I went to the Whitney thinking I was going to see Tom Thayer’s performance, but then I looked into the projection room and got sucked into the darkness to watch the end of a video by Mike Kelley.
It was all people and places in downtown Detroit. In between those scenes was footage of a replica of Mike Kelley’s childhood home on the back of a flatbed truck traveling down Michigan Avenue, past strip clubs and motels, with a simple, rock and roll road song playing in the background.
I felt a little the way I felt the first time I saw Mike Kelley’s work at the end of the 1980s. He had assembled some dirty stuffed animals and burnt candles on the floor with a big old quilt hanging on the wall and I thought, “What the fuck is this? It’s sooo good!”
After the video ended, it took the Whitney people a while to set up for the lecture and discussion of Mike Kelley’s work. The art historian had some kind of accent and he talked about Mike Kelley’s work in terms of darkness and light, which seemed so banal and predictable.
But I was happy to hear him talk about institutional critique, because I had never thought of Mike Kelley’s work that way, and I should have.
It was kind of devastating to be sitting there, hearing about the work, with everybody acting so normally, and knowing that Mike Kelley was gone. [End Page 95]
Suicide is weird that way—how it makes everybody who is still alive look like a fool.
On the way back to my apartment, there was a woman sitting next to me at the front of the bus with a cane and a book in her hand. I noticed an old photograph of the Dakota apartment building on the back of her book, but I didn’t think much of it because the woman seemed so disoriented. She kept asking what was the next stop and if this was the East Side or the West Side.
Finally, the bus pulled up in front of the Dakota and the woman with the book hobbled down to the sidewalk and stood smiling at the Dakota as the bus pulled away. Who knows what that story was about, but all I could think was,
Mike Kelley—how could you leave all this? How could you make that film documenting the beauty of all this and not see it? How could you think that film was a failure? (Because that’s what they said at the lecture.) How could you succumb to the darkness when there is so much light? Detroit looks like our Parthenon—a magnificent ruin marking a lost culture. Mike Kelley—how could you?
The truth is that I knew perfectly well how he could do it because I had almost done it myself three decades ago. And now this great artist, who was about the same age as me, had fallen in the banal, predictable, same old, same old battle of
darkness against light.
I wanted to cry, but Mike Kelley would not have cried.
When she introduced the speakers after the video, Elizabeth Sussman, who gave Mike Kelley his first show at the Whitney in 1991 and got Mike Kelley to submit what would be his final work to the 2012 Biennial, said that losing Mike Kelley was the saddest thing she had ever endured.
And she said it with a smile. [End Page 96]
Dell Lemmon has studied acting, mime, performance, and performance studies. She also spent over twenty years involved with contemporary art in various capacities, from studio manager to collector. Her dissertation on Michael Fried’s theories of theatricality in the visual arts won the Monroe Lippman Memorial Prize for Distinguished Doctoral Dissertation and her art criticism has been published in Women and Performance. After writing several memoirs, she fell in love again with the poetic form and her first published poem recently appeared in the Straddler.