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Can't Forget the Motor Kelley: Mobile Homestead at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit

Los Angeles-based artist Mike Kelley returned to his home state of Michigan with a rolling replica (of sorts) of his boyhood home in the suburb Westland. This vehicle, towed around Detroit, is to become part of a permanent structure on the grounds of MOCAD.

by Mike Mosher

Last night I went to sleep in Detroit city...

I want to go home, I want to go home,
Oh Lord, I want to go home,

—Bobby Bare, "Detroit City", 1962

Home, boy, home, boy
Everybody needs a home

—Iggy Pop, "Home", 1990

Michigan's pretty scary, but what if it's home? The forty-page Fall, 2010 issue of Fear Finder, the annual newspaper listing Halloween attractions in southeastern Michigan, lists Gruesome Encounters of Ortonville, Wicked Hill Scream Park, Demonic Demons, and Haunted Hollows. Night Terrors features Hayride of the Lost, The Ultimate Haunted Barn and Alien Caged Clowns, all installed in an apple orchard. One might wish to visit A Terror in Townsend Forest, Haunted Farm of Terror, Flint's St. Lucifer's Haunted Asylum,Slaughtered at Sundown,Slaughterhouse, and Panic at Stump Hollow LLC. The Hell Survivors' Hay Ride from Hell and Zombie Shoot are run by the Motor City Haunt Club, whose members visit, plan and create spooky attractions all year round. The town of Jackson's Underworld appears to be located in what used to be a factory. Meanwhile, the Fear Factory is installed in the Gibraltar Trade Center of Mt. Clemens, and its description "Michigan's Largest Vortex Tunnel" seems to generally fit the forty-five year de-industrialization of the region.

The Fear Finder paper was distributed (free, take one) about the same time that the internationally celebrated, Los Angeles-based artist Mike Kelley returned to his home state of Michigan with his Mobile Homestead for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit (MOCAD). They can't help but be linked, as two characteristic phenomena of regional culture in the autumn of 2010. Recently listed in the Art Review Power 100 as America's 26th most powerful person in the field—his dealer Larry Gagosian is number one—Mike Kelley's artistic oeuvre has often delved and immersed itself into the weird, the uncanny, the monstrous.

Ambiguity and allusiveness, as Kelley has practiced it in his work, is not usually characteristic of Detroit artworks, which usually seem brightly lit for clarity of expression. There is the simple, unambiguous imagery of emotions of Motown songs, private experience made universal. Jon Lockard's 1980 murals in the Manoogian Student Center at Wayne State University, "The African Experience" and "The Afro-American Experience", are contradiction-less in content and form—light glistens upon and renders black people's musculature and dark flesh, to illuminate the artist’s strong beliefs regarding their past, present and future. Robert Graham's waterfront Joe Louis memorial is a great, disembodied fist, clear metaphors for both pugilism and black power. Eminem and D12, the White Stripes, and Insane Clown Posse are all un-mysterious, straight-ahead and plainspoken in their delivery. That’s how Detroiters generally like it.

As if lonely at the top, Kelley periodically nourishes himself with collaborations with his old school friends from Michigan. Upon the occasion of his mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum when he was about 40, Kelley both re-examined the projects of his Punk-era college band Destroy All Monsters (henceforth, DAM), and he reassembled his old crew to collaborate on the design of mural-sized banners "Strange Früt: Rock Apocrypha" exhibited in the Netherlands and Detroit, and subsequent musical performances with DAM in Seattle and Japan. Kelley examined the architecture of memory in "Educational Complex" (1995), his piece that reconstructed models of the schools and university buildings he could recall. Kelley has written that in the piece, the unremembered parts alluded to possible repressed memories of abuse taking place at that site. He used imagery and texts reprinted from his hometown paper, The Wayne/Westland Eagle, in a temporary installation in the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2003. Yet his latest architectural work may be both his most sentimental and most civic.

