Video Mutants: Booby call

Pub date January 23, 2008
SectionMusicSectionSonic Reducer


SONIC REDUCER Who can bring together cast-off crocheted critters and KISS? Early ’70s Ann Arbor, Mich., art noise and the Whitney Biennial? Vampires toiling in cubicles and Sonic Youth’s 1992 album Dirty (DGC)? Mike Kelley, man, can.

Ouch — the allusions get bumpy after almost three hours of mind-altering video candy. The medium may be the favored art material of the moment, but it’s only one weapon at the disposal of the cofounder of Destroy All Monsters — the Stooges’ weirder kissing cousins — and the Dirty cover artist. Kelley’s work can be found in major museum collections around the world, and he’s collaborated on video pieces with artists like Paul McCarthy in the past, but Day Is Done, which screens Jan. 31 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, is his first feature, revamped as a narrative-ish stream from the installation version shown in 2005 at Gagosian Gallery in New York City.

Religious icons, ’80s modern dancers, lousy Nazi rappers, bad comedians, and spacey witches and vampires dance, sing, and hold forth throughout the video musical’s 32 chapters, augmented by a Kelley-written soundtrack that encompasses gospel and techno, light pop and monkish drone. Say I’m lost in pop idolatry, but the most wonderfully bizarre moment in this lengthy bizarre wonder arrives during a painful singles mixer furnished with irksome chair-desks as the differences among the assembled women — two African Americans, a white lost Hee Haw extra, a rocker in full KISS makeup, and a gloomy witch — are highlighted by portraits of their respective all-American idols: Kobe Bryant, R. Kelly, Garth Brooks, Gene Simmons, and Brandon Lee, all painted with clunky, thrift store–style passion. After getting an, erm, tongue lashing from the KISS girl for nattering about the largeness of some big stuffed bananas, the hick chick is forced to defend her painting of Brooks staring at a bare breast (in reality painted by Kelley). "But it ain’t even my tit — it’s my momma’s," the backwoods boob protests as the KISS fan sneers with all of Detroit Rock City’s blood-spitting wrath. "Gosh, I hope Garth don’t go for my momma and not for me!"

The rejoinder "That bitch is nuts!" might be a punch line to a half-cocked sitcom, but it’s also the perfect response to the old biddy dressing down a would-be school pageant Madonna for her posture or the blood-drenched hawker of a putf8um MasterCard that supports the "educational complex" — or any other denizen of Kelley’s jet-black-humored, bleakly antic fun house.

Looking back at the video now, however, Kelley can still picture changes to Day Is Done — each chapter a live-action re-creation of an extracurricular activity photo culled from a high school yearbook. For instance, the many students and office workers dressed as depressed vampires and gleeful witches seem a bit too trendy today, even for a man with a taste for monsters. "If I thought about it more, I would have done something less … au courant, I guess," Kelley drawls over the phone from his Los Angeles home. Does he still glimpse kids in full goth regalia? A heavy sigh, then, "Yeah. Also, it’s kind of gone into the art world. A lot of gothy art is being made."

A self-described "maximalist" who has made noise for years as part of Destroy All Monsters — a forerunner of experimentalists here and abroad — and later on his own, the man once pegged as a major proponent of installation-oriented "clusterfuck aesthetics" is clearly driven to strike out in fresh directions all the time. Day Is Done, for example, emerged from his work with repressed memories and his Educational Complex sculpture, a model of every school the Detroit native ever attended, with, he says, "all the parts I couldn’t remember left blank." The original idea for the video — shot over a few weeks in 2005 at an LA park, Kelley’s studio, and his alma mater, California Institute of the Arts — was to "fill in the blanks with screen memory."

"Also because this show was in New York, I thought doing something with a Broadway overtone would be funny because that’s something cultured New Yorkers are embarrassed about!" Kelley says, laughing.

Kelley is obviously still eager to venture into unexamined office parks of discomfort, provoking his viewers by pushing them into the dead spaces that fill the back lots of corporate break rooms and school yards. The artist’s well-known stuffed-animal works similarly evolved from an unspoken exchange with his audience. "When I first starting using that stuff, I was only working with things that were handmade, and it didn’t matter to me what they were — I was more interested in the idea of love and labor," Kelley explains. "But people were really, really fixated on the dolls, and I realized there’s a great kind of empathy for them, and also I realized that much of that empathy had to do with this kind of rise and fixation on child abuse and that whole victim culture that was coming up in the ’80s."

Shortly after one of those discarded dolls popped up on the cover of Dirty, Kelley, bandmate Cary Loren, SY’s Thurston Moore, and critic Byron Coley put together the 1994 three-CD retrospective Destroy All Monsters: 1974–1976 for Moore’s Ecstatic Peace! label to document the original lineup’s work before the arrival of the Stooges’ Ron Asheton and the MC5’s Michael Davis in the band. The founding group re-formed, while Kelley has continued to work sound components into his artwork and make and release music on his Compound Annex imprint.

Has music video ever been part of Kelley’s Wagnerian compendium of interests? "I’ve never been asked!" he says. "I don’t think I would do one for myself — who would show it? It’ll just be another thing that sits in a box in storage, like all my records." Still, his freshly edited feature might work. "It generated a tremendous amount of music," the artist muses. "In a sense, Day Is Done is one giant music video." *


Jan. 31, 7:30 p.m., $6–<\d>$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF