The gallery is filled with the derelict lump of Mike Kelley’s 1999 reproduction of a Los Angeles Chinatown wishing well. Its presence is incongruous, for as it seems to have been made in one piece, it is not clear how the object was brought into the space. The work is titled ‘Framed and Frame (Miniature Reproduction “Chinatown Wishing Well” built by Mike Kelley after “Miniature Reproduction ‘Seven Star Cavern’. Built by Prof. H.K. Lu”)’ though the authorship of the original well is uncertain. The ‘Framed’ copy here becomes an anti-public artwork showing signs of weathering and the additions of spray paint and graffiti, traces of rough sleeping and a tree trunk growing through the concrete. It has now withdrawn into the crisp interior of Hauser & Wirth, surrounded by Piccadilly’s high end retail units. Paired with the well, which has accumulated a pile of decorative, cheap and generic Chinese figurines, the facing gallery contains a copy of the faux ‘Oriental’ civic gate that frames the original well in Los Angeles – the ‘Frame’ section of the work. Together with four large photographs of vaguely textured surfaces and desert landscapes with standing stones, the exhibition is a fitting review of Kelley’s fascination with the accumulated detritus of his immediate environment (Kelley died in 2012).
In a separate reading room, a collection of postcards with Kelley’s annotations fleshes out the pseudo-narrative of the wishing well. As well as providing the audience with spectacular contemporary ‘curiosities’ to marvel at (rather like museum dioramas of lost civilisations) Kelley guides the viewer to take a step back and observe the institutional structures that frame the work and the original structure. Pictures show the well at its completion in the 1940s with the Hollywood star Anna May Wong planting a willow tree, the replicated stump of which is presumably next door. Wong was a Los Angeles native and as Hollywood developed she worked her way up from being an extra to becoming a contracted major studio artist. Typecast as ‘exotic’ and faced with the limited choice of roles for an ethnically Chinese actress, in the late 1920s Wong moved to Europe. She starred in several films including ‘Piccadilly’ (1929) where she played a tragic dancer who is the object of desire for the high rollers and night club owners of W1.
In a short period, Wong embodied and experienced the stereotypes of an exotic Asian feminine ‘other’. This image rapidly became fixed, promoted by the American film industry as ubiquitous. In a similar way, Kelley’s wishing well of Chinatown seems to project an antiquity and tradition on to the identity of a place that stands in opposition to documentary evidence. Kelley’s photograph of an ancient megalith is revealed to be the remnant of a recently abandoned theme park. Kelley plays with these assumptions knowing that in an arena fixated with constantly changing images and identities, the individual will still seek out some point of fixity, even if it is the recreation of a folly.
Kelley’s fascination with Wong and the wishing well is celebratory and damning. Wong returned to Hollywood but was passed over for the Oscar-winning lead role of a Chinese peasant woman in ‘The Good Earth’ (1937) by the Hungarian Luise Rainer. In 1951 Wong was given the lead as a crime fighting art dealer in her own prime time TV series, a first for a Chinese-American actress. The part was written specially for her.
Kelley’s wishing well connects to a genuine concern for civic identification and an attempt to make the segregated Chinese-American community visible – something that remains painfully neglected even today.