Hero Image
Mike Kelley:
Educational Complex
Whitney Moon

John Miller
MIT Press

Historically, the model has afforded architects the means by which to experiment with and express their ideas in physical form. Operating as an adjunct for the real thing (i.e., a proposed building), the perceived literalness of a model is perhaps its most cunning, yet underexploited, characteristic. For example, architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen refers to the model as a “privileged instrument of negotiation in architecture.”1 Although models offer a certain degree of accessibility through physical and material presence, Cohen acknowledges that the purported objectivity of a model is “obviously an illusion.”2 That is, as discursive and spatial instruments, architectural models possess a duality of ideation and communication.3

In 1976, for the Idea as Model exhibition at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York, architect Peter Eisenman invited participants to submit architectural models that were conceptual in nature (meaning, about an idea), rather than the direct (or literal) representation of a building.4 Building upon his interest in the intersection between architecture and Conceptual Art, Eisenman attempted to demonstrate that the model afforded the freedom to explore architectural ideas outside of the discipline’s traditionally objective preoccupations.5 Despite his intent, most of the models entered in the exhibition resorted to architectural convention, with the exception of architecturally trained artist Gordon Matta-Clark’s unwelcome contribution, Window Blow-Out (1976).

Since the 1970s, architecture has served as the site and subject through which a radical rethinking of the visual arts has occurred. The plethora of artists who produce sculptures and installations akin to architecture—Michael Asher, Wim Delvoye, Thomas Demand, Dan Graham, Josiah McElheny, Michael C. McMillen, Roxy Paine, Tom Sachs, Rachel Whiteread, Andrea Zittel, and so on—suggests an ongoing fascination with the capacity for buildings to operate as both literal and conceptual vessels for subjective expression.8 But what are the implications of artists working in the guise of architectural production, and more specifically, how might artists expose architects to the conceptual (i.e., discursive) potential of the architectural model?

For artist Mike Kelley (1954–2012) and his self-proclaimed “bias against architecture,” the architectural model operates as a rhetorical instrument to express subjective ideas through a seemingly objective guise.9 In Educational Complex (1995)—a gridded tabletop model (8’ w x 16’ l x 50” h) composed of scaled representations of all the institutions where he attended school, as well as his childhood home in suburban Detroit, all constructed from memory—Kelley deployed seemingly banal architectural forms not so much as an appraisal of architecture per se, but rather as a vehicle to launch multiple forms of institutional critique. A collection of white generic buildings, encased in Plexiglas and resting on sawhorses, the sculpture also features a mattress placed on the floor beneath a hole cut into its base, suggesting that this is not an architectural model as we know it.

Miller—an artist, musician, writer, and currently a Professor of Professional Practice in Art History at Barnard College in New York, where he has taught since 2000—was also Kelley’s longtime friend, colleague, and collaborator, since the two first met as MFA students at CalArts in 1978. The premise of the book is to explore how and why Educational Complex marks a transformation in Kelley’s work from “carnivalesque inversion[s] of social hierarchy” to “cooler, more detached modes of representation[s]” (p. 94). Specifically, Miller unpacks Kelley’s use of the term “complex” as three distinctly different yet simultaneous conditions: “an architectural configuration, a psychological syndrome or a political apparatus” (p. 18). Miller explains how Kelley “exploits these possibilities to test the institution of art as an ideological horizon, linking them to a dialectic between the sublime and the uncanny” (p. 18). A sculpture masquerading as an architectural model, Educational Complex is described by Miller as “cool and detached” and Kelley’s “most impersonal work” (p. 17).

According to Miller, “The antagonism between Kelley and his audience, both real and imagined, concerns the dynamics of projection” (p. 16). Although at first glance the sculpture looks like a pristine composition of modern buildings, a closer inspection reveals a network of nonsensical spaces, representative of the artist’s incomplete memory. Rather than an accurate rendition of the buildings in which Kelley was educated and raised, Miller discusses how “the piece is fundamentally incoherent; Kelley asks his viewers to contemplate what is not there, the identifiable parts serve primarily to frame this gaping absence” (p. 18). Educational Complex employed “not only generic forms of architecture, but also the popular fantasies associated with ritual sexual abuse and false memory syndrome” (p. 94). Kelley, who was frustrated by the critical misreading of his earlier works as nostalgic and traumatic, conceived of this “pseudo-biography” to taunt his viewers (p. 16). “On this basis,” Miller writes, “Educational Complex functions as a subterfuge, ostensibly limiting any criticism aimed at it to projection” (p. 17).

The accessibility of Miller’s art historical text, paired with its commitment to unpacking a sculpture that is more or less an enormous complex of ambiguous architectural models, reveals how and why Kelley engages with both the form and content of architecture to address larger artistic and societal preoccupations. Exploiting the communicative possibilities of architectural representation, Miller exposes how Kelley grasped at the mundane and banal dimensions of the built environment as a means to deny viewers and critics the visual delights afforded by his earlier, and often radically misinterpreted, works. In lieu of the plush, colorful, and complex qualities of his previous sculptures (e.g., More Love Hours than Can Ever Be Repaid [1987] and Craft Morphology Flow Chart [1991]), Miller evidences how and why Kelly employs everyday architecture to critique the institutionalization of art—namely, art education and art criticism. Miller writes, “The appearance of these combined buildings, not surprisingly, fails to meet utopian expectations, suggesting instead a labyrinth of bland conventionality—or conventional blandness” (p. 14).

