An Autopsy of the Morgue

On Zwischenlandschaften III

by Laurens Otto

June 2020

 

 

Nabuurs and Van Doorn have extensively explored the legacy of the artworks that Mike Kelley and Franz West presented in Brussels at the very end of the 20th century. This journey has taken them from Brussels to Detroit and Vienna, the respective birthplaces of Kelley and West. Eindhoven also plays an important role in this history, as the Van Abbemuseum has acquired Kelley’s work from that exhibition. Among the many projects that resulted from this research, is the twenty-eight-minute video Zwischenlandschaften III (2018), a magical realist account from their quest.

 

The video starts with a shot of the Hôtel Empain (now Villa Empain) in Brussels, the place that exhibited the work of Mike Kelley and Franz West at the turn of the millennium. The premise of that exhibition was to bring two artists together who were still vested in modernism. Kelley and West were perhaps twisting constructs of meaning, but were not fully rejecting it in the more cynical postmodernist sense. Zwischenlandschaften III quotes the curators of that exhibition wanting to investigate “What ties they still maintain with modernity?”[1] Kelley characterizes his work as both postmodern and rooted in the avant-garde, where West distances himself more clearly from postmodernism by framing it as ‘Pop Art’.[2] Following Hal Foster in his division between a progressive (‘resistant’) and a reactionary postmodernism, we can indicate their postmodern impulse as one that seeks to deconstruct modernism without reifying the status quo. Both the work of Kelley and West can be described as a “critical deconstruction of tradition, not an instrumental pastiche of pop- or pseudo- historical forms, with a critique of origins, not a return to them.”[3]

Zwischenlandschaften III continues by juxtaposing images from a Viennese forest with shots of Mike Kelley’s public work Mobile Homestead, as it is now installed in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Mobile Homestead is a full-scale replica of the Detroit home where Kelley was raised, which their video refers to as ‘Mothership 2.0’. In 2010, five years after Kelley completed the copy of the ranch-style home, Kelley started documenting his travels with that house on a trailer along Michigan Avenue in Detroit. Just as Kelley would record the minor histories that emerged on the road wile interviewing residents and business owners, Nabuurs and Van Doorn narrate the presumed details in their investigation into the intertwinement of Kelley’s and West’s work.

 

At Villa Empain, Mike Kelley presented all the leftovers he had kept from other projects — he emptied out his studio as a sort of garage sale. This resulted in three-dimensional objects called Categorical Imperative and thetwo-dimensional Morgue series. Morgue is a series of collages of paper clippings from magazines, newspapers and historical prints. They are assembled per group, either by type or color, in categories such as "Nazis Mostly", "Manly Men", "Animals", and "Art". Both projects were subsequently acquired by the Van Abbemuseum. Zwischenlandschaften III discloses that the two quests on which Nabuurs and Van Doorn embarked are both related to this Morgue series. They aim to see how Kelley’s Morgue collage series is tied with Kelley’s work around Mobile Homestead in Detroit, as both works exemplify the foregrounding of an oftentimes dark social consciousness. Their second aim is to discover the one collage from the Morgue series that is not included in the Van Abbemuseum’s collection. As the voiceover states, this pursuit “aims to understand modernity in its complexity, in an effort of preservation.”

By interviewing the curators of that exhibition on the missing piece of the Morgue series, their research directs them to Vienna, where Franz West lived, and all involved had met while preparing the Kelley/West exhibition in Brussels. The missing work of Mike Kelley is retraced to West’s estate, as it hung for decades in his kitchen before it became part of Franz West’s Extroversion installation presented at the 2011 Venice Biennial. During this quest for that lost work, Nabuurs and Van Doorn staged what they call ‘minimal interventions’ — the projection of snippets of sentences from prior email correspondence on works and environments related to Franz West. In recounting these moments, the register of Zwischenlandschaften III shifts to a more magical tone, while the voice-over remains unmoved. For, instance, the minimal intervention on Franz West’s work 4 Larvae (Lemur Heads) as installed at the Stubenbrücke in Vienna, leads to a reflection on the presence of the spirits of the lemures. In Roman mythology, lemures are vengeful spirits of those who have not been properly buried, and who continue to torment the living. Along this register of the supernatural, Zwischenlandschaften III does not name Franz West, but dubs him alternatively the Lord of Chaos and Mephestophiles. If West is Mephestophiles, the demon worker of the devil, is Kelley then the devil himself, who they name ‘The Peverse Master’?

