Posted by: Jenevive Tatiana
I was really excited to see that Mike Kelley’s “Day is Done” would be screened as part of this year’s festival. I first encountered this work in the autumn 2005 at the Gagosian gallery in New York. In that sprawling exhibition, the film was split into dozens of projected videos interspersed with the props, costumes and sets featured in the reenactments of high school extracurricular activities. The effect was a complete overwhelming of the senses: glittering lights, kinetic sculptures, labyrinthine installation, and beyond sound-bleed all competed for the viewer’s attention in the gallery’s cavernous space. The set up invited you into the space of performance as a would-be participant; but in a frustrating, funhouse sort of way. The installation was so large and simultaneous that it was impossible to know whether or not you had truly seen everything. The random itinerary carved through the gallery by the viewer was inevitably unique; the structure, duration and focus determined entirely by one’s roaming eye. On the other hand, the film screening offered a shared, durational experience for the audience.
This tended to foreground the emotional pitch of each segment and make room for evaluative judgments, whereas the installation brought more conceptual issues to the fore (especially adolescent and gothic themes which were very salient in New York art in 2005–as seen in the work of say, Sue DeBeer, Banks Violette, David Altmejd, Slater Bradley and so on). I think the two experiences were complementary, each shifting the meaning and force of the work and offering different pleasures and frustrations. One thing that became immediately and newly apparent was how surprisingly un-funny the film was, and how this actually pointed to really productive underlying tension in the work. Despite the campy get-ups, eccentric characters, uncomfortable themes and flamboyant sets, the film hovered in an ambiguous space between the cliché and the uncanny. Everything was just too good (or at least well-produced) to write off: the elaborate stage craft, the compelling musical compositions and the often nuanced acting counterbalanced the nostalgic, kitsch premise. The way the vampire preacher/leader paused to carefully lick his lips, for example, brought an unexpected depth to what could have just been an ironic recitation. And by depth, in light of the rest of Kelley’s oeuvre, I don’t mean authentic core, but rather the hint of an unconscious presence teeming below appearances. Within each self-consciously ridiculous character or scenario lurked some irrational truth that, while vague, is hard to ignore or write-off. And this ambiguity is perhaps part of what makes this piece transcend its original moment and live on in new forms and in its influence on a younger generation of New Absurdists.