Description: MIKE KELLEY (b. 1954)
Test Room Containing Multiple Stimuli Known to Elict Curiosity and Manipulatory Responses
metal, plastic, fabric, glass, aluminum and fiberglass
1387 x 709 x 287 in. (350 x 1800 x 730 cm.)
Executed in 1999.
Artist or Maker: MIKE KELLEY (b. 1954)
Exhibited: Grenoble, Le Magasin, Mike Kelley, October 1999-January 2000, pp. 5-28 (illustrated). Zurich, Migros Museum, Sublevel, framed and frame, testroom, April-May 2000. Lausanne, Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Private View 1980-2000: Collection Pierre Huber, June-September 2005, pp. 190-193 (illustrated).
Literature: Y. Aupetitallot, Magasin 1986-2000, Zürich 2005, pp. 112-115 (illustrated).
Notes: Test Room Containing Multiple Stimuli Known to Elicit Curiosity and Manipulatory Responses is an interactive, provocative, and densely compelling installation that showcases the richness of Mike Kelley's imagination at an important moment in his mature career. Created especially for the Magasin Centre National d'art Contemporain de Grenoble, where it was exhibited in 1999 together with Framed and Frame (Miniature Reproduction "Chinatown Wishing Well" built by Mike Kelley after "Miniature Reproduction 'Seven Star Cavern' Built by Prof. H.K. Lau") (1999), the work was influenced by, and brings together, a diverse set of historical and disciplinary sources that Kelley mines using various media. The theatrical space of the installation, a dramatic steel arena in which viewers are encouraged to engage with different sculptural objects, was inspired by Harry F. Harlow's experiments with rhesus monkeys, stage sets designed by Isamu Noguchi for a series of dances by Martha Graham, and research conducted by Albert Bandura about the effects on children of mass-media depictions of violence. As is the case with many of the Los Angeles-based artist's projects, this associative network expands ever outward, spurring additional connections. Test Room inevitably summons, for example, earlier Kelley works involving monkeys (Monkey Island, 1982, and The Banana Man, 1982) and high modernist architectural design. In order to untangle the absorbing web of its stylistic and thematic interrelations, however, one must begin with Test Room's primary references.
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The first, and most direct, is to Harlow. Kelley's title is a nod to the American psychologist's "open field" test space, and the work's cage-like boundaries and constituent objects are based on the apparatus of his lab experiments. Harlow's best-known investigations, conducted in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s at the Primate Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, concerned the mechanisms of primate affection. Intent on disproving the then-popular theory that a monkey's (and, by extension, a human infant's) primary attachment to its mother was grounded in the fact that the mother nourishes her young and alleviates its hunger, he offered his test subjects a choice between two "surrogate" mothers. One was fashioned of wire, and had a bottle of milk attached to it; the other was formed of smooth terrycloth, but lacked any means of providing sustenance. The monkeys preferred the terrycloth surrogate, seeking its comfort when a frightening object or stimulus was introduced into the cage. A more general, tactile, and affectionate attachment, Harlow concluded, trumped bonds of nourishment, and while it has since been disproved his theory was publicly embraced and his findings exhibited at the 1962 World's Fair.
Harlow's experiments crystallize several recurrent themes of Kelley's inventive and wittily complex practice of the past thirty years, including the social and emotional relationships between family members, the overlaps between human and animal behavior, and the singularly American attraction to pop psychology. What particularly piqued his interest, he explains, were the visual--and often anti-visual--qualities of the tests. "The aesthetic aspects of Harlow's experiments have been treated as inconsequential factors in them," Kelley notes in an essay published in the catalogue that accompanied Test Room's exhibition at the Magasin. "Whatever motivations might have been at play in the design of his experimental objects were considered not worthy of noting, or were completely unconscious" ("The Meaning is Confused Spatiality, Framed," Mike Kelley: Framed and Frame, Test Room, Sublevel, Paris, 1999, p. 68). Always keen to expose the workings and desires of the unconscious, Kelley points out the visual strangeness of these objects. A mustard yellow mannequin, swathed in a towel and nestling a disembodied head between its feet, recalls the stylized, clownish appearance of Harlow's cloth surrogate, while an expanse of fabric on the floor evokes the monkey's (or the baby's) security blanket. Even objects used for childhood recreation, such as a tether ball and a Wiffleball bat, take on an aspect of menace in Kelley's striking installation. How does the nature and quality of human interaction with objects--with art--change, Test Room implicitly asks, when those objects appear as threatening and hostile to vision?
