After a very relaxed couple of days, it was brilliant to see the sun melting the most persistent patches of snow around the city. I was immediately impressed by the Stedelijk's recently revised facade housing a new wing, which has is fondly known as the bathtub.
The Stedelijk has, I understand, been transformed having been forced to close in 2004, due to poor maintenance and the lack of modern facilities, which meant that it did not meet today's exacting standards and was itself in need of a rebirth.
Amsterdam residents and culture hungry visitors alike were presumably thrilled when Benthem Crouwel architects who were awarded the tender (which cost Amsterdam city council a sobering €127m) have completed the renovation and construction contract implementing their daring design and doubling the previous gallery space. The The new Stedelijk boats an awesome 8000 m2 of exhibition surface area.
Just 4 months since it reopened, I was excited to walk through the impressive glass entrance for the first time. The highlights of the collection are on display in the old building (in a series of changing presentations). The new wing now hosts predominantly experimental, compelling exhibitions and film and video art.
I don't pretend to understand art. I enjoy the experience of absorbing it. I know what I like, and what I don't. I feel my way around gallery spaces, and exhibitions, allowing my senses to become involved and alive to what it is that I perceive.
The vast collection of Mike Kelley's work that consumes the new building, challenged both my cognitive and affective experience. There was a lot to take in. There was a lot I didn't get... The noises being projected into the spaces scattered with strange combinations of unlikely 'found' objects baffled and disturbed me. My antennae were on edge. I wondered whether I perceived the artist's own discomfort.
Kelley's work inspires the imagination. But it's not always a pleasant scene that is tirelessly provoked. He prods and pokes through every media, and even then persists further to conjure up a reaction. I like to drift through an exhibition, keeping up with only my mood. This was not a collection through which it was possible to drift. I felt alert from the opening scene where bold messages took us aback, and prepared for what was to follow.
There is much that harks back to a tough upbringing. His works pay homage to the working-class Catholic Detroit suburbs and his apparently lifelong rebellion against all they represent. Reading between the lines (not that there were any), one might infer that he violently threw off the expectations he was exposed to in youth, and art became the medium through which he articulated his disdain.
I was of course intrigued by his refusal to conform to the gender stereotypes one can assume were pretty rigidly upheld in middle America. Proudly, Kelley never did learn to conform. The windowless galleries make an ideal environment in which to be confronted by the products of his busy career.
"Art was a profession I chose specifically in order to be a failure."
Mike Kelley, interview by Artillery magazine
I was saddened rather than surprised to discover that depression ultimately took Kelley who killed himself last year, and did not get to see this assembly of his work so full of contradictions and challenge. This retrospective is nothing if not comprehensive, but I was left feeling confused. Perhaps there was in fact too much to see, to witness, to bear, and to make sense of.