Profile: Marc-Olivier Wahler

From non-art to art and back again: on the eve of a major Jim Shaw and Mike Kelley show, an interview with the director of the MSU Broad

Former Palais de Tokyo curator Marc-Olivier Wahler is bringing native sons Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw home to the Broad Museum at Michigan State University. Having acquired Shaw’s ‘The Hidden World’, the museum opens ‘Michigan Stories: Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw’ on 18 November. In addition to work from ‘The Hidden World’, Shaw’s massive collection of religious and cult materials gathered over nearly 40 years, the exhibition will feature early work from the artists’ years as students and highlight the activities of their proto-conceptual band Destroy All Monsters. We took this opportunity to sit down with Wahler to talk about Shaw and Kelley, as well as what a European curator might be doing at a Midwestern American museum.

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Marc-Olivier Wahler. Courtesy: MSU Broad

Marc-Olivier Wahler. Courtesy: MSU Broad

Saul Anton  Why did you choose to do a show about Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw at the MSU Broad?

Marc-Olivier Wahler  I’ve been working with Jim Shaw and Mike Kelley for more than 15 years. They changed my view of curating. I started to work with Jim in 2002 on his first ‘O-ist’ show at the Swiss Institute in New York, which included thousands of archival documents and a story revolving around religious orders and fictional characters. Then I saw ‘The Uncanny’ exhibition at Tate Liverpool, UK, in 2004, curated by Mike Kelley. I thought: ‘This is the show I’ve always dreamed of curating. This is the ultimate exhibition, and he has done it. What can I do after this?’ I kept working with both artists over the years. In 2012, I worked with Jim on ‘The Hidden World’ collection in Los Angeles, where I included part of it in a group show called ‘LOST (in LA)’, held at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Art Park. About a year later, we exhibited the entire collection in Paris before it went to Shaw’s retrospective at the New Museum, New York, in 2015. Now the Broad Museum at Michigan State University has acquired the entire collection, which means we’ll be able to archive it, scan it, and invite people to do research. That’s very exciting – and one of the many great reasons to do the show.

‘The Hidden World’ was really important for me personally because it helped me think about the famous question Marcel Duchamp once raised: ‘Can works be made that are not “art?”’ Duchamp realized early on that it was easy to go from non-art to art, but then spent the rest of his life trying to find a way to go back. Since then, many artists have tried something similar, insisting that what you see is what you see and nothing more. They have presented themselves as archeologists, biologists, or tourists, with the aim of finding a way to break down and explore the territory between art and non-art. It’s my biggest obsession – something I call a ‘reverse ontology.’

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Jim Shaw, The Hidden World, 1969–present, collection of religious and pedagogical materials, installation view, ‘LOST (in L.A.)’, 2012, Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery. Courtesy: Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo; photograph: the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery

Jim Shaw, ‘The Hidden World’, 1969–present, collection of religious and pedagogical materials, installation view, ‘LOST (in L.A.)’, 2012, Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery. Courtesy: Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo; photograph: the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery

SA  Where does Jim Shaw fit in your obsession?

M-OW  First, the visitor isn’t confronted with artworks. Nothing is further from art than these materials, which were mass-produced and mass distributed. These are documents of popular culture and we can find them in our mailboxes, garage sales, or church bazaars. So, it’s impossible to see this material as art. At the same time, it is made very talented people commissioned by these orders, churches, or societies. So it’s more than just a collection of flyers or simple objects. So, what is it? ‘The Hidden World’ offers a thoughtful response to Duchamp’s question. The show allows visitors to consider the individual objects for what they are, permitting them to coexist with art works. The philosopher Tristan Garcia speaks of a ‘plane of ontological equality,’ where all representations can coexist with ‘an equal coefficient of ontological dignity.’ What’s remarkable is that Shaw accomplishes it by showing documents that, for the most part, showcase the superiority of one belief at the expense of others.

SA  Are there specific works in the show you’re excited about?

M-OW  Yes, it will include many works being shown for the first time. There are collages that Mike Kelley made during his student years at the University of Michigan, as well as most of the drawings Jim Shaw made in high school, which have never been shown before. I’m also really excited that Jim will be performing with another Destroy All Monsters member, Cary Loren, during the show. The last time he performed in Michigan was back to 1976, so it’s exciting.

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Mike Kelley, Shrimp, Head, Pot, 1976, mixed media on paper. 46 x 69 cm. Courtesy: the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, Los Angeles. Art © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. All Rights Reserved / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; photograph: Fredrik Nilsen

Mike Kelley, Shrimp, Head, Pot, 1976, mixed media on paper. 46 x 69 cm. Courtesy: the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, Los Angeles. Art © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. All Rights Reserved / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; photograph: Fredrik Nilsen

SA  Today, an artwork can exist just about at any scale. It can be as tiny as a microbe or as large as a museum, which challenges the ability of institutions to contain, exhibit, and house it, both conceptually and physically. Is that something that you think about?

M-OW  Yes, of course, but it’s nothing new. Artists have long been interested in these issues of scale. What’s new, I think, is that publics today are ready and interested in looking at the boundaries between art and different fields like quantum physics, magic, science fiction, popular culture, or whatever. Everything is mixed up.