The front side of the invite showed the Mobile Homestead in front of Detroit's decrepit Michigan Central train station building, its gently pointed pediment echoing the homestead's own. A 1960s car is also visible, another symbol of the city's vibrancy in the artist's memory. Unless this is a deft Photoshop job, one side of the invitation shows the Mobile Homestead pictured in front of the well-rooted house, set back from the road, beneath sheltering trees, probably much larger than in Kelley's youth. Someone shown this photo said it proved Kelley didn't grow up in a mobile home, a distinct marker of class in these United States which refuse to speak in public of class; my mother inevitably raged at our own 1952 "pre-fab, with cardboard walls" during arguments with my dad. The name of his wheeled manufactured home awards the artist the rootsy (downwardly mobile?) cachet of our countryman Iggy Pop.

September 25, 2010 was a cloudy, windy autumnal day in Detroit, with leaden clouds and silvery light that suggested the metals that were formed into the products and prosperity of its industrial heyday. Mike Kelley, with the funding of Artangel, had built a rolling replica (of sorts) of his boyhood home in the suburb of Westland. This vehicle, on a trailer to allow it to be towed around Detroit, was to become part of a permanent structure on MOCAD’s grounds.

Parking around the museum is a good metaphor for spotty Detroit. The street to the south was lined with greedy parking meters that would have to be fed every hour. The street to its north was meter-less, though cars desiring to park had to creep in and out of serious potholes. An article in the January, 2010 I.D. magazine revealed that Zachary and Associates architects are currently at work on infill buildings that will occupy the vacant lots on the blocks beside the ramshackle street, in what's called the Sugar Hill Arts project, so the street may not remain this way for long.

The dedicatory event that Saturday afternoon was subtitled "Giving Back to the Community, or Home Invasion". A handout read "Heading out from the urban center of the city—with its many abandoned houses and dilapidated buildings—to return back again, Mobile Homestead enacts a reversal of the "white flight" that took place in Detroit following the inner city race riots of the 1960s." It's news to me that there were more than one riot in the city that decade, for that of July, 1967 was so singular; perhaps the writer meant nationally.

In the lot behind MOCAD the Mobile Homestead demi-house rested upon a trailer drawn by a truck. As noon approached the various speakers at the dedication began to assemble and mill around inside it, until they realized it was unsuitable as a green room in which to wait their turns. The dedication began with remarks from the Chair of the Board of Directors of MOCAD, Marsha Miro. She called the Mobile Homestead the "first major public sculpture in Detroit in a long time", and extolled its "two European sponsors, of a piece in Detroit, really extraordinary". She pointed out that "Mobile Homestead" will be attached to another piece, to be called "Home", with two lower levels, dug into the ground. The completed structure is to serve as an artist's studio or a "place to be underground". As she noted that "Mobile Homestead" is its public part, one wondered if the other—the private—part would be market-rate housing, owned by MOCAD? This could be a good gift to a cultural institution. Or perhaps Kelley's own piece of Detroit real estate?

Kelley is quoted in the handout "Mobile Homestead covertly makes a distinction between public art and private art, between the notions that art functions for the social good, and that art addresses persona desires and concerns. Mobile homestead does both: it is simultaneously geared toward community service and anti-social private sub-cultural activities. It has a public side and a secret side..." The ellipsis suggests hesitation, or the text may be drawn from a longer document. This “secret side” reminds one how in Ann Arbor Pioneer High School 1972-'73, there was a group of lads (not this review's author, but friends) who had a private locked room in the school, ostensibly the headquarters of the ENACT Environmental Action Club, reminiscent of the dichotomy Kelley describes.

The next to speak, James Lingwood from Artangel, had recently found a guide for mobile home owners at a used bookstore, and framed his remarks around lines of advice found in it. Next up was John Sinclair, whose White Panther Party rhetoric of the early 1970s Kelley has cited as an influence on his own aesthetic, read a poem that encapsulated sixty years of Detroit area history. Some of its lines read:

It was the little houses on the little streets built on what used to be fields outside the city limits...
the brave new, with people of their own kind...
good schools, filled with little white faces...

until things soured, and, in forty years, the city saw

jobs taken away from citizens...and life disintegrated...
whole life fell apart completely...

