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Mike Kelley: The Exploded Fortress of Solitude

Superman's birthplace comes to life in The Kandors Series

Written by . Published on September 12th 2011.


Mike Kelley: The Exploded Fortress of Solitude

SUPERMAN had it rough. Not only was he a bit of a freak, perpetually tasked with clearing up after mankind’s inability to get along, but one of his arch enemies even shrunk and bottled his home city of Kandor, trapping the hero’s family and the rest of his race inside. The futuristic city was later rescued by Superman and protected under a bell jar in his sanctuary – the Fortress of Solitude – as a constant reminder of his lost past and a metaphor for his psychic disconnection from his adopted planet.


With Kelley’s remodelling, you get a sense of the transience of memory and the futility of aspiration both buried beneath a healthy dose of comic book kitsch.

This idea has been the jump off point for L.A.-based artist Mike Kelley’s new exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery located near Kings Cross. The Kandors series, which Kelley initiated in 1999, are sculptural depictions of Superman’s birthplace of Kandor. The cities themselves were never standardised, and in his exhibition Kelley draws from more than twenty different interpretations found throughout the best-selling comic book series.

Kelle 2011.0008 Kandor Interior ViewKelle 2011.0008 Kandor Interior View
The idea of the utopian city, trapped, isolated and impotent beneath its bell jar, coupled with the myriad interpretations that Kandor has been subjected to over the years, is a thought-provoking scenario. With Kelley’s remodelling, you get a sense of the transience of memory and the futility of aspiration both buried beneath a healthy dose of comic book kitsch.

As soon as you walk into the exhibition, there is a sense of being on a film set. The centrepiece, Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude), is a bleak cave, strewn with dark boulders and scattered ruins of Greek sculpture. Set within the cave’s recesses is a glowing rose-coloured city-in-a-bottle, while a corner glistens with costume jewellery.

Kelle 2011.0008 Kandor 10B Exterior ViewKelle 2011.0008 Kandor 10B Exterior View
On one plinth an amorphous blobs melt beneath the bell jar like running marshmallow, smothering the few flowers that dot its surface; on another, strange, luminescent towers rise out from the ground looking for all the world like unfortunate sex toys; while elsewhere in the exhibition lifeless moonscapes and gorgeous crystalline monoliths sit next to futuristic jelly moulds. It appears that all these re-imaginings of perfection have fallen into farce.

The exhibition also includes two films, both of whose plot, aspect and warrant of inclusion are never fully or adequately explained. Each film centres on the performance piece, Vice Anglais, which Kelley wrote for the exhibition. The main film is a 30-minute piece following a group of sadomasochists who inhabit the Exploded Fortress of Solitude; its companion piece is a commentary in verse by the actors over stills of Victorian pottery.

Kelle 2011.0018 Eapr Vice AnglaisKelle 2011.0018 Eapr Vice Anglais

The tongue-in-cheek acting and ludicrous S&M plot falls somewhere between the Marquis de Sade and a Carry On – a variety of vaguely sheathed metaphors coupled with the whipping of a bride by a chap with an unfortunate cod-piece. The knowingly low budget production and over-the-top theatricality of both films call to mind the Hammer Horrors of the '60s and '70s. Perhaps, given the nostalgic focus on the absurd that permeates the whole of the exhibition, it is only logical that the bizarre inhabitants of an exploded bunker that once belonged to Superman and contains the hero’s home town shrunk in a bell jar should be as kitsch a bunch of odd bods as they are.

Still, all is open to interpretation, which is as all good and engaging art should be; and Mike Kelley has certainly created an engaging, if overwhelming, piece of work. Beneath the schlock and the kitsch there are some interesting ideas at work, and the Kandors is certainly worth a look. 

The Kandor Series will run from Thursday, 8 September – Saturday, 22 October 2011 at the Gagosian Gallery

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