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Sérgio Bessa- When I heard last year that you were writing an essay on Öyvind Fahlström I got very curious. Then I was told that you had actually met him in the 1970s. There are many things your work has in common with his, especially with regard to logic systems. Do you feel that you've been influenced by his work?
Mike Kelley- I've always been a big fan of Fahlström. Even when I was in my twenties, I liked the complexity of his work. But at first my interest in systems came from my interest in literature. I was interested in the writings of Raymond Roussel, and the way that kind of systematic approach freed you from being too involved in the subject matter of the work and allowed you to develop artworks without having to get so involved in personal interests. I liked Roussel because of his word games. He could write a whole novel full of incredible detail, completely exotic and amazing, and yet it wasn't some kind of personal exploration. There was plenty of room within there to free-associate, but there was also plenty of room to use things that were quite alien to you.
SB- You wanted your work to have that kind of complexity?
MK- I wasn't so organized at that time, because I was trained as a formalist and I was working against that somewhat. I was interested in the "new novel," like the work of Burroughs and the "cut-up method." I also became interested in Beuys' work, which was all based in mythic systems, a kind of materialist approach to myth. I became interested in all those things. Then when I came to California, most of my teachers were conceptualists, and they were interested in more of a systems approach; but what I didn't like was that they also had a reductivist approach, and I really liked the maximalist approach of Fahlström and Beuys, people like that.
SB- A little more messy?
MK- Yes, and more worldly. I tempered the messiness of that earlier approach with the reductivism of conceptualism at that point, and tried to play with that a bit, but that didn't last very long. I started doing performances, and that's what led me into doing all these projects that are based to some degree in logic systems. But in the beginning, when I was younger, my work was based more in visual analogies, but through the influence of the conceptual artists it became a little more language-oriented.
SB- You mentioned earlier that you wanted to avoid getting involved in personal interests, but in works such as "Monkey Island," for instance, your point of departure was a childhood memory.
MK- Well, I never wanted to leave out the biographical; I just didn't want it to be predominant. I wanted to treat biographical things as equal to fiction, mixed with fictive elements or historical elements, and I didn't want to deny that because, for example, I've always been interested in surrealist art, and I liked that surrealist art had a program: it wasn't just about gushing, it was about taking all these memories and then trying to put that material back into a kind of sociological context. Which is something that I think was never taken very seriously with the transition of surrealism into America. The programmatic social aspect was left behind, and it all became really subjective; but I always thought the analytic aspect of surrealism was not so different from conceptualism.
SB- That's true. Fahlström also owes a lot to surrealism.