This retrospective devoted to one of America’s most influential artists of the late twentieth-early twenty-first centuries offers a new perspective on this major corpus that has always resisted ready categorisation, by featuring some of his most important works, some of which belong to the Pinault Collection (Paris). This exhibition was organised by the Tate Modern (London) in collaboration with the Pinault Collection, K21 — Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (Düsseldorf), and the Moderna Museet (Stockholm). The exhibition will begin at the Bourse de Commerce in Paris in the fall and winter of 2023 before travelling to these other venues.
From his student years on, Mike Kelley (1954-2012) worked in the genre of performance, taking his inspiration from militant feminist practices to put forward an innovative approach to artmaking that overturned the canon. He was a member of various music bands throughout his life, starting in 1974 with the proto-punk band Destroy All Monsters, and he routinely collaborated with other artists. His most famous works include darkly humorous hand-made sculptures and installations made from stuffed animals that highlight the gender and consumer conditioning we undergo at the youngest age. He developed the notions of traumatic memory and a dysfunctional educational system throughout his career, which culminated with the exhibition “Day Is Done” (2005), which has been partially reconstituted at the Bourse de Commerce.
“Ghost and Spirit” presents a sequence of different bodies of work and immersive environments created by the artist, including the spectacular Kandors, futuristic cities under bell jars, which will be featured in the Rotunda. The exhibition will also present the “Minor Histories” of Kelley’s practice, as he called them: drawings, photographs, and preparatory writings that shed light on his thought process. Mike Kelley’s work always fed on subculture references and a tension between the depth of critical thinking he fostered and the apparent superficiality of a pop aesthetic that toyed with notions ranging from seduction to trash. He also never ceased to point to the role of the artist and how this figure appears or disappears.
A true visionary, Mike Kelley would have continued to explore notions that remain so relevant to our contemporary debate: collective and individual memory, gender relations, social classes, and more. Originally from Detroit, Michigan, Kelley was especially interested in how individual subjectivity is shaped by familial and institutional power structures within postmodern, capitalist American society. In the notes to an unrealised performance from the early 1980s, Kelley opined on the difference between a ghost and a spirit, professing that the former ultimately vanishes while the latter endures. He thought he was a ghost, and yet, his spirit continues to exercise its influence, especially on younger generations of artists. It is this very “lingering influence” of Mike Kelley’s spirit that permeates this exhibition.