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From Milan to New York, the Art World Is Celebrating Mike Kelley

Since the artist Mike Kelly died last year, a flurry of retrospectives have opened. An epic show co-curated by Emi Fontana currently runs at the HangarBicocca. In between summer travels, Emi took some time to talk about the late artist.
July 28, 2013, 7:05pm
Mike Kelley and Emi Fontana inside Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction # 1 (A Domestic Scene), 2000, Exhibition view, Galleria Emi Fontana, Milan, © Armin Linke

July 18, 2013 marked the one year anniversary of Mike Kelley's ashes being scattered at Bryce Canyon in Utah. Mike died of an apparent suicide over a year and a half ago in Los Angeles, but his legacy as a video and installation artist is just beginning.

Reflecting on Mike's death, John Waters said Mike was his “favorite living artist,” and Mike’s former art professor John Baldessari said the late artist was “a bit like Jesus.” Since we last reported on Kelley’s memorial, a flurry of retrospectives have opened. The current show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris runs until August 5 and then travels to MoMA PS1 in New York on October 7—which is funny since Mike was critical of the New York art world and once said the historical timeline of the MoMa is "pure bullshit." And another epic show runs at the HangarBicocca in Milan until September 8th.


Titled Eternity is a Long Time, the show’s name derives from a phrase a character says to his partner before they both commit suicide, in Mike's Projective Reconstruction #1 (A Domestic Scene) from 2000. Walking into the exhibit is a bit like walking into a hollow, blackened funhouse with voices coming from every corner. The show includes work made during Mike's golden era from 2000 to 2006 and features Kelley’s installations, videos, and sculptures. The show is co-curated by Andrea Lissoni and Emi Fontana, Mike's former partner who used to run the Galleria Emi Fontana in Milan and went on to work in Los Angeles with legends like Cindy Sherman. During her time as a Milan-based gallerist. Emi showed Mike's first show. In between summer travels, she took some time to talk about her first impression of Mike, his weakness for ass kissers, and why curating is a lot like being a good editor.

VICE: You knew Mike Kelley for 15 years. How did you meet him?
Emi Fontana: We met in 1996. I first met his art. It happened in Berlin in 1990, where there was the show Metropolis. I saw his installation Pay for Your Pleasure. I was in a transitional moment of my life; I didn’t know if I wanted to commit full time to contemporary art. I am coming from very underground and cutting edge experiences. In the early 1980s, I was fully immersed in Italian counterculture. Mine was a bourgeois family interested in art. Art has always been my passion; I studied Renaissance art history in Rome, and I loved to get stoned and wander in those beautiful churches. Growing up, the contemporary art world seemed to me kind of phony and petty bourgeois, with all these handsome male artists who wanted to get rich and famous and all these gallerina types who want to dress in Prada. So, during my college years, I was immersing myself in art history from the past that seemed somehow freer from the banality of high society that was starting to affect the art world. But in Berlin, in 1990, seeing Mike’s Pay for Your Pleasure made me think it was worth getting fully involved in contemporary art.


How did you end up curating Mike’s show in 1996?
I opened a gallery in Milan in 1992. In 1996, I took my first trip to Los Angeles to meet with Mike Kelley, wanting to show his work at my gallery. I have a very vivid memory of our first encounter and also a journal entry. The introduction between us was made by Rosamund Felsen, a great lady with an amazing eye. She was his gallerist at the time. I went to see him in his studio which was also his house. (He was working from his garage then.) I remember Mike welcoming me; the doorframe could not contain all the fiery energy emanating from his small body. I thought he looked like an elf, a creature from the woods. We went to eat lunch at this Mexican Restaurant in the neighborhood. We had moles and margaritas, although it was just lunch time. We talked about art in general. I found out he had this amazing knowledge of art history and poetry. Also, halfway during our lunch, under the table, he grabbed my feet in between his. I got a bit confused at that point.

What was the experience like working as a curator with Mike?
When I first started to work with Mike I was officially a gallerist, but I operated as a curator. I am always very close to artists, and I follow their creative process quite carefully. I think it is something I am naturally good at. I believe a good curator is basically a good editor.

What else makes a good curator for an artist like Mike?
A good curator is someone that even in the process points something out to the artists that him or her haven’t seen yet in his or her own work. A good curator is a good story teller that can tell an artist what he or she doesn’t know yet about their work. Then I like to think about the original meaning of the word curator, which is “taking care.” I was helping Mike in this way. We had a constant exchange about his art. Even when I was travelling and we were apart, he used to call me with some idea about his work or to read me something he wrote. I will have to say that I was one of the few, if not the only one, in his inner circle to give him some real honest criticism. He didn’t necessary like it; one of his main weakness, which I think contributed to killing him, was that he really had a soft spot for ass kissers.

What was going on in Mike’s life from 2000 to 2006?
We started to date in 2000 after he installed his first show in my gallery in Milan. It was a very happy moment in his life and mine too. His creativity was at its highest peak. He was fully confident with it and started to incorporate all kinds of different media in his work. On a personal level, he cut off drinking a lot, and for the first time in his life he was starting to take vacations. So we were travelling a lot together for work and for pleasure. We loved to go see art from all ages together, and then we were having these passionate and inflamed conversations about what we saw. These are also the years in which he became really famous and successful, also financially successful. Toward the end of our romantic relationship in 2007, I was getting really worried about him. I was begging him, “Please don’t sell your soul” I do have a karmic tie with genius people who end up getting destroyed by their success. I was aware of Mike’s most beautiful and fragile inner self, and I wanted to protect it.

Was Mike a very nostalgic person?
Yes, and so am I. The world “ nostalgia” comes from Greek, and according to its etymology means “the pain to go home.” The last Mike Kelley project that he signed off few days before his death is the making of a replica of his childhood house in Detroit. For that project he wrote his last song. It is a very sad song, and its refrain says, “I wanna go home.”

Do you feel like Mike’s spirit is around at times?
There are things I cannot really say about this. It is a very delicate topic, because I obviously take spirits and ghosts very seriously, but I am not afraid of them because I think they help the living ones. Mike is somewhere and his spirit is travelling and moving to different dimensions. Exactly a year ago on July 18th, we went to Utah to disperse his ashes, according to his wishes. Yesterday afternoon, I was trying to take a nap, not consciously thinking about the proximity of the date. I was still awake when suddenly I felt transported to Bryce Canyon in the Ether. Certain things are hard to talk about, but I know Mike Kelley is somewhere and is getting happier and happier. He doesn’t give a shit about the art world, but the art world should really think about him.

Eternity is a Long Time runs until September 8, 2013 at the HangarBicocca in Milan.