Mel Keiser and Melga Blank’s Museum of The Mels at Rogers Park’s Wedge Projects is a playful, pseudo-scientific delve into the inconsistencies of identity and the impossibility of a cohesive narrative of self. Keiser’s artist statement illuminates the crux of Museum of the Mels. Keiser asserts their desire to “find places where incongruities in self-identity create a fragmentation or interruption of narrative identity”. Unexpected choices in the moment catalyze the creation of shifts or loops in a personal timeline. Such divergences create a looping mechanism through which to repeatedly ask and answer the question, who is Mel?
At first glance, the exhibition’s aesthetics function as a whimsical reproduction of a natural history display, with the sole focus being on phases of Keiser’s life. Maps detailing Keiser’s various residences, large colorful signage situating the roles of curator and subject, replicas of Keiser’s previous haircuts (fashioned on mannequin heads) and etymology boxes featuring “specimens” of earlier versions of Mel, line the gallery walls. Girding the humor and self-reflection of Museum’s structure is Keiser’s intimacy to her subject, Museum is the story of her life and such communion allows space for affect. The combination of Keiser’s familiarity to her subject matter, a predilection for data-driven interpretation, and engagement with interdisciplinary taxonomies situates Museum’s architecture as contiguous with proximal ethnography. As characterized by the University of Leicester’s Hugo Letiche and Geoffrey Lightfoot in their multidisciplinary study on the organization of higher education, proximal ethnography allows for an openness to affect for in it a researcher takes up a proximal, adjacent position to their research and finds freedom to voice their own distress, anger, joy, and to generate acts of care when considering their subject.1 This interrelationship effectively deepens a study by allowing the researcher to question their role and position of narration within it.
The act of caring links Keiser’s use of affect with Museum’s reproduction of a scientific system of curation. While curation itself is derived from the Latin for “care” and indicates concentrated effort and attention, Keiser augments the curatorial gesture’s desire to preserve and pay attention to the momentary via the creation of the character of Melga Blank. The exhibition’s ephemera credits Blank as “Adjunct Curator of Self-Evolutionary Biology, Self-Evolutionary Biologist, and Discoverer of the Mels.” Blank, however, is Keiser inhabiting the role of curator while simultaneously occupying the other positions of “Artist” and “Current Living Member of the Mels Species.” Blank is a liminal figure which embodies the tension of caring; she disrupts the limitations of the curatorial structures through the intimacy of her recontextualization of the exhibition’s texts but also enforces said constraints through her presence (i.e., she is the curator, she is separate from Keiser, one can only understand the Mels through her intervention). Blank presents a recursive challenge to the audience, slyly insinuating that the only way to know Mel is through Mel.
Within Museum the act of recontextualization defines all of Keiser’s interpretative texts. Such insistent definition shifts the audience’s mode of engagement towards an associative idealism; the repurposed language of biology, natural history, and anthropology asking viewers to utilize what they know about these fields to better understand Keiser’s Mels, past iterations of herself. In contrast, the liveliness of Keiser’s memory and care highlight the capriciousness of this scientific schema – do Blank, Keiser, and all of the Mels provide reliable narration? Are all visitors together in a Mel eternal recurrence?
The text that functions as an invitation to the show is fashioned from the body of a 1962 Chicago Natural History Museum Bulletin titled “An Invitation to an Exhibition of the Tutankhamun Treasures.” As Blank and herself, Keiser re-situates the text through the use of strikethrough, shifting font size and color so the reader can see both the story of Blank and the Mels’ and the Field’s concurrent excitement. Labeling the Mels as “the world’s first known species to evolve discrete selves through self-evolution,” Keiser use of the term “self-evolution” functions as a humorous reminder of her interlocking roles behind the proverbial curtain (Blank, Mel v.7, Mel v. 6, etc.) as a self-evolving system contains the ability to choose adaptations as a response to the unexpected. Keiser continues in the role of Blank and structures the exhibition into three categories; habitats, body coverings, and diet. Museum’s signage continues the use of strikethrough, font type and size positioning variation as the norm and creating a sense of intertextuality between scientific interpretation and the sections altered to describe the Mels. While the textual components encourage intimacy through close, multiple readings, the visually compelling specimen boxes and head coverings displays allow for Keiser to embrace ideas of care and play in an innovative manner.
Labeled as The Mels Specimen Boxes, and differentiated through which version of Mel it depicts, these display cases are reminiscent of those utilized in entomology. Inside the cases are “dry specimens,” photographs cut and shaped to the silhouette of the featured Mel. The specimens are drawn over with ink and partially erased, an act not of depersonalization but rather of misplaced memory and a rhetorical flourish of arrangement. Though each specimen possesses a label detailing its particular provenance, the figures are not mounted according to scientific guidelines. Keiser’s text specifically states that the specimens are grouped in “interlacing patterns,” bringing to mind associations of time and recurring memory – that such moments are repeated in one’s life, reoccurring, one always attempting and failing to understand their grand design. In contrast, Keiser’s Head Coverings are overtly mischievous, iterations of past haircuts fashioned onto display heads.
Though Cindy Sherman is a common referent when discussing female identifying artists who manipulate the traces of identity, Keiser’s work possesses a playful self-awareness more akin to comedian Amy Sedaris’ intricate world-building in her set design and video work. Sedaris’ nostalgic mining of the personalities that populated her childhood and her silly perversions and transfigurations of the domestic space, speak to the bright, dreamy intimacy Keiser cultivates in her analysis of “the Mel.” As the question of Mel is one impossible to answer, the inquiry transforms into an amicable but enigmatic windmill tilt; a friendly gesture with hidden meanings, an action with no possible reaction except recognition and perhaps disconcerting laughter at a shared impulse to remember and preserve the ephemeral in the face of the inevitable.