MULTIPLE SCHEMES 2 – A response by Justin Lieberman

7 August 2013

Few days ago – simultaneous to the big antological exhibition of the American artist Mike Kelley at Hangar Bicocca – we republished a text by Justin Lieberman (NERO n.21, 2009) that focuses on the ongoing influence of Kelley on a new generation of American contemporary artists, to which Lieberman himself belongs. For the occasion, we asked Andrea Lissoni – who curated the exhibition at Hangar Bicocca together with Emi Fontana – to briefly comment the Lieberman’s text in order to introduce it. This is what he wrote:

This is a failed text. It fails in its premises – verifying Mike Kelley’s influence on a generation of young artists – and it fails in the re-examination of the work of Kelley himself in the light of those younger artists. The only influence that Kelley will ever exert is the one of complexity. Complexity that resides in his unique ability to organize the artwork within the space – as if it was a discourse diffused by multiple schemes (and screens), installed in several dimensions – and in the critical writing. The work of Mike Kelley neither satisfies, nor conforts or confirms. It disturbs, it worries, dazzles, unhinges and it triggers. It leaves to Lieberman the chance to reflect. However, it neither unveils its complexity, nor restarts it. Why read it, then? To confront yourself with a system of thoughts – the one of Lieberman – with a valuable opinion – mine – and to measure yourself with the possibility of being wrong. And, also, to fail.

(Andrea Lissoni, 2013)

Here we publish the response by the American artist Justin Lieberman – author of the original text – to Andrea Lissoni’s introduction.

Andrea Lissoni’s recent introduction to my republished text certainly is a provocative one and to give it some credit, it is not 100% wrong. It is however, a bit primitive in its denunciation of my own. MK rarely allowed curators very much say in his work. He maintained control over the installation of the work, the selection of authors who wrote in the catalogs, as well as many aspects of their design. This led to his reputation among curators as a control freak. Through his writing, MK promoted the work of older artists who had been largely sidelined (Oyvind Fahlstrom, and Paul Thek), and with his art he collaborated with lesser known contemporaries to whom he saw his work as related (Tony Conrad, Michael Smith, Paul McCarthy, to name but a few). In short, MK was an artist, like Dan Graham, given to the creation of historical and social context for his own work. My essay addresses the aesthetic precepts on which these contexts were based and their continuing legacy. If there is one thing about this legacy of which we can be sure, it is that it certainly does not include the spate of mutating retrospectives now traveling around the world. One does have to wonder what the fever is all about, if not the advancement of curatorial careers.

Lissoni’s assessment of what constitutes MK’s sole possible influence highlights the problem with the current rage for posthumous MK exhibitions, as well as bringing into focus a recurrent and reactionary curatorial impulse to regard works of art in an ahistorical fashion driven by the imperative to “make it new” (if only by stripping it of its relations to anything else in the world). MK and his work have always presented problems for curators precisely because they resisted this impulse so intensely. Outside of MK’s own installations of his work, something is inevitably lost. He did not organize his work and writing as if it was a discourse. It was a discourse. And so it remains. To say that it is a complex discourse is not wrong, it is merely meaningless. “Complexity” is an absurdly ahistorical and apolitical lesson (if one can call it that) to take away from an artist whose work was so fervently engaged with the production of new histories. MK’s work is not given to an interpretive infinity. It is a proof generated by a historical hypothesis. One cannot reorganize fragments of his exhibitions according to ahistorical criteria and expect to preserve the work’s sense to an uninitiated audience (or to any audience) although I am sure one will still end up with some form of “complexity”. Lissoni’s introduction fails to engage either my text or MK’s work on its own terms; ie; to participate in the discourse. My text, while it may not be “dazzling, disturbing, or unhinging”, does attempt to participate in the discourse bequeathed to us by MK in his own statements about his own work.

In regards to failure, one must not exclude the possibility for failures within the work itself. It is most definitely the case that many young artists today are indeed struggling to find “the continuing use-value” in MK’s work. This is due in large part to this work’s failures in the realm of the development of an artistic economy. I wrote my piece at a time when I myself was engaged in that struggle. I continue to love and search for use-value in MK’s work, if only because I am stubborn.

I believe a broad cross section of the art world, myself included, did indeed find MK’s work to be “satisfactory, comforting, and confirming”, in regards to what we perceived as our own situation. We saw things there that we knew, things with which we were familiar, and thus did we see ourselves reflected. We felt that MK was making this work to give us a voice. We felt disenfranchised, and MK was our prophet. But who were we? Unfortunately, this was not a question MK posed, in his work or his critical writing. And this left the door wide open for a covert political assertion that turned out to be largely false. (We were mostly white, american, middle class suburbanites, and maybe this explains why MK’s anarcho-nihilism suited us so well). Those who do not wrestle with this part of MK’s legacy (it’s strategic omissions), have not even begun to confront it.

(Justin Lieberman, 2013)