Mike Kelley’s Kandors is haunting, otherworldly

Nestled in a historic flour mill in Los Angeles’ burgeoning Arts District is a visually opulent and hauntingly ethereal testament to misanthropy — Mike Kelley’s Kandors 1999-2011v series at Hauser & Wirth.

On view for the first time in the United States, Kandors posthumously integrates Kelley’s representations of the fictional hero Superman’s birthplace, which Kelley created from 1999 to his death in 2012, and pays a mordant, yet moving tribute to themes of loss, entrapment and detachment.

The story of Kandor, the capital of Superman’s home planet Krypton, is harrowing and fittingly retold by Kelley’s variant works. According to comic book lore, Kandor was shrunken by the villain Braniac and rescued by Superman, who harbored his city and its miniature citizens in a bell jar in his Fortress of Solitude. This narrative is dramatized in an immersive viewing experience that is equal parts electrifying and disheartening.

The exhibit opens with Kelley’s sculptures of Kandor; 20 large-scale renditions of the city are illuminated by colored lights, encased in glass bell jars and displayed on pedestals throughout an otherwise black room. Snaking out of the tip of each bell jar is a hose connected to a gas tank, intended to parallel the Kryptonian oxygen Superman funneled into the jars to keep Kandor’s citizens alive.

Walking through the room, the effect is a jarring meditation on the nature of loss and memory as visitors are forced to confront Superman’s metaphorical disconnection from his home.

Kelley’s Kandors series is inspired by the story of Superman and explores the ethereality of his home city of Kandor. Photo courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

Mounted on the wall in the next room are glowing images of Kandor, reminiscent of comic book drawings, but converted into back-lit lenticular prints that shift vaguely depending on the viewing angle. Through these pieces, Kelley highlights a contrast between the three-dimensional sculptures and the two-dimensional graphic illustrations, though both are vibrant and lifelike in their own right.

The sci-fi ethereality of Kandor and Superman’s story is most impressively evident in the multi-part, multimedia piece “Kandor 4,” consisting of large glass bottles and more sculptures of the city next to richly hued video projections of glittery debris swirling madly in bell jars.

The zenith of the exhibit is a terrifyingly theatrical installation titled “Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude),” a black chrome cave-like structure littered with unnerving paraphernalia — boulders, a gas tank, a loose chain — that entices viewers merely through its magnitude and mystique.

Projected on a wall inside the Fortress is the Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #36 “Vice Anglais” video, which satirically depicts costume-clad individuals milling about and engaging in sadomasochistic activities. All the while, hushed, static audio echoes around the dark grotto so that visitors are completely immersed in an environment of abject debauchery and perversion. From top to bottom in this elaborate piece, Kelley demonstrates his unrivaled capacity to bring the depths of his tortured psyche to life in vivid detail.

Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles’ winding layout makes the exhibit difficult to follow in its linearity, but has the effect of added complexity and convolution. Presented in total darkness with the sole sources of light emanating from the artworks themselves, Kandors is eerie, pessimistic and labyrinthine through and through. Borne from the recesses of the mind of a depressed genius, Kelley’s masterpieces offer a beautiful introspection on trauma and loneliness, bigger than life and conveyed through the lens of a cosmic apocalypse.