hedren Lion Ranch, out in the desert. She and her husband, who was a big producer, were making this big film called Roar. A family animal movie. They turned this whole section of the desert into something that looked like a savannah, with their own private lion . . . brood, or whatever.

"The seasons had changed and the trees had turned green, so they gave me this sprayer and told me to go out and spray the trees yellow, to match the fall color or whatever. And I said, 'Well . . . there's lions roaming in there.' They said, 'You can see when the lions are coming. You can get away.' I said, 'No, lions run fast. You have to take the lions out and put them in the pen before I can paint the trees.' And they fired me! 'Go out there and get mauled by the lions! Get eaten by the lions!' For $6.50 an hour."



Mike Kelley's new work can be seen at Patrick Painter Inc., in Santa Monica, beginning January 23. See Calendar listings for details.

  • Mike Kelley's health plan

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