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Mixed media on paper

Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead Arrives In Detroit

By Lucy Li

June 11, 2013

Even though the view of an abandoned house is not too uncommon in Detroit, MI, quite a bit of confusion was stirred by the abrupt, full-scale replica of artist Mike Kelley’s childhood suburban home touring the city’s streets. Decorated with simple teal windows and an open interior, the Mobile Homestead is designed to be a permanent site for a range of purposes; from artist studio and community gallery, to a venue for works that blurs the boundaries between performance, activism, sculpture, and general community organizing. As a work of public art, the structure’s aura is simultaneously intimate, covert, and fort-like.

A Detroit native with a working class, Irish Catholic background, Mike Kelley gained fame in Los Angeles as one of the most influential artists of his generation, perhaps best known for his vibrant, yet slightly dark rag doll crochets and installations that embrace “clusterfuck aesthetics.” The Mobile Homestead project is Kelley’s final major project before his tragic suicide in January 2012. The Mobile Homestead is developed by Artangel with the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), and is overseen by Mike Kelley’s studio and the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts.

Open Gallery

Whitewall got in touch with Marsha Miro, director of MOCAD during the early planning phases of Mobile Homestead.

WHITEWALL: You spent a lot time working with Mike Kelley on this project. What was it like working with him?

Open Gallery

MARSHA MIRO: Mike was intense, committed, and determined to see the Mobile Homestead come to fruition, despite the years it took to happen. For him it was “his home,” as he identified it, meaning the source, not just of where he grew up, but of whom he was. He knew exactly how he wanted the project to look and how it would function. We spent a long time discussing who would use it and why. He thought things through down to the last detail. I had a deep admiration for him. He was brilliant, sure of his artistic vision, and knew this was a piece that had to happen in his hometown, despite the fact that his hometown was struggling.

WW: What do you hope the project will achieve?

Open Gallery

MM: Mike’s childhood experiences and feelings were an important source for his work. This house, which is a replica of the house he grew up in in Westland, a working class suburb of Detroit, represents those memories. As a sculpture it would allow him to unearth things and explore ideas from his past in the two lower levels, which were to function sort of as his studio, where he would work when he was in Detroit.

For us, the Homestead will be a community center, as Mike wanted the first floor to be a place where public commitments to our town and people will occur, from being a lending library to a place for neighborhood barbecues. The lower levels will be used by artists selected by the Kelley estate, friends of Mike’s, who will be invited to produce work down there. It will be a work of art that constantly changes, that is open-ended, and that lives.

Open Gallery

WW: How do you think it will influence our perception and conception of public art?

MM: Because it isn’t a static work of public art that one visits and always has the same form, the Mobile Homestead is in many ways a new type of public art. It is a shell that will be filled with activities. Every time someone visits, the experience will be different. Art has become more and more involved with social change. The “Mobile Homestead,” provides MOCAD with the vehicle in which to accomplish this change.

Open Gallery

The Homestead is full of surprises. The front section is a mobile home that will travel the city, visiting communities to bring projects to the people, like an old-fashioned bookmobile. Then it will return home and be hooked back up to the rest of the house, which is built in place like any other. It is a modest, suburban house, typical of those that so many people have lived in since the 1950s. And it is located all by itself in the city, among restaurants, businesses, a hospital complex and university. It is a work of art that looks like a conventional home, but it isn’t. When you are inside there is something odd about all that because there is no kitchen equipment, or beds or televisions. It feels like a stage set but it summons so many feelings about what “home” means. It is such an anomaly.

MM: Building any project of this stature and complexity has its difficulties. How do you hook up a mobile home to a fixed home? How do you get City permits to build a house that is a sculpture – both a public and private space – when it looks just like a house but it’s in a commercial area? How does the funding organization, ArtAngel, convince its major donors in England and Europe that building a significant project in the city of Detroit, which was falling down when we started in 2006, is a good idea? It took over six years and it was worth it. We all did it because we believed in Mike Kelley and the revelations of his art.

Open Gallery

Mixed media on paper
DetroitMarsha MiroMike KelleyMike Kelley Foundation for the ArtsMobile HomesteadMOCADMuseum of Contemporary Art Detroit


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