Category Archives: Britannia Street

Mike Kelley – Exploded Fortress of Solitude at Gagosian, Britannia Street

Fictional places have a strange allure. They will never be visited except in the imagination. Details must necessarily be invented and staged. Mike Kelley continues an ongoing project dedicated to Kandor, Superman’s birthplace, which he now keeps alive in artificial conditions like a organism on life-support. But Kandor presents a challenge to any re-enactment because the comic strip offers so many differing examples, embodying the multifarious and contingent nature of cities, subject as they are to infinite representation.
The centerpiece of this show is a grotto made of imitation black rock within which sits a resin model of Kandor emitting a rosy, seductive glow like a giant jelly. Sealed within the sustaining environment of a bell jar, fed a special gas, Superman keeps Kandor alive as a fragile utopia.  His fortress is reminiscent of sacred shrines where our loss of innocence can be contemplated with sorrow but also where redemption may be planned. Kelley takes the Superman conceit and addresses it with theatrical relish. Kandor assumes multiple forms, sometimes resembling melting polychromatic glass orbs or erect columns of crystals pointing skyward in the style of Art Deco futurism. Superman’s idealism is perceptible but his physical absence is telling. He idealizes the past and projects fantasy into the future, but must constantly slip away.
Inserted into the Superman theme are some conscious but disorientating digressions. A film with characters inspired by Hammer House of Horror plays out sado-masochistic rituals involving corn cobs and whips. Titled ‘Vice Anglais’ after the reputed sexual repressions of the English, Kelley takes his audience on a sinister tour through human cruelty but links the film to the wider exhibition by staging the melodrama on a set using the Superman themed works. Another sculpture titled ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon’ creates a tableau of sentimental objects memorializing ‘S/andy’ to accompany images of both a Marine and young woman. Such an ambivalent gender echoes Superman’s own overlapping identities and suggests the performative nature of human relations.
Kelley’s interrogation of comic book values produces dazzling formal work but risks aestheticizing the source-material to the point of entertaining irrelevance. Unlike Roy Lichtenstein’s detached translations of graphic novels, Kelley’s appropriations are close to overreaching.

Douglas Gordon’s ‘K.364’ – Gagosian Gallery, Britannia Street, London

Douglas Gordon carves the title of his new show, ‘K.364’, into the soft, white plaster of the gallery wall. A chisel has chipped away at the surface leaving pronounced strokes like lettering on a gravestone. A residue of paint and dust gathers on the ground below this faint incision into the architecture. Nearby, an anonymous fist clasps a burning candle from which hot wax drips onto bare skin that might indicate an act of prayer or remembrance.  Both works introduce a film that documents a train journey by two Israeli musicians through Poland in the footsteps of relatives who survived the Holocaust in what Gordon describes as ‘a battle between history and the fleeting beauty of music.’
Running on two large screens, which sit at oblique angles, the images are echoed back by several adjacent mirrors.  The protagonists describe how Poland evokes memories of survival handed down within their families. Dark forests that line the tracks are linked to forced removals while simultaneously forming sublime landscapes today. Shots of railway tracks and signals allude to people shunted towards the camps along these very same lines. Subsequently, the musicians perform Mozart’s chamber piece K.364 in Poznan where their passion for the music achieves consolation rather than cathartic resolution.
The restrained narrative leaves us in a former synagogue converted into a swimming pool in 1939, which is still in use today. Shots below the water line of kicking legs suggest spontaneous pleasure but can any place so associated with tragedy be free of contamination?
The difficulty remains that this is well-worn territory loaded with problems for any creative enquiry and the film does not take us much further in comprehending a catastrophe for mankind that took place within living memory. Where Gordon is more successful is in asserting Art’s indispensability to human civilization and he skillfully links the consequences of history to life in the present. Staging this pilgrimage to ancestral roots through music gives concrete expression to sorrow but cannot ultimately remove the underlying horror. Gordon acknowledges this conundrum by framing 32 charred sheets of Mozart’s musical score against mirrored mounts. Destruction and creative endurance sit in suspended tension for perpetuity.