"How could Socrates recognize himself in these caves that are no longer his own? With what thread, since the thread is lost? How could he get out and how could he still tell himself apart from the Sophists?" (Gilles Deleuze, "Plato and the Simulacrum" (from Logique du sens), R. Krauss, trans., October, Winter 1983, p. 53).
Mike Kelley's best work reveals the tensions between ideal, poetic thought of the super-ego and subliminal desires of the id present in American popular culture. Kelley, as a young artist, was attracted to the belief that Abstract Expressionist painters could tap into the unconscious mind by means of the art-making process. His work is an exploration and refinement of this premise by less conventional means. Kelley seeks to enlighten our awareness of the truths that ground us as humans but, as a society we tend to deny, sublimated from the ideal and pure thought that also makes us human and which we openly celebrate. Though these subliminal signifiers manifest themselves by apparently veiled means as in the exploration of cultural taboos, they are actually obvious and openly revealed through Mike Kelley's critical eye. Exploring, 1986, is the pivotal element of the Kelley's installation Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile. It represents the transition of the viewer, as participant, through the Cave (with its vaginal and phallic associations), from the viewer's ideal world, to the artists realm of buried simulacra.
"Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile expands Kelley's deconstruction of the spiritual sublime to its root source in Platonism, specifically Plato's Simile of the Cave from The Republic. In the context of Plato's ideal state--a political economy based on the True Idea or Form and its corollaries, virtue and justice--the road to truth lies only through the philosopher's single-minded pursuit of knowledge. For Plato, truth is an activity of mind and speech, relegating the body and writing (and, by extension, poetry and art) to the realms of shadows and images.
The Simile of the Cave presents this hierarchical division in allegorical form, where-by the cave stands in for the world of opinion and the flickering shadow images constitute its truth. The philosopher must leave the cave and emerge into the sunlight in order to realize that the cave is merely a world of copies. In his Logique du sens, Gilles Deleuze deconstructs the binary of essences and appearances by showing that Plato's theory of Ideas is based on a deceptive premise of sorting: '"It is a matter of drawing differences, of distinguishing between the thing itself and its images, the original and the copy, the model and the simulacrum. But are all these expressions equal?"' Deleuze reads Plato's dialectic as a sorting out of rival claims to truth, based on an appeal to a model, a foundation, by which these rival claims can be judged. While the foundation possesses knowledge firsthand, its claimant necessarily becomes a secondhand possessor. But, '"Is there not a third and fourth-hand possessor, continuing to the nth degree of debasement, up to the one who possesses no more than a simulacrum, a mirage, himself mirage and simulacrum?...'
"Plato's Simile of the Cave thus reinforces Deleuze's own distinction between iconic copies (likenesses) endowed with resemblance (judgment) based on the Idea or Essence (knowledge); and phantasmatic simulacra (semblances) with no resemblance. As Deleuze puts it, '"It is a question of insuring the triumph of the copies over the simulacra, of repressing the simulacra, of keeping them chained in the depths, of preventing them from rising to the surface and insinuating themselves everywhere.'
"The simulacrum's model is that of the Other, of difference, a rival claimant to the "good" model of the Same. To impose a limit on this this development (of the Other), to order it to sameness, to make it semblant-and, for that part which might remain rebellious, to repress it as deeply as possible, to confine it within a cave in the bottom of the ocean-such is the goal as Platonism strives for the triumph of icons over simulacra.
"Kelley's strategy for overthrowing Platonism is now obvious: spelunking, or cave exploration. By excavating deeper, digging below the bottom of the cave of resemblances and raising up the buried simulacrum so that it can assert its rights over the icon and copy, the distinction between Essence and Appearance, Model and Copy disappears because the simulacrum negates both. Kelley's sublime is thus inextricably tied to the dissolution of true and false claimants. Instead, there are only nomadic distributions, libidinal flows: the triumph of the phantasm" (C. Gardner, "Let It Bleed: The Sublime and Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile," Mike Kelley Catholic Tastes, exh. cat., New York, 1993, pp. 123-124).