Back to Detroit, Zwischenlandschaften III follows Kelley’s film Going West on Michigan Avenue from Downtown Detroit to Westland (2010-11). In a fast-paced montage of these minor histories, Kelley gave voice to the unrepresented, mostly immigrant workers trying to continue their business in a decaying Detroit. By plotting these moments on a map of greater Detroit, Nabuurs and Van Doorn match the forty different Morgue collages with the minor histories recounted on Michigan Avenue. Recounting these moments, Zwischenlandschaften III itself stops providing a grand narrative of their quest and becomes more and more entrenched with the minor details of Michigan Avenue.

Zwischenlandschaften III is part of Nabuurs and Van Doorn’s methodology to read the symphony of histories written in the specificity of certain sites. Their in-depth and on-site research into the exhibition Mike Kelley/Franz West, led to this video work, but also a performance, an installation, photographs, and a roundtable discussion that reflected on the implications of that exhibition. The research primarily resulted in the transposition of Mike Kelley’s Morgue series onto different locations featured in his Mobile Homestead videos. But in a broader sense, their methodology has led to almost endless other transpositions. Each encounter with the heritage of Kelley and West echoes again and again in different iterations. For instance, an intervention made during their research into Franz West is rendered both as an autonomous photograph, and as an account in the video Zwischenlandschaften III. In 2018, more than eighteen years after the initial Kelley/West exhibition, all these elements, video, performance, photographs and roundtable discussion became part of a one-day exhibition that had Nabuurs and Van Doorn reinterpret West’s and Kelley’s conflicting worlds in the same Villa Empain. Different performers were invited to interpret cartographic elements gleaned from Michigan Avenue. A roundtable discussion with curators Anne Pontégnie and Catherine Bastide and staff from the Van Abbemuseum was organized to reflect on the initial exhibition and its resonance in the present. The recordings of that discussion have more recently morphed into the creation of a libretto.

 

As the original exhibition of Kelley and West at Villa Empain asked what bond they still maintain with modernism, Zwischenlandschaften III begs the question what position to take regarding the reception of late-modernism and history writing as such. Kelley and West remained invested in modernism to distance themselves from what they sketched as postmodern meaningless or affirmative ‘Pop Art’. But precisely this investment, their will to contextualize and deconstruct modernism, is a profoundly postmodern effort. Nabuurs and Van Doorn’s feat lies in thoroughly investigating the histories set in motion by the artworks of Kelley and West, while doing justice to that same impulse. Focusing on minor histories, it is postmodernism – not modernism – on which they perform a meticulous autopsy. As Nabuurs and Van Doorn unearth Kelley’s ‘minor histories’ and the dark social consciousness contained in them, these are not reshuffled to form a new grand narrative — what history writing normally would do — instead the original intensity of these accounts is maintained. Zwischenlandschaften III provides equal attention to both the titillating discoveries propelled by their research into Mike Kelley’s work and the most banal instances they encounter on the way. The video gradually acquires a magical realist quality, as the impassive voice-over provides more and more details to their investigation. Instances such as going through customs or a man demanding a paper cup in a burger joint, become enchanted as they are told with the same diligence as the rest of the story. When everything matters, everything becomes out of ordinary. This method leads to an endless catalyzing thrust, one that continuously spirals outwards from the artworks they investigate. By avoiding modern tools to analyze postmodern tropes, Nabuurs and Van Doorn perpetuate the spirit of the work of Mike Kelley and Franz West.

 

 

[1] Words by Anne Pontégnie. The other curator was Catherine Bastide.

[2] See: Mike Kelley/Franz West (no page numbers) (Vienna: Verlag Pakesch & Schlebrügge) 2002

[3] Hal Foster, Postmodernism : A Preface. In : The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Art and Culture. 1983: Bay Press, Port Townend. P. xii