Batman broods, Spiderman frets, but Superman has always seemed as impervious to Weltschmerz as he is to bullets. For Mike Kelley, however, an artist who could find the dark underbelly on a unicorn, there were chasms of gloom visible behind that invulnerable countenance.
In particular there was the city of Kandor, a minor but recurring plot point within the Superman mythology. Kandor was the capital city of Superman’s home planet Krypton, until the intergalactic archvillain, Brainiac, shrunk it down to tabletop size and stole it. When Krypton subsequently exploded, Kandor was left as the sole remnant of its culture. Superman eventually wrested the tiny city from Brainiac’s grasp, but even his super-brain could find no way of returning it to its original size. So he stashed Kandor under a bell jar in his Arctic hideaway, the Fortress of Solitude, where, in Kelley’s words, it remained as “a perpetual reminder of his inability to escape the past, and his alienated relationship to his present world.”
Kelley, who died in 2012, found a rich vein of inspiration in Kandor during the last decade of his life. From the mid-2000s he created dozens of artworks about the shrunken city, a gleaming selection of which can be found at Hauser & Wirth in New York in a surprisingly touching and powerful show. Turn the corner into the darkened gallery and you are immediately met by eight miniature cities sitting on illuminated bases, glowing like precious jewels. “City 15” (2011) looks like it is made of obsidian-encrusted frog spawn, while the tiny orange minarets and glass spires of “City 6” (2007, above) seem as delicate as perfume bottles arranged on a dressing table (all the cities are actually made out of tinted urethane resin). “City 5” (2007-9), by contrast, seems more geological than metropolitan, a collection of throbbing red boulders piled on top of each other, while the spectacular “City 17” (2011) replaces towers with green stalagmites stretching up to the sky. The combined effect is breathtaking, like wandering into a bejewelled cave, their remarkable coloration fully backing up Kelley’s claim that they are “akin to paintings by Henri Matisse in three dimensions, with science-fiction overtones.”
As with Greek myths, Kandor was changed and reshaped by the different writers who wrote the Superman comics, and Kelley used the multiplicity of interpretations to play with ideas of the fallibility of memory and the mutations of nostalgia. In a corridor leading from this room is a series of prints showing different depictions of Kandor. But they have been made as lenticular images—images that change as you view them from different angles—so as you walk past them the city disappears leaving only the comic-book background. The city is lost, the past is forgotten. These are, in both senses of the word, moving images.
Such depth of feeling is not always associated with Kelley’s work. Growing up outside Detroit he became renowned for taking the detritus of suburban living—yearbook photos, costume jewellry, porcelain tchotchkes—and running it through a rabbit hole of degradation to expose the hidden and repressed feelings such prosaic items can carry. He first became famous for buying stuffed animals at garage sales and stitching them into massive blankets to create works such as “More Love Hours Than Can Ever be Repaid and the Wages of Sin” (1987), a funny but disquieting exploration of home and childhood. His work was and remains hugely influential, not least on such British artists as Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst. If you see some polyester detritus plucked out of a basement and given a new and unsettling life in a white cube gallery, it is probably due to Kelley.
But as much as his art can be ugly and profane, the Kandor images are more gentle and melancholic. In “Kandor 4” (2007), a giant bell jar sits in one corner of the gallery attached to a pristine air compressor that looks as if it has been plucked straight off the pages of a comic book. It is a joyous, primary-coloured thing, yet also somewhat sinister. Kandor needed to have Kryptonian air pumped into its bell jar in order to keep its inhabitants alive, but it also brings to mind the circumstances of the artist’s death.
Mike Kelley committed suicide in 2012 by placing a barbecue grill in his bathroom, lighting the charcoal briquettes, and asphyxiating himself. The use of such a quotidian, surburban device for such a gruesome deed made it seem like a very Mike Kelley sort of death, yet looking at the plumes of coloured smoke filling the huge, glass bell jar of “Bottle 4” (2007) it’s hard not to see these Kandor sculptures as holding within them something of a premonition. For Kelley the bell jar that housed Kandor was closely related to that of Sylvia Plath’s novel, “The Bell Jar” (1963), in which Plath likened her main character’s depression to having a bell jar lowered over her head. “To the person in the bell jar,” wrote Plath, “blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.” Kandor is forever cut off from the world just as Kelley himself became increasingly alienated from it. Kandor represents not just the fallibility of memory, and the impossibility of returning home; it also symbolises the terrible isolation that the mind can create for itself.
Fittingly the last room in the show houses the monumental “Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude)” (2011). It shows Superman’s Arctic retreat destroyed and transformed into something akin to a war-torn bunker. But if you creep inside its blackened walls you will find, at its heart, a pink Kandor glowing against the foul darkness that surrounds it. It is a paradox, a beautiful enduring reminder of the temporary, of what was and can never be again. It seems to suggest that for us, as for Superman, there really is no place like home.
Mike Kelley Hauser & Wirth, New York, until October 25th