Man Dresses Like Baby at Burning Man, No One Shocked

09/28/2009 12:40 PM |

Baby IKKI’s was a journey of self discovery and enlightenment, whatever that means. Picture a diapered dude in a motor home hurtling dangerously towards the New Age traveler/radical self-expression festival Burning Man, and you’ve got a scene from Mike Kelley and Michael Smith’s latest video collaboration. Now on view at the Sculpture Center, A Voyage of Growth and Discovery includes six projection screens amidst unpainted playground scaffolding, a tent filled with stuffed animals, and a large gong at the back of the gallery. In other words, the space looks like a giant fine art carnival in which spectacle and the fantastical intermittently produce linear narrative.

“It’s like a retreat for suburban Candy Ravers,” I told my friend, while watching three women wearing vampire teeth grind on Baby IKKI at one of the Nevada dessert raves. “…or the largest display of temporary public art in the country,” he countered. He was probably right, but the art snob in me was running thick enough that I hadn’t thought about it in that way. Instead, I mentally swept the festival under the vague cultural heading “events piggybacking insubstantial rhetoric about personal growth on other dubious claims about the higher purpose of art.”

If Baby IKKI “found” himself in the desert, Kelley and Smith’s video either isn’t interested or the process was insubstantial, and the installation means to reveal the vacuity of Burning Man through the absence of documented self-discovery. At the very least, IKKI poses a challenge to the festival, as the collaborative places the most dependent of beings in the midst of an event celebrating self-reliance.

The closest approximation of a Burning Man “exploration” comes in the form of IKKI’s dream—a loop of IKKI watching warm milk stream down his mother’s bare chest as flames flicker around her. It’s exactly the kind of strange vision you’d expect a child imagined by Kelley and Smith to have. Kelley, known for photographs of people humping stuffed animals and Smith, with his video nightmares that turn life into a game show, were clearly the collaborative team to dream up this baby’s sleeping thoughts.

Played by Michael Smith, baby IKKI acts just like a one-and-a-half-year-old child, minus the crying. Audiences watch him play with a gas range in the motor home, encounter video games at raves, and jump on various temporary architectural structures. As a lot of its activity fails to feel particularly safe for a child, the video evokes a range of feeling, from anxiety to laughter. Some scenes even border on the sublime.

IKKI arrives after the majority of artistic endeavors and free spaghetti camps have already been built, indicating the video’s focus on viewing as opposed to making. A positive response to visual stimulus usually involves Smith bopping up and down and sucking on his soother. Much like work made for the festival, this visceral reaction seems largely personal in nature.

“I think it’s about art,” my friend said finally. We listened to some more tinny electronica and watched an array of fires burning down temporary structures before I concurred. Past a focus on light, neither one of us were sure what the greater meaning of the piece was meant to be. And that sits just fine with me. While Burning Man ravers and the New Age travelers may succeed in locating identity, IKKI’s reveals the odds of finding oneself to be rather bleak, as unformed beings don’t have the tools to do so. If the installation is a metaphor for the fine art world, the mysteriousness of where these tools lie feels about right.

Here’s video of Smith performing Baby IKKI in Milan.