Describing his later series Kandors, an extended reflection on Superman’s shrunken birthplace, Mike Kelley explains, “Kandor is a constant reminder of Superman’s lost homeland and functions metaphorically as a symbol of his alienated relationship to the planet where he now resides…Kandor now sits, frozen in time, a perpetual reminder of his inability to escape that past, and his alienated relationship to his present world.”
Organized with the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, Hauser & Wirth currently presents a solo exhibition focused entirely on Kelley’s Kandors. From lightboxes, swirling videos inside air tanks, brightly colored sculptures of Kandor and a monumental immersive installation of Superman’s charcoal-colored Fortress of Solitude, Hauser & Wirth’s extensive exhibition, unlike MoMA PS1’s enormous Kelley retrospective, separates the Kandors, allowing the series to be observed apart from Kelley’s iconic oeuvre.
Starting in 1999 and continually returning to the theme until 2011, a year before his untimely death, Kelley’s Kandors engage with a wide range of artistic and social issues–many of which overlap with his longtime aesthetic interests from formal qualities of color and geometry to psychoanalysis, memory and trauma.
Even though I, as you well know dearest Filthy Dreams readers, am a Kelley fanatic, I must admit that until the exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, I hated Kandors. I’ve never been a fan of comic books and never quite understood the reasoning behind Kelley’s monumental Superman obsession beyond his career-long interest in exploring so-called “low” culture. Too expansive and way too blue-chip, Kandors left me feeling cold.
However after viewing the Mike Kelley show at Hauser & Wirth, Kelley’s Kandors, particularly Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude) from 2011, transformed in my eyes into a mediation on loss and melancholia, a combination of superhero mythology and depression that I’ve been considering ever since.
For those, like me, who are less than familiar with the Superman tale, I’ll give you a short rundown: Kandor was Superman’s birthplace, which is the capital of the planet Krypton. As a baby, Superman was sent to Earth by his father in order to save him before the destruction of Krypton. While Superman thinks his hometown was lost to the ages, he later learns that the villain Brainiac shrunk Kandor before Krypton’s annihilation. Rescuing Kandor from Brainiac, Superman keeps Kandor inside a bell jar in his Fortress of Solitude (can you say hoarder), sustaining the city and its tiny inhabitants by tanks of Krypton air.
While not shown at Hauser & Wirth, the bell jar reference was not lost on Kelley who created a video featuring Superman reading from cheery Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a somewhat morbid piece when read with Kelley’s suicide the year after his final Kandors.
While considering Superman’s Kandor narrative, Freud’s seminal discussion of mourning and melancholia seems necessary as I’m sure Kelley, a psychoanalysis obsessive would appreciate. In Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, he defines mourning as not only the loss of a loved one, but also “the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal and so on” (qtd. in Eng and Kazanjian 3).
For Superman, this loss of his ideal birthplace and his refusal to let go by harboring Kandor inside his Fortress of Solitude reaches beyond mourning. In Eng and Kazanijian’s essay collection Loss: The Politics of Mourning, the twosome articulate the difference Freud delineates between mourning and melancholia. “He contends that mourning,” they explain, “is a psychic process in which libido is withdrawn from a lost object. This withdrawal cannot be enacted at once. Instead, libido is detached bit by bit so that eventually the mourner is able to declare the object dead and move on to invest in new objects. In contrast with mourning, Freud describes melancholia as an enduring devotion on the part of the ego to the lost object. A mourning without end, melancholia results from the inability to resolve the grief and ambivalence precipitated by the loss of a loved object, place or idea” (3).
Undeniably, Superman’s tiny city in a bell jar represents this “enduring devotion” to Kandor, making his engagement to his lost homeland as melancholia. While melancholia is often pathologized, Eng and Kazanjian see a potentially important and useful aspect of melancholia. They describe, “While mourning abandons lost objects by laying their histories to rest, melancholia’s continued and open relationship to the past finally allows us to gain new perspectives on and new understandings of lost object” (4).
