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MOCA Director Philippe Vergne on Art in Los Angeles

MOCA Director Philippe Vergne spoke with Artbound about Mike Kelley, the arts in Los Angeles and the future of MOCA.

What follows is a transcript of that conversation.

I am Philippe Vergne. I'm the director of MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. There won't be a new "Helter Skelter," that's the way it works. There won't be another Mike Kelley. These voices are too singular to be repeated.

Mike was a friend. That's a personal significance. Then the reason he became a friend is because his work for me has changed the way I look, and I think about art. Coming from so many directions, disciplines: popular music, punk music, popular culture, the history of architecture, history of literature -- somebody who actually took down all the silos that constitute a not practice, in order to bring them together.

This exhibition, as the first exhibition under my directorship was a way for me to feel like it was homecoming to a place I've never lived, and it set the bar aesthetically at the place where we can really start working, making the museum a very experimental museum. Mike Kelley was about experimentation.

I did not see the exhibition "Helter Skelter." At the time I was still living in Europe but the significance of "Helter Skelter" exploded in the art community. Most of my colleagues, most of my peers discovered Los Angeles art, Los Angeles artists through the gaze of this exhibition.

Mike Kelley, of course, many other artists, many other of Mike's friends were there but that's where in a way through "Helter Skelter," the equilibrium of the American art scene changed. From a moment where in New York was a place where we thought from Europe everything was happening, then we realized there is an alternative. And I'm using the word "alternative" because it was not only an alternative to New York, it was an alternative way of working, an alternative way to look at art, in a place that was not considered a center for many of us in the institutional world.

For the artists, it had been a center for many, many years. I would say since the mid to late 60s. The geopolitics of the art world are extremely different now. We cannot say that Los Angeles is the new center, that's not the way it works. Los Angeles through the voice of artists like Mike Kelley and others -- Ed Ruscha, Paul McCarthy, early on someone like Barbara Smith, people like Larry Peterman -- they represent now a totally different view on American art.

That's what was extremely moving for me, coming to MOCA at this moment, opening this exhibition within a week of my new position was to see these waves of artists. Artists for whom I have tons of respect, coming and paying tribute to an artist whom they love. And that also tells you something about the city. The arts and the art community in Los Angeles is articulated around the voices of artists, and for a few reasons because museums like MOCA were created by artists. But also the city, the art scene is organized -- I don't want to make a caricature but -- around three major schools where artists have been teaching, so their voice has been spread out throughout many generations of students that stayed here and continue to work. And that for me is what makes a difference in Los Angeles, is the voice of the artist.

That's also why for me MOCA, and the fact that Mike Kelly was at MOCA was so important because Mike Kelley was in the very first exhibition that MOCA organized -- very first one 35 years ago. Unfortunately, Mike Kelley is no more with us, but to see this exhibition acknowledge the importance of this artist, for the art community, really makes MOCA an artist's museum.

We do have the largest collection of Mike Kelley works in a museum collection. From the very early work that Mike Kelley was doing around scenarios, sketches for scenarios around performances, to some of the latest work that he has produced. The beauty of that is when the exhibition will be gone, we'll still be able to acknowledge Mike's importance through what could be one of the most beautiful, monumental installations of his work in any museum.

The Mike Kelley exhibition did not originate in Los Angeles. Actually it did, and it did not. It originated in Amsterdam at the Stedelijk Museum but the director of the Stedelijk Museum, Ann Goldstein who originated the exhibition was a curator at MOCA for over, I think, 20 years. So in a way we can take some credit there. So the show originated at the Stedelijk, went to the Pompidou Center in Paris, and went to MoMA PS1 in New York, and came here.

The exhibition that exists at the Geffen, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA Downtown Los Angeles, for me, is the closest from what Mike Kelley would have done. You enter this exhibition and the minute you pass the threshold of the door you are surrounded by waves of noise, of e majors, of colors, of screaming actors on video, and it is was what was happening in Mike's head. What looked like chaos when you enter the museum is actually organized chaos. And it was the way Mike was entering the world. It was a way Mike Kelley -- by setting, organizing, staging, these performances, these sculptures -- was articulating an extremely critical view not on the American culture but I would say on Western culture, and where notions such as power, political power, religion, education, could have been, could be, could still be an alienating force.

Bennett Simpson, our curator in charge of the exhibition here brought to the installation works, sculptures, films that to this day had never been seen on the West Coast. One example is the monumental installation titled "Framed and Frame" that belongs to a collector in Vancouver. This work is a critical take on the Chinatown Wishing Well. And that piece that is so emblematic to Los Angeles, and the different cultures that constitute Los Angeles, the moment also where these different cultures have friction with each other in the present and in their history. This piece for me needed to be here, actually should stay in Los Angeles forever, actually it's an open call to the collector, "please, please just give it to us."

One other reason the Mike Kelley retrospective is at MOCA is that MOCA has a very long history with Mike. We talked about "Helter Skelter" and that was -- as we discussed -- a very important cornerstone for the history of American art, for the history of the museum. Mike was in the very first exhibition 35 years ago, but museums and exhibitions also exist through relationships. One person who was here in Los Angeles, who was at the center of all these relationships between institutions and artists... and you have to know that at times artists have conflictual relationships with institutions, so you need a voice inside. And this person is Paul Schimmel. Paul Schimmel -- was the chief curator at MOCA for, I think, over 20 years -- is really the person who brought together the artists, this generation of artists to MOCA. And he was the curator of the exhibition "Helter Skelter." He was a very close friend of Mike Kelley, and you will see in the film that we will present that Paul remembers the day he met for the first time with Mike Kelley, and how surprising of a character he thought Mike was. And it was the beginning of a very long friendship, and Paul is still important for Mike Kelley. He was until very recently the chair of the Mike Kelley Foundation board, and is an important part of Mike's legacy, and for Los Angeles a very, very important voice.

