• Review

  • November 15th, 2013 11.15.2013

    A Rolling Home: Mike Kelley’s Homestead Videos


    by Marianne Templeton

    Turning onto Michigan Avenue, Mobile Homestead blows a tire. The house—neat white clapboard with blue trim, the symbol of both the rise and fall of the American dream—has just been launched in the vacant block behind the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), where Mike Kelley had staked a claim for a multi-purpose community and arts space in the guise of a replica of his family home. In its truncated form on the back of a semitrailer, Mobile Homestead was only minutes into its first civic duty—to deliver donated groceries to a food bank—when the breakdown occurred.

    This inauspicious early set-back is only mentioned at the very end of Mobile Homestead Christening Ceremony and Launch, September 25 2010 (2010-2011), the third film documenting the early stages of the Artangel-commissioned Mobile Homestead project. The other two films, Going West on Michigan Avenue from Downtown Detroit to Westland and Going East on Michigan Avenue from Westland to Downtown Detroit (both 2010-2011), provide rolling views of the strip on either side of Michigan Avenue—an arterial road connecting downtown Detroit with its western suburban neighborhoods—to Kelley’s childhood residence in Westland. The breakdown is a potent afterimage, linking Kelley’s previous work (in which failure is a familiar theme) with Detroit’s immense social and economic troubles, while also serving to confirm Kelley’s personal mistrust of public art as an effective form of community betterment.

    The mood of the films veer between comical, melancholic, and tentatively hopeful—the shifts mostly owing to the attitudes and eccentricities of the inhabitants of Michigan Avenue, interviewed in their homes or workplaces along the route. We see the owner of the Hygrade Deli (across the road from Mike’s Famous Ham Place) who rents out his back room to a dominatrix; the company spokesperson for Olympic Steel, with his set piece about the company’s history, size and numerous charity works; the second-generation proprietor of Catfish Corner (“grain-fed Mississippi catfish only”) who is trying to revitalize the business with an elaborate series of cartoon mascots; and the ex-forensic photographer specializing in homicides—now unemployed but “rekindling his freelance work”—who once documented the victims of Detroit’s most notorious serial killer of prostitutes.

    Kelley’s subjects—for all their everyday absurdity—are neither ridiculed nor lionized by the camera. The “difficult economic times” are in everyone’s thoughts: jobs lost, corners cut, customers missing, profits non-existent (excepting the alternative lifestyle store, where business is booming). This is a picture of a local economy that is also a community. Chains such as Big Boy and Subway are passed by in favor of small independent businesses, institutions and the infamous giant motor corporations as the Mobile Homestead forges further and further West, its façade briefly posing as both a mask and an entry point for other buildings as it pulls to a temporary stop before them. In between, the abandoned, overgrown blocks and empty parking lots reveal a decimated automotive landscape.

    The video documentary form is rare for Kelley, but the enthusiasm for vernacular culture and values are completely in character. So is, one presumes, the condition of feeling both rooted and nomadic—lost and found. Mobile Homestead is a crystallization of this conflict. ‘Mobile’ speaks to the rituals of the American motorway, where cars equal adulthood and independence. ‘Homestead’ continues to evoke rural living, open spaces, ancestral legacy and self-sufficiency.

    Originally describing an agricultural holding, the term ‘homestead’ is tied to capitalist ideology in a way that ‘home’ and ‘house’ are not. Historically, the ‘homestead principle’ allowed public land to be claimed for private ownership by any citizen who settled on it and put it to productive use—thereby providing incentive for migration into previously uncolonized or undesirable areas. Mobile Homestead is the ghost of this frontier dream, roaming streets once testament to the might of American industry, now reflections of the complex dynamics of Detroit’s city and suburban demographics, radically altered by the changing workforce requirements of automotive manufacturers, failed urban renewal, and inner city depopulation ongoing since the ‘white flight’ resulting from race riots in the 1940s and 1960s.

    The films are only a small component of the larger Mobile Homestead project, which in its full permanent incarnation at MOCAD includes practice spaces for local musicians and arts clubs, as well as two basement levels accessible only to artists-in-residence—a place, as Artangel co-director James Lingwood says, “for being underground.” Intentions and uses are deliberately kept vague: Mobile Homestead values the processes of making over the end product—there are no requirements to exhibit the results of the residencies—and so what happens in the basement, stays in the basement.

    Kelley wasn’t interested in the force-fed, feel-good genre of public art – and Mobile Homestead has no grand ambitions towards social change. Indeed, grand ambitions aren’t necessarily welcome in a city that has seen massive extremes of boom and bust in the past 150 years, especially today when sidewalks and skyscrapers alike stand dishearteningly empty. Mobile Homestead‘s flat tire undermines its official purpose, but renders it a more apt and site-specific work than any amount of planning could have ever done. Let’s hope it continues to generate opportunities for transgression and failure.

    Mike Kelley (1954—2012) was an American artist, musician, critic and curator born in Detroit and based in Los Angeles. Working across multiple media and frequently in collaboration with artists including Paul McCarthy, Tony Oursler and Mike Smith, Kelley undermined normative values, power structures and ’correct’ cultural attitudes through his ritualistic performances, stuffed-animal sculptures, drawings and installations. Recurring themes across his practice include the uncanny, grotesque, refuse, and vernacular arts and crafts. Mobile Homestead is one of his final projects.