Mike Kelley and Michael Smith: “A Voyage of Growth and Discovery,” installation detail, 2009; c. 2009 SculptureCenter and the artists, Photo by Jason Mandella

Mike Kelley and Michael Smith: “A Voyage of Growth and Discovery,” installation detail, 2009; c. 2009 SculptureCenter and the artists, Photo by Jason Mandella

Mike Kelley and Michael Smith

SculptureCenter, Long Island, September, 2009

Mike Kelley and Michael Smith are iconoclasts who for years have challenged accepted conventions, creating artworks that provoke and titillate. Although friends since 1975, they have never collaborated before. “A Voyage of Growth and Discovery,” their first work together, is significant in this regard. Here each man has brought his own sensibilities — the signature stuffed animals for Kelley; Baby Ikki for Smith — and in collaboration have fashioned an environment where documentation of Baby Ikki at an arts festival (Burning Man) is surrounded by sculptures, lights and artifacts that transport viewers both physically and spiritually to the event’s local.

The installation moves from outside to inside. Viewers are first greeted by a row of portable toilets and Baby Ikkii’s dilapitated VW van, the interior of which contains a chair-like sculpture created by assembling numerous stuffed toys. As the viewer moves into the gallery space they cross the threshold from day to night and are immediately confronted by pulsating lights and a room filled with music.

In the darkened space six video projections recant Baby Ikki’s journey to and during the festival, culled from hours of footage and edited into a six part narrative. Smith attended Burning Man as Baby Ikki, staying in character and filming his performance at the four-day event. Watching the videos in fragments reflects the event where many things happen simultaneously and where what is thought of as the ultimate group experience can also become quite isolating. Each screen is hung in or near its own individually spotlit structure, separating the journey into discrete segments.

The environment adds vitality to the piece that both celebrates and critiques the festival. Using sections of metal tubing the artists have assembled open tents and domes that resemble Buckminster Fuller’s architecture. These empty structures house the screens upon which Smith’s videos are projected and suggest what remains when the crowds have gone. In one the floor is littered with a rug of stuffed animals — a recognizable Kelley trademark. Wandering through this environment one is thrust into confronting the pros and cons as to whether this is an adult or child’s world. The centerpiece of the installation, like the centerpiece at Burning Man, is a larger-than-life size junk sculpture that towers above the installation. Both docile and threatening this man/child is Baby Ikki, still intact, as the sculpture has not been burned. The sculpture is an amazing tower of discarded objects that speaks of what is sacred and what is waste in today’s society.

“A Voyage of Growth and Discovery” is just that. It charts the voyage of an invented character at a real festival that is the ultimate fantasy world. Rather than recreate the environment that reflects the hot desert days, Kelley and Smith have created the chill of the night, when all that remains is the memory.