Whereas most art historical texts privilege a formal reading of the completed work, Miller’s approach is refreshing in its capacity to engage on a multiplicity of levels. Clearly organized and written, the book serves as a concise road map to not only Kelley’s Educational Complex but also his artistic oeuvre. Architectural audiences will find particular delight in its insight into the praxis, or making, of an artwork (sculpture)—in particular the negotiation between concept and craft, or idea and ideation. One of the most fascinating inclusions in this book, particularly for architects, is the story of how the models were conceived and constructed. Accompanied by photographs of its making in Kelley’s garage, Miller explains how the architecting of Educational Complex involved employing recent SCI-ARC graduates to assist Kelley with spatializing and materializing this mnemonic complex of “all the schools the artist ever attended plus his childhood home” (p. 13). Although Kelley anticipated that the work would take three and a half months to complete, the complexity of the models and his high craft standards resulted in an eighteen-month turnaround (p. 21). Apparently, Kelley underestimated the complexity of crafting a large architectural model, initially assuming it “would be just ‘a foam-core and hot-glue exercise’” (p. 22).

It is important to keep in mind that Mike Kelley: Educational Complex is written by an artist and art historian, who is not making a point of deliberately addressing an architectural audience. Hence, readers hoping to find an overtly architectural analysis of Kelley’s sculpture may, in fact, be disappointed. Yet the profound value of Miller’s book is not merely how it sheds light on the inception and reception of an important contemporary work, but expressly how it reengages architecture with Conceptual Art. Namely, Mike Kelley: Educational Complex reminds us that the architectural model is both a discursive and spatial instrument, which can be deployed to exploit both its objective and subjective qualities. In Miller’s words, Kelley exposes how “the apprehension of space is an ongoing endeavour, not a final aggregate—even if the apparent fixity of architecture suggests otherwise” (p. 19).

  1. Jean-Louis Cohen, “Models and the Exhibition of Architecture,” in The Art of Architecture Exhibitions, ed. Kristin Feireiss (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2001), 25.
  2. “Models could claim a certain legibility and objectivity, which are obviously an illusion” (ibid.).
  3. “In the Baroque period, models continued to be both instruments of dialogue between architects, sovereigns and religious orders, and instruments for the development of complex spatial schemes” (ibid.).
  4. In the preface to the Idea as Model exhibition catalog, Eisenman states: “This exhibition had its origins in a long-standing intuition of mine that a model of a building could be something other than a narrative record of a project or a building. It seemed that models, like architectural drawings, could well have an artistic or conceptual existence of their own, one which was relatively independent of the project that they represented.” See Peter Eisenman, “Preface,” in Idea as Model (New York: Rizzoli, 1981), 1.
  5. In a 1970 issue of Design Quarterly devoted to the subject of Conceptual Architecture, Peter Eisenman went so far as to dispense with the architectural object altogether. His essay, “Notes on Conceptual Architecture”—four pages comprised of only footnote numbers suspended in space—suggested that, like Conceptual Art, the architectural idea was more important than its material presence or objecthood. See Peter D. Eisenman, “Notes on Conceptual Architecture: Towards a Definition,” in Design Quarterly, ed. John Margolies (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1970), 1–5.
  6. See Pamela Lee, Object to Be Destroyed (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 115.
  7. “What is most important is that, in the process of dearchitecturization, architecture became an operational model for the combined effects of rethinking the nature of medium and materiality in the arts, the transformation of the passive viewer into an active participant, and the development of an environmental approach to the space of art. Each of these shifts is evident in much of the cultural production of the decade, but architecture was the only discipline that hosted them all.” Sylvia Lavin, ed., Everything Loose Will Land: 1970s Art and Architecture in Los Angeles (West Hollywood, CA, and Nürnberg, Germany: MAK Center and Verlag für modern Kunst Nürnberg, 2013), 27.
  8. For contemporary discussions on the relationship between art and architecture, see Hal Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2011); Isabelle Loring Wallace and Nora Wendl, eds., Contemporary Art about Architecture: A Strange Utility (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013).
  9. “With this project I’m dealing with my bias against architecture, but a couple of projects warmed me up to it.” Mike Kelley, Mike Kelley: Minor Histories: Statements, Conversations, Proposals, ed. John C. Welchman (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 325.
  10. In the introduction to Le Corbusier: Toward an Architecture, Jean-Louis Cohen states how the book’s title has been repeatedly mistranslated as “toward a new architecture.” See Cohen, Le Corbusier: Toward an Architecture, trans. John Goodman (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007), 49.
  11. Mike Kelley, Whitney Museum of American Art, “Audio Guide Stop for Mike Kelley, Educational Complex, 1995,”
  12. http://whitney.org/WatchAndListen?play_id=437 (accessed July 24, 2016).
  13. Antony Vidler, “Deep Space/Repressed Memory: Mike Kelley’s Educational Complex,” in Warped Space: Art, Architecture and Anxiety in Modern Architecture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).

How to Cite this Article: Moon, Whitney. Review of Mike Kelley: Educational Complex, by John Miller. JAE Online. September 15, 2016. https://jaeonline.org/issue-article/mike-kelley/.

Artist, writer and musician John Miller met Mike Kelley as graduate students at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Miller explains how the concepts of school and education influenced Kelley’s work, particularly “Educational Complex” (1995), an architectural model of every school the artist attended.