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Jim Shaw, Untitled (Obliterated High School Self Portrait), 2004, graphite on paper. Courtesy: Cranford Collection; photograph: the artist

Jim Shaw, Untitled (Obliterated High School Self Portrait), 2004, graphite on paper. Courtesy: Cranford Collection; photograph: the artist

SA  Remind me when Jim Shaw started the collection? And is it still growing?

M-OW  It all started here in Michigan, with Mike Kelley, Cary Loren, and Destroy All Monsters. At first, in the ’70s, Jim was just collecting things he got in the mail, like flyers. At some point he started going to thrift stores. Then friends started to help him and it continued when he moved to Los Angeles. For a long time, he collected things by going to places and finding things. But now, because of eBay and the internet, he’s in heaven, because it’s often the case that he’s the only person bidding on most of the things he’s buying.

SA  What do you see as the difference between Kelley’s and Shaw’s work?

M-OW 
Mike and Jim started with the same material, but over the years each developed their own vocabulary. What I find interesting, however, is not their differences but how much they have in common, especially their early work. They definitely share a deep interest in the perversion of the formal conventions of art. But this show is more about the context of their upbringing in Michigan.

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Mike Kelley, Untitled, 1974–2011, mixed media and collage on paper. 69 x 92 cm. Courtesy: the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, Los Angeles. Art © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. All Rights Reserved / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; photograph: Fredrik Nilsen

Mike Kelley, Untitled, 1974–2011, mixed media and collage on paper. 69 x 92 cm. Courtesy: the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, Los Angeles. Art © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. All Rights Reserved / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; photograph: Fredrik Nilsen

SA  Has the collection evolved in a specific direction? Is there something that Jim is collecting today that he wasn’t collecting twenty years ago?

M-OW  I think he’s still doing it largely in the spirit of a pedagogical society or an order that aims to teach people about a large universe of culture. But yes, he’s buying things that he didn’t buy in the past.

SA  Does your show have a specific focus?

M-OW  What interested me and my two co-curators for this show, Carla Acevedo-Yates and Steven Bridges, is that both Mike and Jim are from Michigan. One obvious point of interest is their ’70s band, Destroy All Monsters, which  – together with Niagara and Cary Loren – was much more than just a punk rock or noise band. They were interested in much more than music. They were actively concerned with every dimension of it, from designing flyers and covers to pressing the records, and so forth. To me, it’s clear that they were looking at how you deal with popular or vernacular culture within the wider context of art. They were aware of being weirdos, so it was about embracing that and understanding what was unique and specific about who and what they were. They were questioning the society they were living in, it wasn’t obviously just about themselves.

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The MSU Broad, designed by Zaha Hadid and opened in 2012. Courtesy: © MSU Broad 2017

The MSU Broad, designed by Zaha Hadid and opened in 2012. Courtesy: © MSU Broad 2017

SA  What’s it like being the director of a Zaha Hadid-designed museum in East Lansing, Michigan?

M-OW  The building is definitely a challenge, which is the case for all three museums built by this great architect. It took some time to hack the Zaha Hadid code in order to be able to use it, but I think I’ve figured it out. For this show, we’re using the architecture by hanging large Destroy All Monsters banners. Visitors will enter a space that looks something like a rock concert or a stage. I like the idea that at first you’re not sure where you are or how you’re supposed to behave. The museum doesn’t have to tell you, ‘Look, this is important, and here’s what you should think about it.’ If the visitors to this show can enter with the idea that they’re not in a museum but still somewhere out in the world of popular culture, that’s great. I like moments of tension in which you still can decide if what you see is art or not, or something in between.

SA  You’ve never been a traditional curator. This feels like a natural step for you.

M-OW  The main thrill, of course, is the tool – a new building that’s a real university museum with an interesting collection. It means that it’s possible to take risks and think about challenges. Michigan State University is a large research institution, which is perfect for me. My way of curating has always been about collaboration across different fields. In the past, I’ve worked with an engineering school in Moscow, a maths institute in Paris, and an entomologist in Japan. So I’m thrilled, because I can go across the street and speak with a world-class quantum physicist. We’ve started collaborating with the biotechnology department, the food department, the wild life department, with astrophysicists, chemists, and virtual reality specialists. The previous show, ‘The Transported Man’, involved a collaboration with the entomology department on attempts to synchronize the lighting up of fireflies and crickets chirping. We are also starting a collaboration between the artist Oscar Tuazon and the engineering department on water-filled windows in order to figure out how architecture can be used to see and understand water use. The starting point is a system for storing solar energy in water that dates back to the ’70s.

SA  That’s definitely not what museums traditionally do.

M-OW  If you want to analyze something, you need the right language. I think a good way to do that is to try to find ways of seeing things and working from outside the art world that one can then, sometimes, transpose into the art world and see if it casts a new light on what is at stake. I think that’s what Jim and Mike have done, and we’re still trying to fully understand the language they developed.

‘Michigan Stories: Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw’ runs at the MSU Broad from 18 November 2017 to 28 February 2018. 

Main image: The Broad Michigan State University. Courtesy: © MSU Broad 2017

Saul Anton writes about contemporary art and culture for many publications. He is former senior editor at BOMB Magazine and the author of Warhol’s Dream (2007) and Lee Friedlander: The Little Screens (2015). He teaches at the Pratt Institute, New York.

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