I've never been to Burning Man. The annual pyrotechno countercultural powwow held in the desert north of Reno — a multigenerational touchstone for the post-'60s consciousness-expansion crowd — has always seemed suspiciously contrived to me. If not as one of those Nineteen-Eighty-Four antique-shop faux–Temporary Autonomous Zones designed by The Man to lure you in for fingerprinting and Goodness-knows-what other indignities (you know the drill — Where's my free motor boat? Right through that sparkly mushroom-shaped door — in Room 101), then at least as some hollow, narcissistic reenactment of Kesey's Acid Tests way after the barn door has been closed, the barn burned down and the ground seeded with salt.
Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against Ecstasy-'n'-ketamine-fueled hedonistic theater experiments in the wilderness, but I'm personally more from the Unabomber end of the Co-Evolutionary spectrum. I have been to the Rainbow Gathering. I have eaten of the day-old lukewarm lentils from the dingy Styrofoam cooler, and I have pooped in trench. This is my vision of the future. With its spectacular pyrotechnic Survival Research Laboratories spin-off industrialism, chip-driven LED lightshows and $300 gate fee, BM just seems a little naively optimistic.
Mike Kelley has never been to Burning Man either. But A Voyage of Growth and Discovery — his first new L.A. solo exhibition since 2002, created in collaboration with East Coast video/performance artist Mike Smith (aka Baby Ikki) — is largely an investigation (or homage or critique depending on where you stand) of the crypto-bohemian cyber-rave. Occupying a cavernous warehouse space in Eagle Rock — normally Kelley's art studio — Voyage is an immersive multimedia installation that includes six carefully synchronized video screens; a densely layered sound track of field recordings, appropriated sound, and a dizzy techno score composed and recorded by Kelley with frequent collaborator Scott Benzel; and eight or nine (depending on whether you count the row of locked Porta Potties) sculptural stations.
The sculptures are the most Kelleyesque element — most of them resemble (and may, in fact, be) the kind of skeletal geometrical playground structures assembled from modular industrial materials that proliferated across the American landscape in the 1970s, a trickle-down aesthetic from the utopian hippie architectonics of Buckminster Fuller, et al. These minimalist spatial determinants articulate the expansive void of Kelley's darkened workspace with elegance and economy, simultaneously referencing the artist's own work (DIY orgone accumulators, models of schools based on recovered memories, etc.) and the often-architectural artworks of Burning Man itself.
Further Kelleyisms are incorporated in the form of discarded clothing items, kitschy dolphin-themed quilts, a “You want it when?!” sleeping bag, and the artist's signature appropriated medium-used stuffed toy animals. Lining the base of a geodesic dome, strung kundalini-style up the spine of a rocketship, or covering a tatty easy-chair in a sinister, Kienholzian mini-installation in the back of a burned-out van, these markers of comfort and domestic stability are the first sign of a recurring theme: the inadequacy of culture to address baby's real needs.
The gap between the actual psychological and sexual identities of children and the adult cultural narratives onto which they are routinely displaced has been a leitmotif in Kelley's work since forever. So the deployment of Smith's decades-old Baby Ikki alter ego — a nuanced performance-art riff on the Adult Baby fetish subculture — into the posterotic narcissistic extravaganza of 2008's Burning Man is an inspired bit of casting.
The paraphilial infantalism of a swarthy 57-year-old man in a diaper and frilly bonnet, sucking on a pacifier, is — in the context of your average contemporary art space — an alternately disturbing, hilarious, and liberating spectacle. From the two-and-a-half hours of footage deployed across the six suspended video screens, it's clear that the presence of a film crew was more noteworthy at Burning Man. Smith bumbles around the playa in a state of suspended maturity that renders him all but invisible as he dangles from such monumental BM artworks as Bryan Tedrick's Spread Eagle or Charlie Smith and Jaime Ladet's Fleeble Flobbler, receives a spanking at The Legendary Whiskey and Whores Saloon, or trips out while repeatedly opening and closing the doors of a row of blue Porta Potties.
As an exercise in simultaneous individual/collective figure/ground regression, the video documentation is interesting enough on its own. But it is the reinsertion of this material into a contemporary art-world context — first at the SculptureCenter in Long Island last fall, and now in Kelley's temporary Kunsthalle (both under the aegis of Emi Fontana's newly nonprofit West of Rome) — that makes it a compelling and deeply challenging experience. Not only is Baby Ikki's contextual ickiness reignited, but the similarities and differences between the neo-psychedelic utopianism of Burning Man and the original late-psychedelic culture that permeates Kelley's oeuvre are brought into sharp relief, while their consonances and dissonances are amplified and exaggerated by the profoundly incompatible emptiness of the 21st-century art world.
Those who attended the overcrowded reception might have gotten the impression that they were participating in some kind of analogous, ravelike festivity, but on a regular viewing day — with a handful of lookie-loos drifting in and out — the discontinuity between the activities depicted onscreen and the sterile and ominous environment in which they are displayed provokes an almost schizophrenic sense of alienation. This split is reflected in the exhibit's structure. Previous Kelley collaborative video installations — I'm thinking particularly of his immersive revisitings of art-school bands Destroy All Monsters and The Poetics — have been remarkable for their integration of multichannel video and sound with architectural/sculptural elements, translating the improvisational exuberance of the source material into a three-dimensional walk-through environment.
In contrast, the video component of Voyage is almost hermetically segregated from its sculptural elements, each discrete projection hovering independent of one another and their ostensible host structures, almost as if they were haunting the ruins of a deserted playground — that one in Sarah Connor's recurring dream in Terminator maybe, or the one in Children of Men. The most prominent sculpture in the room is a towering rendition of Baby Ikki cobbled together from rusty tractor parts — a patently postapocalyptic cargo cult message from an almost forgotten world. If the first leg of the Voyage was to insert Baby Ikki into an environment that defines itself as a free zone for “radical self-expression,” the second was to attempt to import the results of that experiment into the cultural crucible in which it was conceived. And they never quite made it.
The results are not necessarily as discouraging as they seem. For one thing, this failure in translation has paradoxically translated into powerful art experience on its own. And Kelley and Smith's appropriation of Burning Man culture — a distinct art world that posits itself as a vital successor to a failed elitist modernism — loses the taint of classism and exploitation that would have marred a more successful pastiche, ending up as a qualified validation of BM's creative legitimacy.
We'll see what a further level of paradigmatic inversion will do, when Voyage becomes the setting for a neo-psychedelic fund-raiser for future West of Rome projects: on July 26, the reformed YaHoWha13 band — the house orchestra of Father Yod's L.A.-based 1960's Source Family “cult” (as opposed to an “art world” or “neotribal apocalyptic hoedown”) will anchor a phantasmagorical multimedia event that will seek to bring Baby Ikki's round-trip to completion, and provide participants with a life-altering once-in-a-lifetime experience, allegedly including optional powdering stations and Ayahuasca-flavored pacifiers. At this point naive optimism may be our only way out.
MIKE KELLEY AND MICHAEL SMITH: “A Voyage of Growth and Discovery” | Through August 26 | Kunsthalle Kunsthalle, the Farley Building, 1669 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock