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Martin Kersels, Martin Scrubby, 2008
Courtesy: ACME, Los Angeles. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

The body artist: the performing sculptures and sculptural performances of Martin Kersels

by Andrew Berardini

Some odd facts about Martin Kersels that are often overplayed in writing about him, but are perhaps worth mentioning: Kersels started his career as a performer and member of the gleefully subversive performance troupe SHRIMPS. In the mid-’90s he turned toward artmaking with a performative bent after studying under Chris Burden and Paul McCarthy at UCLA. Kersels is roughly 6-foot-6 and over 300 pounds, a physique he endlessly pokes and prods at for effects equally comical and uncomfortable, his recent midcareer survey being bombastically titled “Heavyweight Champion.”

Likely because Kersels’ body is such a potent site in his own work, one can’t write about the Los Angeles-based artist without talking about bodies, and not in the way that ’70 theoreticians necessarily wrote about the squishy jumble of organs and desires. They wrote it up as a political site, a means, mode, and platform for expression, a feminist détourné. However inspired or leaping from the politics of the ‘60s and ‘70 surrounding bodies, Kersels has trouble fitting into any of these off-hand definitions. He uses his body as a melancholic joke, a potent space of iconography negated, and a not-so-secret agent of ambiguity for when words fail. His body is less like any of the hardcore (and it can and often did get hardcore) performance artists of the ‘70s, and more like the comedian Buster Keaton or punk icon Iggy Pop. Keaton was a body artist, he moved in ways that are still frighteningly hilarious and as smartly comic as any of the conceptual artists, many in LA, who later used deadpan in their work, from Ruppersberg to Baldessari. Kersels is less like Keaton’s famed work in the silent films and more the matinee idol’s role in Samuel Beckett’s Film. All the expectant, quiet humor of historic Keaton is there, but the comic is mixed with an awkward tragedy in every scene, leaving one in tension between wanting to laugh and feeling pretty weird for doing so. Though it’s not quite as elaborately dark as Film, Kersel’s works contain in their simplicity, a subtle glance through that shadowy world and include all of Keaton’s deadpan humor and echoes Beckett’s work on language, though Kersels maintains a gentility in his humor that Beckett might have found supernumerary.

This strange humor forms the basis for much of Kersels’ practice, so does his play with a very personal take on pop culture. Keaton’s comedy is one kind of iconography to play with but so is Iggy Pop’s. A swaggering, writhing, iconic torso, moving with electric physical dynamism under the screeching, epileptic chords of punk, Iggy Pop gives Kersels a new set of gestures to explore, to take apart, to play. Kersels takes on all these gestures and infuses them with pathos in the guise of his alter-ego, Fat Iggy. Fat Iggy, strutting and fretting with the same set of moves as the real Iggy, becomes another kind of awkward humor, this time using the raw power of the ecstatic rock body, which the former Stooges frontman epitomizes. Punk is a musical space that holds a lot of nostalgia for the artist and Kersels takes the language of its performance and deconstructs it with his own Kerselsian brand of gentle slapstick.

In a new body of work Kersels is currently working on in his studio for an upcoming solo exhibition at Galerie Vallois in Paris, Fat Iggy goes through a stream of different albums, the design changing from ‘90s indie sweet to psychedelic post-punk, all of them literally hand-made and maintaining some of the charm of a generation of albums starting somewhere in the ‘60s likely but reaching its zenith in the ‘80s and ‘90s with the proletariat mixtape and its shimmering techno step child, the CD-R. The songs are small poems referring not to songs recorded but to the mood and spirit of a moment, things derived from a performance that has never happened. The show goes on, but only in a potent imagination.

But these objects (and arguably Kersels entire oeuvre), all follow their lineage back to Kersels as a performer. Like all records and their packages, this work depend on a performance, real or imagined, to exist. Kersels’ photos of actions largely in the’90s, fall somewhere between the deadpan absurdity of ‘70s California conceptualism as well as all the extreme bodywork coming out at the same time. Though Kersels never rolls in the broken glass like Iggy or yanks a scroll from any of his orifices like Carolee Schneeman, his friends really do smack him, he really does fall, when he trips those face plants aren’t fake, each is done with a sense of humor and the simplicity of genius, but spiked with something a little humiliating and a slight bit awkward.

