Victoria Camblin

Soft and Hard Mike Kelley's Tactile Return

89-camblin-1 Mike Kelley, “Aerodynamic Vertical to Horizontal Shift”, 1999, Credit: Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts

Even if the soiled underbelly of mainstream culture – non-normative social and sexual practices – is hidden from view and nearly suppressed from our collective consciousness, it is nevertheless an essential part of our nature.

Like his memory of a schoolyard trick that could make softcore porn out of butter packaging, Mike ­Kelley developed means to help resolve high art’s rigid formalism – not merely by bringing it low, but by forcing a constant, dialectical interaction between the poles of high/low, soft/hard, and inclusion/exclusion. Such a method targeted the supple heart of formal convention while revealing the exciting effect that change can have on both the objects mobilized and the subject who bears witness.

In a catalogue statement for a 1996 exhibition in Tokyo, Mike Kelley wrote that as a child in the 1960s he “saw porn of both the soft and hard varieties,” as it migrated out of Dad’s bottom drawer and onto the schoolyard black market. [1] The image that most fascinated the preadolescent Kelley, however, was that of the Land O’Lakes butter girl, an advercultural mise en abyme in which a hide-clad “Indian maiden” sits poised on a patch of grass, holding before her bosom the very cardboard package on which she is pictured. Folded, the box yields a vaguely erotic result: The butter mascot’s knees can, to this day, be positioned such that they resemble bare almost-breasts, nipple-free and suspended, disembodied, above the landscape.

To manipulate the Land O’Lakes packaging is to impose softness onto that which is ostensibly hard: The girl is printed on more or less rigid card stock, designed to endure transportation and storage, to protect and maintain the consistency of its contents. There she forms a familiar, commercially comestible logo, a consumer icon that is fixed, upright and unchanging. Bend her, and the sovereign maiden is transformed, placed on the (very) soft side of the pornographic spectrum and nestled between terms like “sweet cream” and “lightly salted”. This softening is mirrored by the physical contents of her product – hard sticks of butter that are liable to melt at the slightest tactile provocation.

The dichotomy between soft and hard stimulated by Kelley’s fascination with the Land O’Lakes logo haunts his œuvre, both as a means through which he critiques the art establishment and as a condition of viewers’ experience with the artist’s work. The thematic is explicit in “Defamation. Soft and Hard” (1986), a two-part figurative painting that, according to Kelley, lampoons the Minimalist preference for geometry by presenting a cube “with a big slop of goop on it.” [2] Here, visually imposing “soft” onto “hard” provides a simple way of exposing what he perceived to be flaws in – and the inner workings of – the rigid institution of Modernism.

Softness of course became an overt feature in Kelley’s installations using textiles and plush toys. Notable among these are the works in the “Arena” series (1990), in which soiled stuffed animals are strewn on, around, and beneath crocheted blankets and afghans, as well as “Craft Morphology Flow Chart” (1991), where the found, filthy playthings are grouped into fuzzy taxonomies in accordance with their various sizes and features. Rosalind Krauss refered to these specific works in her application of Georges Bataille’s notion of the informe, or “formlessness”, to art in the latter part of the twentieth century. That endeavor was made famous by “L’informe: Mode d’emploi” (“Formless: A User’s Guide”, 1996), an exhibition she co-curated with Yve-Alain Bois at the Centre Pompidou in Paris that sought to emancipate the art object from the theoretical requirement of having its own form, thus undermining Modernism’s formalist impulse. In “Informe without Conclusion”, an essay in October related to the massive group show, Krauss aimed to distinguish Kelley’s predilection for the stained and the goopy from pure abjection – the latter seen as “an aesthetic of the low” within a stagnant high/low dichotomy – and to recast it as part of an active process, a movement from an upright, vertical plane, to a base horizontal one. [3] In the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition itself, she wrote: “Everything splits into two, but this division is not symmetrical (there is no simple separation of sides by means of a vertical axis), it is dynamic (the line of division is horizontal): the low implicates the high in its own fall. It is its low use, its imperious affirmation, that fells the hot-air balloons of the ideal with one malevolent blow.” [4] Kelley’s Land O’Lakes trick could be seen to animate just such a fall. It takes a proud, upright maiden and casts her down onto the ground, as the object of soft pornography. Yet the passage from “hard” to “soft” in Kelley’s work is distinct in these categories’ tendency to flip-flop. The transition is not a pure descent into visceral softness, but an ongoing metamorphosis. That is, the Land O’Lakes girl can be folded back.

