The first thing you notice is the screaming. I’m separating the adhesive from the back of my MoMA PS1 sticker while pretending to read the description for Mike Kelley’s 200-plus oeuvre when I remember something my friend told me about the exhibition last week. Something about how he didn’t know how the docents could stand being in each room for more than 20 minutes at a time. “Screaming,” he said. “So much screaming.”
The recollection comes about twenty minutes and ten dollars too late. Because right now I’m standing alone in the foyer of the museum, a month’s worth of nagging anxiety threatening to push me over the climatic edge of total mental deterioration. I look down the hallway towards monitors displaying cartoons of breathing, heaving, shaking glass bottles, each accompanied with its own horrible human exhalation. Screams, moans, the unsettling noises of which we are all capable.
When you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown, what you need is a blanket and a padded room, a Xanax if you can find one. What you don’t need are multiple floors of Mike Kelley’s assaultive conceptual videos. This is a lesson I learn the hard way.
I quickly leave the hallway filled with disturbing sounds and patrons clearly less brittle than myself, who luxuriate in front of each piece as though watching a sunset in the Florida Keys. The bottle theme continues in the next room – Kandors, that’s what they’re called. A projection screen displays a tornado of red Mylar violently tumbling between glass walls, over and over and over again like a washing machine, doomed to endless, repetitive, exhaustive motion. Projections like this play in each room, every one filled with different contents and subjected to varied motion.
There are Kandors in the flesh, as it were. Big glass bell jars affixed to crude rubber tubing and what I interpret to be an oxygen tank. The jars close in around glowing objects, little cities made of Kryptonite. Had I been born with a penis, reading comic books instead of playing with My Little Ponies, I would have caught onto the literal Superman references early on. I would have known that Kandor is the former capital city of Krypton. I would have known that it was stolen and shrunken down by the supervillain Brainiac. I would have known that Superman stole it back and that since then it has been stored in the Fortress of Solitude, permanently miniaturized and filled with tiny people and tiny buildings and trapped atmosphere.
But I know none of this. All I know is that I’m sort of having a nervous breakdown, and so, uniformed, I subjectively decide that all human beings are like these bell jars, each attached to an oxygen tank, a temporary source of life that will eventually run out or, like Mike Kelley, who killed himself last year, prematurely combust. And like these jars, everyone is covered in glossy, protective glass, filled with violent, endless turmoil. The difference, of course, is that no one sees our inner workings, no one knows how the mind of a stranger reels as they walk from the subway station to the inside of the MoMA PS1, wishing they’d simply get hit by a car, or fall down and break their knee, just to feel something other than a tiresome and familiar anxiety. No, all anyone sees is a glossy blonde in a knee-length black coat, standing in front of walls of art while tears well up from unseen place for no apparent reason whatsoever.
After being adequately abused, I walk up to the second floor. There’s a video playing in an inexcusably hot room. In it, two men talk about the genius of Sylvia Plath – the creator of a different kind of bell jar. On account of the temperature, I leave quickly, finding myself in an empty room filled with paintings of deranged frogs and porn stars masturbating with amorphous dildos. Perhaps feeling that I might need a moment alone, the male docent walks towards the exit, leaving me to contemplate my frogs and hairless whores.
In another room are pieces from the “Memory Ware Flats” series, large canvases covered in Mardi Gras beads, useless, meaningless bits of cheap plastic embedded in glue, reminiscent Walmarts, dollar stores, our paltry access to modern wealth and our hilarious recreations of things of real value. We’re all just like that dumb little troll Hoggle from the Labyrinth, with his idiotic reverence polymers and monomers, chemical compounds disguised as silver and gold. “Them’s my rightful property!” he screamed. “Them’s my jewels!”
Elsewhere lies an absurdly large crochet blanket covering hidden things, one of Kelley’s more obvious nods to repression. There’s a pitch black room with a narrow black tube you must get down on all fours and crawl through, which brings you to a peephole where you watch an edited version of the shower scene from Porky’s. I do not dare attempt it myself, being that I all I want to do right now is curl up and disappear somewhere, preferably not in New York. If I was a Mike Kelley crochet blanket, you would see mountains beneath the quilted yarn, jutting towards the ceiling and breaking through the roof.
The room that nearly does me in is one at the back, down a long hallway. In it, videos of young children indoctrinated to religions not of their choosing sing in choirs, pictures flip back and forth on projection screens. Again, with the noise, the cacophonous noise. An acute anxiety that has absolutely nothing to do with my own Catholic school upbringing wrenches around my chest. The effects of my bubbling nervous breakdown and Kelley’s penchant for assaultive, maximalist multimedia environments – what art critic Jerry Saltz once described as “clusterfuck aesthetics” — is pushing me towards a breaking point. I hurtle myself towards the third floor.
Here, it is quiet. There is stillness that begs for subtle thought. The boil of my blood tempers to a simmer as I find myself in a rainbow hallway, portraits of civilization’s greatest minds in red and blue and yellow and green, accompanied by partial quotes:
“I have a mad impulse to smash something, to commit outrages.” – Hermann Hesse
“I want to sing murder, for I love murderers.” – Genet
“We are a furious wind, preparing the great spectacle of disaster, fire, decomposition.” – Tzara
I spend a disproportionate amount of time in this room, so much so that a docent keeps appearing from nowhere, watching me as though I plan to use the corners of these paper posters as a depository for gum, kindling for arson. But I keep scanning the tenderly painted faces lining the walls, searching for a woman, a feminine voice with something important enough to say. But I get to the end and look back at a long hallway lined with men, not one woman to speak of.
I walk away, into a room about a fictional character called “Banana Man” and the collective cruelty of children, unsettled in a different way for the first time since I walked into the museum. The hallway, that rainbow of men, could only leave one to assume that all women over the course of time have been nothing more than shells encasing nothing. Their turmoil, seen or unseen, has been of little consequence. We are just pretty mouths filled with words that fall like pennies to the ground, devoid of value and left to rust, empty bell jars screaming into the void, nervous breakdowns that mean nothing.