One of the reasons the exhibition "Helter Skelter" was such a storm when it comes to art history, the understanding of American art, is that I think for the first time in American art history people became aware of a different aesthetic. What was coming out of New York at this time that was either pop art, or conceptual art, or minimal art. What was happening in Los Angeles didn't fit in any of these categories. It was work that was informed by the dominating culture of Los Angeles, Hollywood, not necessarily in an embracing way but with a distance. Then it was also a place where waves of influence coming from Asia, coming from Latin America, and in a strange way also coming from Europe but it was not the same influence as the one that stopped in New York. It was, I would say, a demented historical reference coming out of Europe.

If you would enter, for instance, Mike Kelley's studio at some point, you would see on his wall an image of the Viennese artist Rudolf Schwarzkogler who was doing some of the most radical, experimental performance in the post-war era in Europe. You would go to his library and you would pull a book by the performing artist and sculptor Tetsumi Kudo, who nobody knew. But in L.A., these voices, these performers are the voice. These artists came to Los Angeles to perform and it had an extremely deep impact on artists such as Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy. So the aesthetic was extremely different. There was also, I would say, a tension in Los Angeles between the finish fetish, the extremely sleek aesthetic that could have come from car culture, or Hollywood, or technology, and a very violent, dark Los Angeles noir tradition. It's always difficult to make this definitive statement but between these two traditions, Los Angeles was there.

And what makes also the difference between Los Angeles and a city like New York is Los Angeles didn't have any market. There was no market here. So it was extremely liberating. For the artists it was liberation. They didn't have to conform to anything that could fit on a wall or on a pedestal to be sold. I would say that -- and it's still true today -- space was available. The studios were bigger. The desert was available. So the notion of making, what was coming out of the artist's end was extremely different. And some of them went directly to the desert. Michael Heizer's "Double Negative" is a gigantic, monumental sculpture in the middle of the Nevada desert that belongs to MOCA's collection, it could only happen in the West. The reason why MOCA at the time could be an echo chamber for these voices is that someone like Paul Schimmel had his nose on the ground, he was listening to artists and therefore he was able to create a program that was about experimentation. He was about to create a program that was ahead of the establishment. And you look back 20 years later, and you realize how important it was. What needs to happen to a museum such as MOCA right now is to continue this tradition.

In an art world which is extremely different, where the pressures is extremely different, because what didn't exist at the time of "Helter Skelter," '92, was this incredible force of an art world that for the better -- and at times for the worse -- became a huge industry. In the museum part of it, we work with it, we work within it, we provide substance for it, content, but we cannot lose our mission. We cannot compromise. We have to continue to be this institution that will foster, show, collect, the artists who change the way we think of art. Why Mike Kelley was so important? He changed the way we think of art. And it happened in a dialogue.

MOCA was there for Mike from day one. We need to be there for artists at the beginning of their career. We talk about relationships. MOCA needs to be a place where we build relationships. MOCA needs to be the place where we can show art that to this day we do not understand. We need to take a leap of faith. We need to be a courageous institution. It was courageous in '92 when "Helter Skelter" was invented, was curated. And we need to be this institution which is ahead of a trend. Again, the art world has changed so much -- art fairs, galleries everywhere, magazines everywhere, a huge amount of desire for contemporary art. We need to be the most radical voice.

I don't think the word excitement really translates. I don't sleep anymore. It's more about being elated, and extremely focused. And of course excitement is part of that. I was just kidding. But it's a responsibility. A responsibility to the history of the institution, and a responsibility, vis-à-vis a trust that the artists put in MOCA. Artists such as Mike Kelley, that's why we have so many works in the collection. Artists such as, I would say Bob Irwin and Sam Francis were the two first artists involved with MOCA, and without whom MOCA would not exist. And it's a responsibility, vis-à-vis their vision of what the museum should be -- an artists museum.

The role of MOCAtv is actually very specific. Very unusual. I don't think, I don't see, I don't know any other institution with the equivalent of MOCAtv, meaning a TV channel. We talked about the role of MOCA to be experimental, the responsibility to be experimental. In many ways, MOCAtv is an incubator for MOCA, a two-level incubator because we can generate, promote, distribute content. And it could be content about Rothko, but it's also a way for us to start entering a dialogue with artists who are using technology we don't understand, who are producing art in ways that we might not think of as being art today. A tool for distribution, an incubator for ideas, and a lab for production. So it's a very unusual function for a museum, but today, I think it's extremely important that we can have this way to enter the world. You talk about technology, digital, new technology, I actually think -- and not to be contradictory -- that there's no more old, and new technology. I think this is totally fluid. It's like breathing. It's like circular breathing. We need to be part of this conversation. We need to be working, and using these platforms. And without MOCAtv, MOCA wouldn't even have a voice or a visibility for an audience that communicate, create, develop a lifestyle, through a new mode of communication.

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