Kelley certainly engaged this now familiar conception of the informe, but he did so with a grain of salt, if not downright disdainfully. His sculpture “Aerodynamic Vertical to Horizontal Shift” (1999), an amorphous mass of grey paper mulch mixed with concrete and set atop two sawhorses, deploys Krauss’s terms directly, and ironically. In doing so it highlights what Kelley perceived to be a persistent formalism in her approach: The work’s form is palpable, imposing – it just happens to be lumpy. While the passage from “high” vertical to “low” horizontal attempts to escape the geometric rigor of Minimalism, for which Kelley had contempt, its activity remains confined to an x/y axis, a Cartesian coordinate system that seems to work against the organic, visceral reality of his work. A soft/hard framework, however, extends that possibility of movement – not via an irreversible fall from hard to soft, but rather a reciprocal, impactful, or impressing tactile exchange. Kelley’s works both touch and beg to be touched by the viewer. The “soiling” that eased the vertical-to-horizontal slide in Krauss is furthermore a secondary, temporary by-product of that touch. As Kelley told Julie Sylvester in an interview for Parkett in 1992, “I think [people] see the manufactured object, by virtue of its ‘untouched’ quality, as a perfect object.” [5] Thus “Arena’s” imperfect stuffed toys are not dirty because they have dirt on them or appear grimy, but because they have been touched or solicit touching. A line of dialogue in Kelley’s “Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #1” (2000), a satirical mini-drama inspired by a found photograph of a high school play, states this unequivocally. One of the male protagonists – chastising his lover for having attempted to touch a hand-made ceramic sculpture, which he calls “Tenderbutton” and has installed on a plinth – says to the other: “What the fuck are you doing, you swine?! Keep your filthy meat-hooks off my creation! You can foul everything else in this apartment! Except that. It is taboo!” Here, touch precedes soiling. And while Kelley’s plush assemblages may seem especially grabbable, the sense of touch in those works is not as active as it could otherwise be – they contain pre-grabbed objects, toys in which the defilement is already a fait accompli. His performative works, however, document the tactile act.

“From My Institution to Yours: A Video Tribute to Mike Kelley” was a two-day screening of Kelley’s video works and taped performances that took place at Tate Modern’s The Tanks in London last August. The program’s apparent intention was to stage an immersive chronology of the artist’s iconoclastic, often tragicomic œuvre; it had the fortunate side effect, though, of thematizing that œuvre’s soft/hard dichotomy in an especially striking way. Kelley’s collaborations with artists like Paul McCarthy were shown alongside works such as “Cross Gender/Cross Genre” (1999), a documentary and archival study of the aesthetics of a “psychedelic” period of gender confusion in the late 1960s and 1970s. “Cross Gender” turns to the Cockettes, a San Francisco performance troupe that produced an alien, LSD-laced form of transvestite theatre. The group was unique in that it included women as well as men, and because the scrawny cross-dressing men often wore beards, appeared fully naked, and generally did everything to manipulate their gender, but nothing to conceal their biological sex. They reveled instead in a kind of fluid, inclusive androgyny – a “soft” drag, in which silk and velour prevailed over sequins. The haziness of Kelley’s collected found footage mirrors the quality of those materials and translates their texture formally: the artist studied the supple, glowy Cockettes through a soft-focus lens.

In contrast, Kelley’s works with McCarthy were raw and sharp. The video “Fresh Acconci” (1995) reimagines several of Vito Acconci’s performances from 1970s New York, staged instead in Southern California. Featuring hard-bodied actors both male and female, the aesthetic environment employs plastic bodily ideals common in Hollywood and, in inflated versions, in hardcore pornography. Performers have six-packs and rigid, silicone breasts. Though shot at the Los Angeles home of an art collector, the film’s venue – which is heavy on cold marble tiling and hard, metal fixtures – channels the faux-mansions of the San Fernando Valley, the production center for the X-rated mainstream. The occasional fur carpet provides a soft textural counterpoint amidst the general stiffness of the surroundings, while lines like, “I’ll be your baby. I’ll be your woman. Fuck, I’ll be your man,” remind us of the fundamental malleability of Kelley’s sensual outlook; here, the soft is made hard, not vice-versa. As such, the formal definitions of masculine and feminine that are made so distinct in the glossy pornography of “the Valley” are ridiculed in “Fresh Acconci”, exaggerated to the point of deflation. The video in this way mocks the credibility of 1970s nude performance, which McCarthy found to be enjoying a “resurgence” in the 1990s, and ridicules Acconci’s unmitigated and humorless heterosexuality. For example, “Fresh Acconci” replaces the male-on-female invasion staged in Acconci’s performance “Pryings” (1971) – in which the artist attempted to force open a woman’s eyes with his fingers, as she struggled to keep them shut – with over-the-top, same-sex couplings. Thus a beefy male pair attempts the eye-poke maneuver in a steamy Jacuzzi; as human soup, they melt Acconci’s stark divides, such as the one between perpetrator and victim, into a “top” and “bottom” framework in which there is the potential to switch.

