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Mike Kelly

Mike Kelley: Ghost and Spirit

This autumn, Tate Modern will stage the first major UK survey exhibition of American artist Mike Kelley (1954–2012). Kelley’s influential and experimental practice ranged from drawings and collages to videos, performances and multimedia installations to create a kind of “dark pop art”. Drawing upon the media, popular and underground culture, philosophy, literature, and historical material, his radical works question the systems of belief and institutional structures that shape our societal roles. Spanning Kelley’s entire career, the exhibition marks a rare opportunity for new audiences to discover the elaborate, provocative and imaginative worlds he created, which continue to resonate over a decade after his passing.
The exhibition revolves around a script for an unrealised performance by Kelley titled Under a Sheet/Existance Problems [sic] held in the artist’s archive. The script explores the idea of the ghost which disappears whilst the spirit lingers. These ideas point to Kelley's lifelong exploration of absence, ritual and identity, heavily influenced by his Catholic upbringing. Opening with Kelley's early performances created while studying at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), in 1976–8 the exhibition will feature one of his most significant and unnerving works, The Poltergeist 1979. Created as part of a collaborative exhibition with artist David Askevold, this 7-part photographic work depicts Kelley exuding a mysterious ethereal substance from his nostrils, mimicking the look of period spiritualist photography from the early 20th century.

The exhibition will include works from several of Kelley's dynamic early installations, such as the Monkey Island project 1981–5 and the expansive project Half a Man 1987–91, which introduces his work with craft objects. The artist viewed craft as an act of resistance against the dominance of modernist painting and sculpture, which he considered inherently masculine. Instead, Kelley chose to create sculptures using familiar objects such as handmade stuffed toys and crocheted afghans, seeking to capture feelings of the uncanny in the everyday. Worn and often grubby second-hand toys are worked into colourful and playful arrangements such as More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin 1987 and his Ahh...Youth! photographs 1991, best known from the cover of Sonic Youth's album ‘Dirty’. These works, and Kelley’s later use of audio tapes with spoken texts for his Dialogues series, undermine the first impression of innocent children’s toys, evoking thoughts about gender and familial power structures as well as an underlying sense of the sinister.

In the mid-1990s, Kelley continually played on public reaction to his work, exploring the idea of conspiracy theories, the power of the imagination and the role of memory. Works such as Timeless/Authorless 1995 consider the impact of popular forms of psychology, namely Repressed Memory Syndrome, and news reportage. The exhibition will examine how Kelley’s interest in these notions of hidden trauma and conspiracy theories also informed major installations such as Sublevel 1998, based upon the basement of CalArts.

The exhibition will culminate with Kelley’s later installations that continued his unearthing of childhood and repressed desires. They include works from Kelley’s epic multi-part project Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstructions 2000–2011, which involved him restaging photographs of extra-curricular activities featured in high school yearbooks as musical and theatrical video and sculptural installations. Kelley viewed these activities as a means for people to play out fantasies and escape normal life. Six of these installations will be shown alongside the original photographs that inspired them. A major highlight of the exhibition will be Kelley’s major Kandors series 1999–2011. These illuminated models of Superman's mythical lost home, each preserved in a glass bell jar, form a ghostly cityscape that hints at the psychological depths of this iconic American superhero.

Exhibition Opening Times:

  • 3 October 2024 – 9 March 2025
  • Tate Modern, Bankside, SE1 9TG
  • Open daily 10.00–18.00