Kelley's allusions to Japanese-American artist and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi and American choreographer Martha Graham further complicate his inquiry. Several of the objects in Test Room, including a silver bowl and a red, two-tiered, drum-like form, are enlarged versions of the abstract stage props that Noguchi designed for a famous cycle of Graham's ballets in the 1940s and 1950s. Kelley forges a link between Harlow's experiments and Graham's dances along the axis of the primitive: her works emphasized the physicality of the dancer's body and its often animalistic expansions and contractions. And as Harlow's monkeys--and Kelley's visitors--were urged to play out their affections and aggressions on the parental-surrogate objects in the cage, so Graham encouraged the psychological projections of dancers and audience members onto Noguchi's non-representational objects. "Martha was never content with where they were, so she always had us push them around the stage, flop them over, turn them upside down," recalled Paul Taylor, a member of her company. "Noguchi would never have a back and front to any of his design objects. They were always to be seen from every angle" (L. A. Rickels, "Just a Test," Mike Kelley: Framed and Frame, Test Room, Sublevel, Paris, 1999, p. 31).
To this already-dense constellation of sources in Test Room--primate affection, modern dance, abstract sculpture--Kelley adduces another, the films of Albert Bandura. A Ukrainian-Canadian psychologist remembered for his research on the social component of learning, Bandura is especially known for the "Bobo doll" experiments he conducted at Stanford University in the 1960s. His young test subjects were exposed to adults who demonstrated a range of violent behavior toward an inflatable plastic doll. In one instance, an adult aggressively pounded the doll; in another, a film of this beating was shown; in a third, the adult was dressed up as a cat and the action unfolded against a vibrantly colored backdrop. Children tended to reenact the first, live scenario rather than the mediated versions, leading Bandura to conclude that the depiction of violence in the mass media had effects of desensitization.
Kelley, whose began his career as a performance artist in the 1970s, invokes the importance of mediation, and reinforces the tie to Graham's dances, in the video clips projected onto one of Test Room's walls, a stretch of translucent white Plexiglas. (A second wall is clear Plexiglas, recalling the window through which Harlow's monkeys were observed, and the others are formed by cage-like steel grids.) The videos depict four actors engaging with the objects in the space; as Bandura's subjects reenacted the violence they had observed, so visitors to Test Room might mimic the activities they see projected on the wall. Two men and two women, as well as actors costumed in monkey suits, are by turns angry and affectionate toward the objects as they perform a dance choreographed by Anita Pace after the work of Martha Graham. They clutch the mannequin and climb on the columnar "tree of knowledge"; they stamp on the cloth or swaddle themselves in it; they suspend their bodies over some geometric forms and try to topple others.
Test Room is an undeniably theatrical work. Viewers observe other viewers through the walls of the cage or from an overhead observation ramp, thus turning the space into a stage-like setting without a stage, and the ways in which Kelley's audience interacts with the objects in turn renders them actors of a sort. This is one of Kelley's most fiercely participatory projects. While viewer participation may have taken the form, in previous works, of witnessing a performance or thumbing through a pile of sketches, here the room and the objects it contains are designed to be touched, moved, and employed in the service of one's own affections or aggressions. And as the significance of Noguchi's objects depended on how Graham's dancers navigated, carried, and rearranged them, meaning here emerges in how Kelley's objects are used--and in how the viewer untangles Test Room's web of references--but such meaning remains elusive, its interpretation an open-ended project. As "surrogate" objects in a cage-like setting, they are symbolically loaded, but determining the import of such symbolism rests with the individual viewer. Kelley's questions about Harlow's manmade mothers might indeed be posed of Test Room in general: "The primary question is what are these objects of? What do they truly represent? This is a political question, because these are highly charged objects, objects in the service of science and thus of truth. They are objects utilized to define reality" (Ibid, p. 68). Test Room is one of Kelley's most extraordinary statements of our contemporary reality, and provides a moving opportunity for its ongoing redefinition.