The manhandled eye, too, conveys “softness” against the marbled, hardcore locale that sets the scene in “Fresh Acconci”. The organ was a preoccupation of Bataille’s in the 1920s and plays a prime role in Krauss’s development of that period of his work, where the passage from “high” verticality to “low” horizontality in art is contingent on an extensive denigration of vision itself. We must put an end to the hegemony of the eye, we are told, or we will remain beholden to the stodge of formalism. Documents, the magazine edited by Bataille from which Krauss and Bois derive the term informe, contains a much lengthier entry on l’œil, in which the allegorical functions of the eye are explored, describing it as a “cannibal delicacy”, as the point of entry of all evil, “a cavity, a hole” (in metallurgy), and elsewhere as a phallus. [6] Yet it appears Kelley was not perturbed by the eye’s supposed supremacy and treated it with the same irony that he did any malleable, ambiguously phallic – or is it vulvic? – “blob”: Like all physical things, it must be prodded. The operation in Kelley’s case is not one of gouging out and casting down, but of poking – of poking fun, of prodding, of leaving a fingerprint, of general manipulation through touch. “Test Room Containing Multiple Stimuli Known to Elicit Curiosity and Manipulatory Responses” (1999) sums up that compulsion in its title alone. The work invites individuals into a room containing objects of various touchable qualities, and participants are then filmed handling them, sometimes violently, sometimes gently. The point is not the physical impact on a given item, but rather that the tactile mediation be allowed to run its course.

“Sod and Sodie Sock” (1999), another Kelley-McCarthy collaboration that was screened at the Tate event, performs the critique of modernism merely depicted in “Defamation. Soft and Hard”. A feature-length video, it was shot concurrent with the installation at the Vienna Secession, in 1998, of “Sod and Sodie Sock Comp. O.S.O.”, consisting of army tents, tunnel systems, and a “Porky’s”-style shower room. The work takes a military backdrop as symbolic of the “hard” framework of formalism, explicitly calling out Clement Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939) and pitting it, among other theoretical writings, against Bataille’s “The Psychological Structure of Fascism”(1936). “Sod and Sodie Sock” proceeds to pervert that martial, formalist institution from within its own architecture, striking it with a proliferation of plastic dildos and other toys that are immutably hard in comparison to their organic counterparts. This is a penetration into the monument of modernism. A “monument” was in fact built at the Secession, the result of a performance by McCarthy in which he stacked a volume of industrial-sized cubes of butter into a pile. One of the clichés of Bataille scholarship is the insistence that revolutions begin with attacks on buildings, yet “Sod and Sodie Sock” provides an alternate reading: Here, the architectural impulse is not destructive per se; it is at least pseudo-constructive. The performance did not tear down an edifice, but rather exposed its softened insides, making the sovereign institution malleable, built anew with lipid “bricks”.

Land O’Lakes butter was not used in the installation at the Secession, but the butter mound used architecture to reformulate the Land O’Lakes trick – a manipulation through which Kelley shaped his fundamentally elastic relationship to form. “This initial foray into speculative anatomy,” he wrote in reference to that youthful gesture, “opened the psychic floodgates to let loose a torrent of more flamboyant inner visions of unseen body parts.” [7] The girl’s physical fluidity was freeing to Kelley. It was at once pre-genital and hyper-erotic; its apparent “boundlessness” lead him to see that “the whole conscious body is a sex organ.” The Land O’Lakes maiden’s plenitude demonstrated “the ability of the body to transform and multiply itself – within itself – through a simple fold of paper.” [8] Kelley’s fleshy manipulation of that particular medium not only transforms the depicted image, it also dissolves the limits and limitations of our gendered, physical bodies. More liberating still is Kelley’s notion of recursion, of the possibility – the reality – of an infinite back-and-forth, an unmitigated access to change. After every fold, squeeze, or poke, the matter presses back, since the toucher, too, is subject to reshaping. Kelley highlights that mercurial potential; his works are the slippery salve that lubricate the exchange.


[1]Mike Kelley, “Land O’Lakes/Land O’Snakes”, in: same, Minor Histories. Statements, Conversations, Proposals, ed. by John C. Welchman, Cambridge, Mass./London 2004, pp. 82–92; p. 84.
[2]Mike Kelley, audio program excerpt in: MoMA2000: Open Ends (1960–2000), September 28, 2000–March 4, 2001, online at: http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O%3AAD%3AE%3A3045&page_number=5&template_id=1&sort_order=1.
[3]Rosalind Krauss, “Informe without Conclusion”, in: October, 78, 1996, pp. 89–105.
[4]Rosalind Krauss/Yve-Alain Bois, in: Formless. A User’s Guide, New York 1997, p. 47.
[5]Mike Kelley/Julie Sylvester, “Talking Failure”, in: Parkett, 31, 1992, p. 100. Krauss includes an extended version of this citation in “Informe without Conclusion”, but does not address Kelley’s emphasis on the term “untouched”.
[6]Georges Bataille, “Eye”, in: Encyclopaedia Acephalica, London 1995, p. 43–48.
[7]Mike Kelley, “Land O’Lakes/Land O’Snakes”, op. cit., p. 84.