Mike Kelley’s Superman Complex

Mike Kelley, "City 5" (2007–09) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Mike Kelley, “City 5” (2007–09) (all photos and gifs by the author for Hyperallergic)

Every hero has an origin story. In Superman’s case, legend and comic books have it that he was born on a planet called Krypton, whose capital city was Kandor. After Superman’s parents sent him to Earth, a villain named Brainiac stole Kandor and shrunk it to miniature size, just before Krypton was destroyed. Some time after that, Superman encountered Brainiac on Earth and discovered that he had the shrunken Kandor in his possession. The hero managed to wrest it from the villain’s control and, in an attempt to safeguard the city, placed it in a bell jar inside his Fortress of Solitude. There it sat, an inaccessible home within a home — a place that Superman both longed for and possessed, but could never fully return to.

Mike Kelley, "City 17" (2011) (click to enlarge)
Mike Kelley, “City 17” (2011) (click to enlarge)

This is the original version of the story, anyway. There are others, because from the Silver Age of comics (from whence the Kandor story originates) until now, a parade of authors has shifted and rewritten the narrative, revised the story and wiped the slate to make way for new ones. Among the most fascinating things about mainstream comics and superheroes is the way they constantly regenerate, taking on new forms and tales until they become almost like collages — their many tellings and interpretations layered atop one another under a single name.

This was what most interested artist Mike Kelley about Superman, and more specifically Kandor: the countless versions of it that exist. “The design of the city was never standardized, and the artists who illustrated the stories over the years depicted it in myriad ways,” he wrote. “I was fascinated by the fact that there were many different versions of the same city. It was impossible to reconstruct Kandor.” Naturally, that didn’t stop him from trying, for the last 12 years of his life.

Those attempts took many forms. The earliest was a truly visionary plan, in 1999, to create a website through which he could crowdsource information about Kandor from Superman fans online. The information would be used to construct physical and digital versions of the city, and everyone who participated in the project would be invited to attend the opening of the exhibition, a gathering Kelley termed “Kandor-Con 2000.” Neither the Con nor the website ever materialized because of financial constraints (the work was being made for a show at the Kunstmuseum Bonn, which couldn’t afford either), and so Kelley ended up receiving all his information about Kandor from a German comic book collector and hiring a digital animator and architects to create renderings and models.

Mike Kelley, detail of "Kandor 4"
Mike Kelley, detail of “Kandor 4”

A while later, Kelley returned to the Kandors project but decided to “focus on the formal aspects of the … bottles.” This again led him on a quest — this time nearly impossible but not quite — in which he spent five years enlisting a glass factory in Czechoslovakia and a glass-coating company in Ohio to hand-make the unusually large vessels for him. He then created accompanying bases, videos, and resin sculptures of cities for each one, as well as lenticular lightboxes of the illustrations from which they were drawn. Kelley showed 10 of these at Jablonka Galerie in Berlin in 2007 and went on to make new Kandors and variations upon them in the following years — including, in the final year of his life, a massive installation titled “Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude)” (2011) that features large, craggy rocks and a cave, inside of which sits a glowing purple city inside a jar, as well as gold jewels encrusted in the wall. In the comic books, the Fortress of Solitude is Superman’s private palace/hideaway; in Kelley’s telling, it becomes the site of a ritualistic sadomasochism, played out in his short film “Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #36 (Vice Anglais)” (2011).

Mike Kelley, "Lenticular 8" (2007)
Mike Kelley’s “Lenticular 8” seen from three angles (2007)

More than 20 of the various pieces of these late, realized Kandors are currently on view at Hauser & Wirth’s Chelsea space in New York City. There is a room of colored, crystalline cities, which sit atop pedestals, radiating light and mystery; one complete Kandor set, number 4, whose combined parts feel like a children’s toy set blown up to giant size; a wall of lenticular prints, in which comics illustrations of Kandor and its jar fleetingly appear and disappear with each step; and the fortress and accompanying film, which teeter between seriously creepy and campy. A swirling, swooshing, ominous soundtrack accompanies it all.

The Kandors are, like so much of Kelley’s work, expertly crafted — perhaps to a fault. At the press preview last week, curator Paul Schimmel spoke of the painterliness of these works, how Kelley used the story of Kandor as a means of giving himself freedom to experiment with color, materials, and form. This is evident in the rich reds, blues, greens, and other hues here, the simple yet mysterious forms they’re attached to, the glowing lights and play of shadows. The sculptures and lightboxes are in fact so seductive, I found myself wondering what lay beneath the surface; their beauty seems to eclipse any further meanings.

Mike Kelley, "Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude)" (2011) (click to enlarge)
Mike Kelley, “Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude)” (2011) (click to enlarge)

Schimmel also spoke, in regards to the fortress, of “a kind of epic, spiritual, otherworldly pursuit,” an “architecture of the mind,” a “monumental sculpture of the unconscious.” These are grandiose phrases for a sculpture that, although impressive in execution, again feels a bit too polished for its own good (which could also be a result of the gallery space it’s in). But they do get at what Kelley seemed to be after with his massive, unwieldy creation — the three-dimensional articulation of a mind. Its repressed subconscious takes the form of the puzzling, at times torturous “Extracurricular Activity” film (itself based on a found high school photograph), while the emotional center is the fortress’s cave. Inside, Kelley suggests, we all keep a pristine, timeless version of home; trapped under glass, it’s both our reality and our fantasy.

Inside the cave of Kelley's "Kandor 10 (Exploded Fortress of Solitude)" (2011)
Inside the cave of Kelley’s “Kandor 10 (Exploded Fortress of Solitude)” (2011)
Jewel-covered wall of the cave
Jewel-covered wall of the cave
Detail of the treasure wall
Detail of the treasure wall
Mike Kelley, "Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude)" (2011)
Mike Kelley, “Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude)” (2011)
Mike Kelley, still from "Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #36 (Vice Anglais)" (2011)
Mike Kelley, still from “Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #36 (Vice Anglais)” (2011)
Mike Kelley, detail of "Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude)" (2011)
Mike Kelley, detail of “Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude)” (2011)
Installation view, 'Mike Kelley' at Hasuer & Wirth
Installation view, ‘Mike Kelley’ at Hasuer & Wirth
Mike Kelley, "Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #36 (Vice Anglais)" (2011), lightbox version
This version of Kelley’s “Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #36 (Vice Anglais)” (2011) is a lightbox that juxtaposes the original found photograph with a still from his film.
Wall of lenticular prints
Wall of lenticular prints
Mike Kelley, "Kandor 4" (2007)
Mike Kelley, “Kandor 4” (2007)
Mike Kelley, detail of "Kandor 4" (2007)
Mike Kelley, detail of “Kandor 4” (2007)
Mike Kelley, "City 20" (2011)
Mike Kelley, “City 20” (2011)
MIke Kelley, "City 15" (2011)
MIke Kelley, “City 15” (2011)

Mike Kelley continues at Hauser & Wirth (511 W 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 24.

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