I discovered Mike Kelley only a few months ago; I was working with teddy bears and was naturally drawn to his work, where he arranged stuffed toys into childlike, “teddy bear’s picnic” formations and created sculptures by fusing various toys together. I was attracted to the way he seemed to mess around with the objects, creating a sense of curios and play, yet the final result would often have a dark or serious meaning. With the stuffed bears in particular, he questioned the toys’ emotional value, which was the idea I was developing in my own work.
The next project I worked on saw me yet again looking to Kelley for inspiration. In October 2011, I visited the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead with my classmates to see the Turner Prize exhibition. However, most, if not all, of my peers were more awe-inspired by a work being shown on the floor above the Turner Prize show. Created by Mike Kelley and Michael Smith it was “The Voyage of Growth and Discovery”.
As we approached the room, I could hear the dull thuds of rave music. The doorway into the room was dark. I clocked a sign that read, “This exhibition may be unsuitable for young children”. I knew we were in for something good. As soon as I walked in, I was greeted with a whirlwind of lights, music and activity. A number of screens leered into the middle of the room, each one showing a video of Smith dressed in a baby outfit – his character, Baby IKKI – partaking in the Burning Man festival in Nevadaa. There was even a huge metal effigy of IKKI as the centerpiece of the exhibition. Kelley had built structures that reminded me of playground climbing frames and had attached various stuffed toys to them, the element that makes his work so distinctive. One of these structures was accessible, where visitors could roll around on a bed of teddies (the kids in the room had spent no time working this out). I could have spent hours in there, where all I felt was pure excitement.
I carried the experience I had into my next project, where my focus was carnival aesthetics and the link these rituals have with modern festivals. Throughout the project, I thought about how Kelley created an atmosphere – his use of lighting, music, imagery and decoration – to evoke emotions in an audience. I considered all of the things I had seen and heard and integrated them into my own work, as I shared an interest in combining Pagan celebration with modern culture. For that reason, I would say that the installation was my main artistic influence for the project, but it was also the most interesting and exciting installation I have ever seen. I enjoyed it so much, that I even bought the CD of the tracks played in the video shown.
No doubt I will continue to use my experience of being around Kelley’s work to influence the art I create. He inspired something fresh and exciting to be brought to contemporary art, a contribution that will be greatly missed. Personally, I have never felt so sad about someone I did not know personally passing away, because his work had a huge impact on me and will continue to for as long as I am making art.
Charlotte Wilkie-Sullivan is a Year 2 HND Contemporary Art Practice Student at Edinburgh’s Telford College