Oozing avant-garde, post-industrial gravitas, Hauser & Wirth’s ultra-trendy Los Angeles Arts District location is currently housing Mike Kelley: Kandors 1999 – 2011, an exhaustive survey of internationally-renowned late sculpture and performance artist Mike Kelley’s rarely-seen Kandors. These miniature cityscapes encased in variously-colored glass bell jars offer a truly unique and poignant emotional viewing experience, revealing how it would feel to be a superhuman, omnipotent being gazing upon a civilization below. Exploring themes of memory, loneliness and desperation, Kelley’s titular Kandors are inspired by legendary comic book hero Superman’s home city of Kandor on the planet Krypton.
Born Kal-El, the future Man of Steel was raised in this technologically-advanced, seemingly utopian city. His father rescued the infant Superman from Krypton before it was supposedly destroyed by securing him a seat on spaceship destined for Earth. Martha and Jonathan Kent of Smallville, Kansas, adopted the boy and raised him as Clark Kent. Never being able to go home again, he starts saving lives in the fictional city American city of Metropolis. As not many knew his true identity or where he came from, Superman often retreated to his Fortress of Solitude in Antarctica as this is where he keeps the city in a hyperbaric chamber after the villainous Brainiac shrunk it down. For almost twenty-five years, Superman looked after Kandor and all of its miniaturized citizens in tanks providing Kryptonic atmosphere. He often longed for his birthplace and to be reunited with its residents, but is forever doomed with the fate of disconnection.
Beginning in the late 1990s, Kelley was fascinated by the idea of the rapidly-approaching new millennium. As the internet was in its infancy, he desired to use this near-instantaneous remote connection in an upcoming project. He was then invited to be part of a group show in Germany focusing on emerging media. The artist decided to create a project dedicated to Kandor and update its antiquated imagery for this new age. Titled “Kandor-Con 2000,” Kelley envisioned an interactive convention space and online forum for Superman enthusiasts. However, this idea never came to pass due to lack of funding. The first room of this current exhibition proudly features “Kandor-Con 2000″ signage alongside collages of Kandor drawings ripped from the comic books as well as two real architecture students building models of their own futuristic, idealized buildings.
This introductory space also features “Superman Recites Selections from The Bell Jar and Other Works by Sylvia Plath.” This video installation features an actor playing Superman quoting excerpts from Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar (1963), as well as various other poems of hers. This unusual pairing is fascinating due to the hyper-masculinity of Superman’s personality meeting the hyper-femininity of Plath’s work. Teenages boys often flock to comic books detailing the superhero’s latest adventures, while Plath is often regarded as the patron saint of morose teenage girls. This combination reveals that they might share more common ground than previously imagined, as Plath’s novel centers around the distortion of memory, just like Superman’s desire for a partially-remembered home. Kelley’s hand-blown glass bell jars encasing Kandor may represent these contorted, unreliable recollections.
In the expansive central exhibition space, the eye is greeted with row upon row of these small-scale illuminated cities under bell jars. This exhibition marks the first time this impressive collection of twenty resin miniatures will be displayed in the United States. Aptly labeled “Kandors Full Set” (2005 – 2009), these tinted glass bottles explore the way light hits, reflects, and moves through them.
Due to the inconsistencies in Kandor’s architecture and city planning in the comic books, in addition to the difficulty of depicting two dimensional renderings in three dimensional space, this presentation also includes the 2007 works “Kandor 1,” “Kandor 3,” “Kandor 7,” and “Kandor 17.” These lenticular pieces pay homage to Henri Matisse’s increasingly flat paintings as well as science fiction. These versions of Kandor are again encased in bell jars, but this time are resting on a plinth and supported by fake gas tanks and hoses supplying the needed atmospheric gases in a way that resembles life support. In the background, we also hear soothing, ethereal synth music which Kelley composed himself.
Moving into the East Gallery, we see that Kelley began to experiment with lumps of discarded resin in the last years of his life. He fashioned them into organic-looking rock formations, a large departure from the smooth and polished glass works found earlier in the exhibition. We can see the climax of this style in what is undoubtedly the anchor of this collection, 2011’s “Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude).” Here we see the artist’s sculptural depiction of Superman’s secret hideaway. This foreboding, dimly-lit cave is shrouded in mysterious boulders, faux hoses, chains, and gas tanks. Visitors are able to walk inside the cave where they will discover the glowing red city of Kandor underneath another bell jar. We are able to step into this invincible character’s shoes and empathize with his emotional struggles. The rosy light emanating from this Kandor also reveals the sparkle of golden jewelry and trinkets embedded in the cave’s crevices revealing that Superman’s sanctuary has erupted and begun to shatter, revealing the hidden golden finery. No longer able to keep a lid on his grief, his heart burst with chaos and sadness, leaving hope, joy, and greed in its wake. As one of the last pieces Kelley ever made, it represents a catharsis for the artist, Superman, and the viewer. This darkened hideaway also harkens back to the very beginning of Kelley’s career, as his very first exhibitions included birdhouses he’d built. In a way, this cave is just a larger version of these earlier refuges. Along these same lines, Kelley is also perhaps playing with ideas of perception and emotion based on Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” in which he argued that knowledge is gained through philosophical reasoning, not the senses. He claimed that humans must not settle for an unexplored life. Superman does that here by coming to terms with his impossible longing for home.
We could also take this a step further and argue that Superman’s story arch is an allegory for this kind of emotional truth. His entire life on Earth is based on lies. He must put on this facade of strength as the Man of Steel and cannot reveal his true identity, but he breaks behind closed doors. Kandor could be an allegory for candor—the honesty and simplicity of a lost, but not forgotten childhood.
Mike Kelley: Kandors 1999 – 2011 proves that comic books are not just for children, that they provided allegorical, intellectual, emotional, and philosophical value in an increasingly disconnected modern age.