Martin Kersels, Headache, 2008
courtesy: Courtesy: ACME, Los Angeles. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

But Kersels has hardly abandoned himself or the camera as a means to capture performance, he has since the beginning of his exhibition career been playing with objects, tricking them into doing the performing themselves. Active objects in the gallery space fulfill the purpose of the living, breathing performer. Kersels’ objects refuse to stay still. His contraptions, gyrate, dance, and sing, they might kick you if you’re not looking or slowly drag themselves across a gallery, as he does with a piano in Piano Drag, 1995, with the slow, heaving crawl that’s more Sisyphus than Keaton. But even in that piece, the stone face persists, and there’s a good laugh to be had for the few who saw the piano legs get caught in a crack in the gallery floor and hover there, as Kersels pointed out to me once, like “hippopotamus pirouetting,” before toppling upside down. These kinds of objects are not without precedent, Rube Goldberg being a standard go to for all manner of handmade machines performing simple actions in elaborately convoluted ways. The more recent example in contemporary art are of course Fischli & Weiss, whose objects have Goldberg’s flair for the absurd, but add a layer of pathos to their objects that’s a little melancholic, layered, as if there were much to our objects than we might care to admit. In their most famous work, The Way Things Go, 1987, (happily now widely available on video) the series of causes and effects are not only astonishing as a visual series of events, but a performance of only objects allowing the viewer to think about them in a new context as things that can have agency and action embedded in them.

A bastard stepson of Fischli & Weiss, Kersels produces objects that drag, collapse, boom, clank, and steam, but unlike the Swiss duo, Kersels presence never leaves the objects he sets in motion. One of the first works for Kersels that extends his body and its performance to objects (in this case, making objects an explicit stand-in for his body) comes in the form of MacArthur Park, 1996, an object that is a stand-in for the artist’s body which is landscaped out with green and yellow wooden balls. The object is a stack starting with a wooden table, then a speaker, then the assembly of body like green and yellow wooden balls and on top of that an amplifier and CD player. A mechanism under the table pulls the balls for the head, arms, and legs down and part to the rhythm of the song, before releasing them to snap back together. They do this through a song cycle that includes Kersels singing Karaoke-style, MacArthur Park, I Will Survive, and the Carpenters creepily cheerful, On Top of the World, a cycle of pop falling apart and coming back together. This work captures the crux of Kersels’ aesthetic, as he himself states in an interview with Ian Berry in the catalogue for his recent retrospective, “my better works have that wink-wink humor mixed with a tragic element.”

At one solo exhibition at AC ME in Los Angeles, the gallery space had the Spartan mise en scène of a Beckett play, and the items themselves felt storied and invitingly odd. The props to this were composed of a throne built of a patchwork of rocking chairs (large enough to accommodate the artist) and five lamps, a few of which have made their way into the survey, such as Charm (Little, little boy), 2006, made of wire in the shape of one of the first nuclear bombs with which it shares part of its name. The political menace became palpable, as if something sinister could happen at any moment.

This feeling of a stage set has been readily expanded to actual stage sets, sculptures that have the space of a stage built into their existence and the actions that take place on them adding an extra layer to them. In his recent mid-career survey which traveled from Skidmore College to the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Kersels created a major work that continued his interest in exploring the subtle gestures and trappings of performance. A collection of old and tarnished furniture topped a white Modernist slab with red trim and specked with tiny trees. Rickety, 2007, is not only a sculpture in its own right, but the site of two performances, (an idea continued in a different form at a recent exhibition by the artist at Guido Costa Gallery in Turin) one choreographed by longtime Kersels collaborator Melinda Ring and the other, a Heavyweight Lecture Musicale, delivered by the artist himself, which the copy promised “when words are not enough.”

Are words ever enough? Words always fail, so we must as Beckett writes and Kersels often performs, “fail better”. It’s impossible to talk about Kersels without talking about bodies, not only his as a site for so much work, but also as other bodies and objects as real embodiments of the artist. As Martin Kersels enacts again and again in each jokey gesture and awkward action, each performing sculpture and sculptural performance, however words fail, they can still muster the energy to underline his body of work is, quite literally, a body of work, the body and the work impossible to separate.

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