Mike Kelley and Michael Smith
Sculpture Center, New York
Through November 30
by Katie Geha
My first encounter with Baby Ikki, Michael Smith’s ongoing baby man performance piece, was in the atrium of the Blanton Museum of Art. Dressed in a large man-sized cloth diaper and a crocheted bonnet, Baby Ikki toddled through the open space, pointed at objects in delight, and crushed a banana with his hands. Such baby play felt awkward and uncomfortable in the museum setting. People around me laughed nervously as we watched this hairy-legged man inhabit the mannerisms of a young child. I distinctly remember thinking, “Who is dating this man?”
Baby Ikki may have found a more receptive, or at least complicit, audience at Burning Man, the yearly festival of all things psychedelic and, perhaps, all things infantile. In his new collaboration with Mike Kelley at SculptureCenter, Smith presents a six-screen video installation chronicling Baby Ikki’s odyssey in the Nevada desert. The videos are flanked by Kelley’s metal sculptures made to look like quasi-playground equipment that are decorated with his familiar tattered stuffed animals. Kelley’s structures act as formal armatures of play to Smith and Kelley’s more compelling video.
Good natured and curious, Baby Ikki toddles through the desert, plays in a sandbox, watches TV in his RV, takes a nap and dreams of lactating breasts. There’s no bedtime for Baby Ikki and at night he wanders into various tents, does a toddler half-stomp to the house music, and is even dragged on stage for a special dance with three women who gyrate up against his diaper and mug salaciously for the camera. Some of the most telling moments, both about the character Baby Ikki and the nature of Burning Man, are the encounters Smith has with other festival goers. At once intrigued and slightly put-off, these participants dressed as their own personae, ranging from bunny rabbits to costumed men in stilts, engage with Baby Ikki with a bemused look. Let your freak flag fly.
At times the images on the six screens act as competing narratives, and at other times, four of the screens synch up to create a rest in the chaos. There is a quietness and sweetness when Baby Ikki walks alone in the desert, four screens portraying the baby-man as a lone wanderer looking for his own particular trip. Placed in this context of a tribal community, Baby Ikki seems even more like a cast out character. He is not a participant in the various drum circles; rather, he is an interloper as he self-consciously reflects the carefree festival goer—a reminder of the base nature of their chosen realities.
Katie Geha is pursuing her Ph.D. in art history at The University of Texas at Austin.