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Mike Kelley: The Dark Side of the Toy

AN ABANDONED, muddied ragdoll lying outside the school my daughter goes to, was an ironic reminder that I would be seeing some more stuffed toys in the evening, at the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art. And no, not in the shape of Cycladic figurines, but those that artist Mike Kelley had gathered from thrift shops back in the ‘80s/’90s. ‘Mike Kelley: Fortress of Solitude’, curated by Douglas Fogle, runs till February 25, and has filled the Museum of Cycladic Art’s Stathatos Mansion with works that explore certain instances where the American dream turned into a nightmare. Organised and realised by the NEON Organisation, in collaboration with the U.S. Embassy in Athens, it is a good opportunity to get to know the works of one of America’s most intriguing of avant-garde creative spirits, albeit an inauspicious one, who ended his life in 2012, aged 57.
I think Kelley would have been amused with the day that his current exhibition was inaugurated on, filled with tensions of all sorts: it was November 16 – a dark day when the stormy weather was at its worst, and Athens was mourning the victims (at least 15 on that day), killed in a flash flood. Add to this that it was also the day before November 17, when Greece commemorates the student’s takeover in 1973 of the Athens Polytechnic University (prompting the Greek military Junta to send in the tanks). It is also when the supposedly unknown anarchists of the city commemorate this event in their own way (e.g. by vandalising people’s property, spreading panic on the streets, molotov bombs).


Nevertheless, it is at times like this, that you realise that the art world, is a parallel universe: things were very cheerful and civilised at the Museum of Cycladic Art, with art lovers sipping wine and cocktails, whilst perusing Kelley’s soft toys arranged on the ground. Some toys had the privilege to have had their portrait photographed, while others were ‘layed to rest’ in black boxes, with their black-and-white, painted image hung close by, like a tombstone of sorts. Ai Weiwei’s coffins came to mind, that had been exhibited at the Museum of Cycladic Art in 2016 (a reference to the deaths of the thousands of refugees trying to make it across the Aegean). To what extent art really affects reality, despite the fact that it is often engaged with it (especially contemporary art), is a massive debate.


From one point of view, Kelley’s rise to fame had primarily to do with his stuffed toy antics. In a sense, they were similar to what Duchamp did to the urinal: taking an object out of the real world, and placing it in the art world. But Kelley went further: he analysed the whole concept of what a child’s toy is, especially a hand-crafted one (and its darker significance). In fact one could go so far as to say that, after confronting Kelley’s stuffed toy works, you can’t really go back to seeing toys with the same ‘innocent eye’ – they have been stripped of their seemingly innocent personas and nostalgic associations. In an interview with John Miller, which was published in the book ‘Mike Kelley’ ( A.R.T. Press, 1992, but an excerpt of which was also published in BOMB magazine, Kelley describes how he started to use the stuffed animals in his work:
“The first piece I did with stuffed animals, for example, wasn’t even about stuffed animals but was about gifts. That was because the primary discussion in the art world at that time had to do with commodification. There were these Utopian ideas being bandied about, “Well, we can make an art object that can’t be commodified.” What’s that? That’s a gift. If I give you this art-thing, it’s going to escape the evils of capitalism. Well, of course that’s ridiculous, because if you give this thing to junior he owes you something. It might not be money, but he owes you something. The most terrible thing is that he doesn’t know what he owes you because there’s no price on the thing. Basically, gift giving is like indentured slavery or something. There’s no price, so you don’t know how much you owe. The commodity is the emotion.”
Kelley also explains why he uses hand-crafted toys: “Dolls are designed to be projected onto as generically human. Handmade toys have a really strange presence especially when you compare them to the commercially made ones that are standardized. This is why they’re so weird, I think they are unconscious projections of the maker. The makers of the standardized things have gone through and excised anything that looks vaguely personal or idiosyncratic.”
The psychological process of sublimation also gets entangled with the concept of the hand-crafted, stuffed toy – art production having already been associated with this process by Freud et al. Furthermore, Kelley is also interested in how toys are used to project certain gender-specific imagery, plus certain myths, and ‘norms’. They are also symbols of lost youth/innocence, a state that we can never return to.

sonic youth1

One of Kelley’s thrift-store, hand-crafted, stuffed animals also featured on Sonic Youth’s album ‘Dirty’, released in 1992. One could go as far as to say that both Sonic Youth and Kelley share a similar perspective on American culture – one that prefers to delve deep into its grittier, dysfunctional side, way beyond the white picket fence.


The hero Superman is also something that Kelley explored in his work, as evident in the ‘Kandor’ series. One of the works from this series (‘Kandor 5’), is included in the exhibition: a giant glass bell jar inside of which the miniature town of Kandor is kept. (Superman could never go home to his town Kandor, on the planet Krypton, as it had been shrunk by Brainiac).
Up on the 1st floor of the exhibition, you will encounter the ‘Organs Without a Body’ room, where Kelley’s black-and-white acrylic works that focus on the human organs can be found. The emphasis here is on how our organs remind us of our more basic human existence. With his sardonic wit, Kelley uses these organs to poke fun at certain traditional norms of society – such as heterosexuality, or religion (eg. in the work ‘Hierarchical Figure’, 1989, pictured below).


And there’s much more to be explored in this exhibition at the Museum of Cycladic Art, where each room has been named according to which body of Kelley’s work it deals with (e.g. ‘Stuffed Animals’,’You Can’t Go Home’, ‘Displacing Empathy’, the ‘Sublime’).
Kelley committed suicide in his Los Angeles apartment on February 2, 2012, aged 57. Apparently he had been depressed after breaking up with his girlfriend. But it is evident in his work, that he was a sensitive soul, carrying a lot of emotional baggage, from a very young age. I leave you with another of his quotes, where he explains how children’s tv, can scar you for life:


“The most frightening media thing I can remember from my childhood was a children’s TV program about a puppet in one of these little prosceniums who was supposed to be on an endless stairway and falls off into nothingness. You just hear the voice: “Ooooooooo…” For years that has been my ideal. If I could make something that moving, that could have you frightened for the rest of your life, and all it was was a piece of clay that falls off a piece of cardboard… That so much emotion could be invested in this piece of shit—that’s amazing.”
The Museum of Cycladic Art’s Stathatos Mansion is on the cnr of Vassilis Sophias Ave and Irodotou St. The exhibition ‘Mike Kelley: Fortress of Solitude’ is open Mon, Wed, Fri, Sat 10-5, Thurs 10-8, Sun 11-5.


2 thoughts on “Mike Kelley: The Dark Side of the Toy

  1. Pingback: Athens Art Trek: 10 best art museums/galleries to visit this Xmas (and beyond…) | art scene athens

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