Mike Kelley & Michael Smith

Sculpture Center, New York, USA

Mike Kelley and Michael Smith, 'A Voyage of Growth and Discovery', 2009, installation view

Mike Kelley and Michael Smith, 'A Voyage of Growth and Discovery', 2009, installation view

An overgrown infant in need of a shave, Baby Ikki is a living cartoon, a wobbling cluster of ill-defined desires. Michael Smith – tricked out in a sagging nappy, knitted bonnet and dark sunglasses – has been portraying the character for decades, in videos and performances. Watching the artist totter around wordlessly, pointing and grasping, never quite satisfied, is both hilarious and rather unsettling; it messes with your usual mechanisms of identification and empathy. For ‘A Voyage of Growth and Discovery’, the baby’s latest outing, Smith teamed up with Mike Kelley, another connoisseur of awkward situations and disorienting effect. Their collaborative video and sculptural installation has the kind of neat premise you could pare down to a Hollywood pitch: ‘Baby Ikki Goes to Burning Man’.

This absurdist project is, among other things, an actual bit of subcultural ethnography, documenting the festival of ‘radical self-expression’ held annually in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. (A festival, it should be noted, that is now a limited-liability corporation, with its own gang of lawyers: the name ‘Burning Man’ was therefore nowhere officially attached to this exhibition.) With a team of filmmakers in tow, Smith shuffled around for days at the psychedelic free-for-all, reportedly staying in character the whole time. He and Kelley then condensed hours of raw footage into a wordless saga of Ikki’s experience – from his journey through Western highways to the incineration of the monumental effigy that gives the event its name.

To hear its Utopian devotees tell it, ‘Burning Man’ is about transcendence and community and creative misbehaviour; for Kelley and Smith, it is clearly about regression. Towering over the darkened exhibition space, a nine-metre sculpture of Baby Ikki himself, welded together from rusted junk, stood in for the real festival’s neon-bedecked Man. Six video screens were paired with an equal number of metal-frame constructions, simplified versions of the temporary structures that house the fantastic environments in Black Rock. One resembled a rocket ship; another was a geodesic dome. They housed plush toys and ratty blankets. Kelley has mined this territory before, of course, evoking the pathetic with craft materials and faux-folk art. In this context, these constructions were primarily stage-dressing, an attempt to create a more immersive experience.

Mike Kelley and Michael Smith, A Voyage of Growth and Discovery, 2009, production still

Mike Kelley and Michael Smith, 'A Voyage of Growth and Discovery', 2009, production still

The heart of the project was the video itself: a slickly produced narrative that unfolded on the multiple screens. We begin with Baby Ikki en route to the festival, in a well-equipped camper van, experiencing a series of ambiguous solitary reveries. He experiments with fire; he makes a meal (a scatological mush of chocolate snack cakes and Atomic Fireball sweets); he explores a vacant truck stop. Intruding on the baby’s strange isolation is a stream of apposite film clips, playing constantly on the camper’s television, as though broadcast directly from some freaky corner of the cultural unconscious. A clip from an old Popeye cartoon has baby Swee’Pea scooting unharmed around menacing industrial machines. There’s a bit of the creepy, neo-pagan maypole dance from The Wicker Man (1973) as well as a brief scene from The Baby – a bizarre 1973 exploitation film about a brutally infantilized adult.

At the festival, though surrounded by thousands of revellers, Baby Ikki remains mostly solitary. A mute, middle-aged man in a nappy doesn’t attract too much attention at Burning Man, apparently. The video tracks his wanderings, through barren desert and bustling carnival, as a string of sight-gag encounters. An infant in a world of infantilization, he goes with the flow, toddling after a giant bunny, watching with perplexed longing as flames erupt from phallic jets. Decadence is played as camp: in an extended sequence, Baby Ikki falls prey to a trio of tattooed hipster pole dancers, who writhe lasciviously around him. This ‘seduction of the innocent’ moment is shot and scored like the ‘bad trip’ scene from countless 1960s psychedelic B-movies, complete with wah-wah guitar.

After all his adventures, Baby Ikki wakes up alone, curled in a blanket on the desert floor. If there has been any growth or discovery in this journey, it is unknowable. That’s no surprise – obviously the title of the piece is meant as a derisive lampoon of feel-good New Age culture. But the target of the satire here is likely larger than a group of latter-day hippies and their desert revels. What is at issue is a culture of permitted transgression, an attachment to empty spectacle, an absurd worship of youth and a sentimental, self-congratulatory valorization of ‘participation’. Sound familiar? It seems not too much of a stretch to surmise that, for Kelley and Smith, the festival at Black Rock is a kind of alternative biennial, with all the absurd fashions and preoccupations of the art world on display in easily mockable form. Following Baby Ikki, we are shown ‘relational aesthetics’ through the eyes of a figure who cannot relate.

Steven Stern is a writer living in New York.

Issue 128

First published in Issue 128

Jan – Feb 2010

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