Mike Kelley and Michael Smith 
“A Voyage of Growth and Discovery”, 2009, 
mixed-media installation, multi-channel 
video, sound installations and sculpture.

Mike Kelley and Michael Smith
“A Voyage of Growth and Discovery”, 2009,
mixed-media installation, multi-channel
video, sound installations and sculpture.

Burning Man of Love

Mike Kelley and Michael Smith Discover Meaning in the Desert

Though the annual festival known as Burning Man has received the occasional serious sniff from the art world, my overall anecdotal accounting of the festival rep in what one might call the high-end international art world has been one of mild disgust and pity. In general, art worlders like nothing better than to sneer at the post-hippie amateurs, as urbane Parisian aristocrats might sneer at their feudal country cousins right before both lost their heads. It’s easy to dismiss Burning Man (as opposed to documenta with its lower-case, self-serious Mittel-European pretensions or the Venice Biennale — which more often than not is a cavalcade of vaguely nationalistic bureaucratic cock-ups) as there’s no hierarchy of taste enforced, the works of art trotted out prefer experience over critical reflection and are largely uncommodifiable (exempting of course the costs of your ticket, transit, and survival, also payable in Kassel). Artistic participation in Burning Man looks bad on CVs and will hardly convince a trophy-hunting billionaire (or his Bard-educated advisor) to invest. The whole thing could, however, be considered by some lights to be a “kind of carnivalesque folk ritual” or at least some version thereof.

Michael Smith went to Burning Man as Baby Ikki, one of the artist’s long-running performance persona (constituting an 18-month-old as played by Smith, now almost 60, wearing a knit bonnet and white Crocs).  Collaborator Mike Kelley stayed away. After the fact, Kelley and Smith edited the many hours of footage down to a movie that plays on six screens within the installation of their exhibition, called (mockingly? earnestly? both?) “A Voyage of Growth and Discovery.” This iteration took place at Kelley’s monumental studio in the Farley Building in Eagle Rock, following an inaugural showing last year at the Sculpture Center in New York.

Michael Smith Burning Man Burning Man of Love

Production stills photographed by
Malcolm Stuart. Courtesy of West of Rome
Public Art, image courtesy of West of Rome
Public Art, photography by Fredrik Nilsen


Though much of Kelley’s work draws from the psycho-spirituality of thrift store finds, the work in the installation looked all too easily cadged from the real Burning Man: a metal geodesic half-dome with stuffed animals (once a Kelley standby) sewn to its carpet, a jungle gym, a metal rocket with some plastic flags, a semi-abandoned VW van with a throne in the back made of more plush toys  (though this time much dirtier) and a mock Burning Man made of metal junk depicting a reaching Baby Ikki. Though the visual language seems wholly appropriated from the Mad Max dystopia/Utopia of Black Rock City, they also oddly reminded me of proper works (buyable from your local Gagosian outlet) by the significant international artist known as Mike Kelley, creating in my mind some kind of Venn diagram of high and low, a strategy oft employed by Kelley thoughout his career.

Though Kelley purports to hate pop culture (and has said so in numerous texts), he still dissects it with the glee one can only have from loving your subject. Going back to this imaginary Venn diagram of the high and the low coming together in Kelley’s work, I can’t help but also jump to the conclusion, amidst the flashing strobe lights and dance music of the Kelley/Smith collaboration, that the contemporary art world is no better or worse than the disparaged psychedelic festivalism of Burning Man, which — like most artists (Kelley likely included) — is both loved and hated simultaneously.

Most of the reviews (of both installations) have suggested that Smith and Kelley’s bringing Ikki to Burning Man is a way for the Mikes to satirize the safe hedonism of Black Rock City. The reviewers laugh along approvingly in a way that all seems very cynical and dismissive (from frieze to The New York Times, it’s read as Burning Man = Infantilism). Many of them project their own prejudices onto the affair of Baby Ikki: playing with matches and lighters while watching scenes from the 1973 film The Wicker Man and dreaming of pendulous breasts splashed suggestively with milk, wandering the desert with his cherished stuffed animal and overeating FireBalls, playing tetherball and getting grinded by volunteer strippers (most everyone but the federal police are volunteer at Burning Man) at Spike’s Vampire Bar.

In one astute accounting of Baby Ikki, an anonymous writer at EAI called the overgrown tyke less a take on infantilism and more a blank canvas to project on. The founder of Burning Man, Larry Harvey, saw the Black Rock Desert where the festival is held as an “enormous blank canvas.” Perhaps there’s a problem in projecting our desires, failings and existential dreads on either a grown man dressed as a toddler or a paid festival in the desert.
The convergence of these two observations does leave one wondering how these two blanknesses collide. Though Smith’s performance has something to do with infantilism, I pull back on the cynical read (though it may be echoed by Smith/Kelley) and put forward that Baby Ikki and Burning Man are both blank spaces upon which we can project whatever reading we want. So rather than a closed-down sardonic laugh-along, I’m going to let my own projection play out.

Baby Ikki is like one of symbolist prankster Alfred Jarry’s characters dropped into an Antonioni film — parties and vacations only serving to hide the fact that Baby Ikki’s life is rather absurdly purposeless. Burning Man is symbolically a stand-in for a whole host of things, good and bad, ranging from the failure of progressive ideals to pop’s debasement of traditional values, leaving us to find spiritual succor where we can. The tension in the work isn’t the Smith-as-Ikki versus a world that unflinchingly accepts his infant-play, but rather a love-hate relationship with pop, sub-pop, marginal communities, Dada-istic nonsense, and folk art (or in other words, art made by nonprofessional artists).

But Baby Ikki and Burning Man are whatever you make them, receptacles to pour whatever meaning you want into. Whatever they mean, their discomforting overlaps make their significance a little more slippery than most contemptuously facile readings would seem to allow.