Taking this idea of melancholia with Superman’s thoroughly traumatic origin story, Kelly’s Kandors transforms this piece of Pop Americana into a psychological portrait of loss, alienation and mourning, forcing viewers to take the comic creation seriously. Like Eng and Kazanjian’s belief in the new perspectives gained through melancholia, Kelley’s Kandors revisit the multiple representations of Kandor throughout the entirety of the comic’s history. Researching the various illustrations of Kandor throughout Superman’s extensive history, Kelley reconstructs a selection of vibrantly colored sculptures of Kandor. Connected to works such as Educational Complex, Kelley’s Kandor sculptures investigate the combination of memory and architecture, examining the often unreliable and incomplete memories of these significant spaces.
However, the most haunting piece in Hauser & Wirth’s exhibition, which reveals Kelley’s exploration of melancholia, is Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude), an enormous installation benefitting from Hauser & Wirth’s expansive Chelsea gallery. Displayed with Kelley’s unhinged Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #36 (Vice Anglais), which echoes through the entire cavernous space, Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude) reconstructs Superman’s Fortress of Solitude in a deep and dull black. Filled with rocks and boulders, Superman’s fortress projects a foreboding and even, menacing atmosphere with unsettling chains linked to its outside. Allowing viewers to walk (with little art booties) into the Fortress itself, the viewer confronts a glowing neon pink version of Kandor kept inside Superman’s admittedly unwelcoming home.
In his description of Kandors, Kelley states, “For us, Kandor is an image of a time that never was–the utopian city of the future that never came to be” Through the utter bleak darkness of Kandor 10B, Kelley raises melancholia or depression to (super) heroic levels and yet what is this utopian ideal that Kandor represents for us.
For many, Kelley has been labeled as one of the Great White Male Artists that dominate the blue-chip art world. Like frequent criticism of fellow depressive Lana Del Rey’s music, which croons a nostalgia for America’s lost glory days, Kelley’s exploration of Superman’s melancholic attachment to Kandor could be seen as a desire to harken back to a longing for the future as imagined through vintage 1960s comics–a longing that would represent a largely white American perspective.
However, Kelley’s representation of Superman’s lost homeland could also act as a mirror of Kelley’s own alienation and loss of his own birthplace–Detroit, a city that certainly epitomizes the loss of American exceptionalism and idealism. As evidenced by a glittering and greatly tacky corner of Kandor 10B, Kelly’s Exploded Fortress of Solitude glances back at his own personal and artistic past. Contrasting with the rough exterior of the Fortress, a ruptured piece of Superman’s abode reveals an inner golden glut of thrift store trash.
Similar to his Memory Ware paintings–abstract expressionist-like works full of junky jewelry, this corner of Kandor 10B hints at Kelley’s blue collar Rust Belt upbringing in addition to his previous work. While we don’t normally think of Superman as a diasporic subject or Kelley’s move from Detroit to Los Angeles as particularly traumatic, the depiction of the loss of a homeland and its subsequent melancholy seems to resonate with other memoirs of diasporic depression.
In her Depression: A Public Feeling, Ann Cvetkovich analyzes depression memoirs including Jeffrey Smith’s Where the Roots Reach for Water: A Personal and Natural History of Melancholia, which discusses Smith’s melancholic attachment to his Appalachian upbringing. Linking depression to displacement, Cvetkovich warns against the simplistic idea of the return home as a cure. She notes, “If the problem of depression is linked to displacement and dispossession, then it is tempting, of course, to suggest that ‘cure’ or ‘healing’ or ‘recovery’ comes from finding or returning home. The ‘rites of return’ described in these texts, though, circumvent any simple nostalgia” (152).
While Kelley’s final piece, Mobile Homestead, would attempt to recreate this home by literally recreating his childhood house, his Kandors seem to assert that home, even if it is in a bell jar in your Fortress of Solitude, is a lost utopian ideal.