Sinclair’s poem ended in a revolutionary call for

taking it back, dismantling the little house, taking it all back where it belongs.

It was a contradictory moment, as Sinclair spoke in the doorway of Kelley's tribute to those same little houses. Yet Sinclair, whose Trans-Love Energies collective household was driven from inner city Detroit to Ann Arbor by the 1967 riot (aka rebellion), called for dismantling the ring of suburbs that was a part of the problem, not the solution, to the healthy growth of big-city urbanity, its race-mixing, sophistication, tolerance and hipness that Detroit might have seen flower without the little houses of suburbia.

Then a petite African American woman sang a Gospel song "Going Home". Like Kelley, she was all dressed in black. When she finished, Kelley dedicated his artwork with three bottles that he smashed against the trailer. The first, he explained, was champagne, "for Europe", in honor of his European funders, Artangel and the LUMA Foundation. The second was a 40 oz. bottle of Colt 45, a proletarian drink enjoyed in the 'hoods, both black and white. The final was the sweet golden liquid Vernor's, a robust and spicy ginger ale that used to be manufactured in Detroit. Yet I certainly hadn't seen a glass bottle of the product in a generation; "I made that" assented Kelley when asked its origin. Should he have smushed a plastic bottle of Vernors' against the trailer until it burst, or gone for the high theater of a glass bottle smashing against the steel trailer (as he did), authenticity be damned? What is art, but a consistent illusion?

The trailer rolled away—gangling old stoner Sinclair scurrying after it, for he'd left his backpack inside—and was taken to Greenfield Village parking lot, where it served (for how long?) as a food collection site for Forgotten Harvest food bank. Then an R & B band MOCAD hired began playing, white guys United Sounds fronted by seasoned African American singer Marvin Davis, in a red suit, with the suavity Motown artists were famed for. Like the scene in the movie "Animal House" where Otis Day and the Knights played for ofay fratboys, one was aware that all but two of the guests being entertained were white. Further musical acts followed.

At 56, Kelley's other schoolmates back in Westland are probably leaning out their own doors to holler at trick-or-treating pranksters, "You kids get off of my lawn!", stomping out burning bags of dog poo left on the porch. The day's proceedings were videotaped by Kelley's DAM collaborator Cary Loren, owner of what's probably Michigan's best bookstore; though the title is earned, it's disheartening to increasingly see its area competition like Ann Arbor's Shaman Drum bookstore gone belly up. Loren chronicled Detroit culture in his 2000 video "Strange Früt", a digest of interviews and reconstructions that accompanied the series of paintings by that name. The other DAM Monster living in the region, painter and rock star Niagara wasn't present. Perhaps there existed a chill between her and Kelley, as if she were irked how much he borrowed her vocal styling with DAM and later Dark Carnival for a sotto-voce character called The Jewish Girl in his 2005 cycle of performance works "Day Is Done". And many of Loren's (and Niagara's) classmates in the WASPishly-named suburb Huntington Woods were the children of builder-developers and home remodeling company owners, who built and serviced those very "little houses" John Sinclair railed against.

To display, and parade, half a house is a meaningful act. Is this a metaphor for broken home? The Mobile Homestead might have been consecrated into the creepiness of Kelley's oeuvre had a child been molested inside the house that morning. Kelley's work begins with the personal, and—especially in Detroit?—the personal is also political. To what degree was Detroit's exceptional black creativity an answer to white oppression, as Motown sang those beautiful songs of love to turn away from hate? How much of the city's past and contemporary art by white artists a result of dandyism to avoid addressing the overwhelming race thing? Perhaps Kelley's half-house represents the white, suburban-in-our-lifetime half of Detroit (now gone), missing the black half, for Detroit in the first 70 years of the 20th century was rigidly segregated, racially bifurcated by Gratiot Avenue. I literally hope the other half of the artwork is black, as Kelley brings to consciousness a city so long at war with itself, and symbolically heals and rebuilds it. Yet perhaps every white Michigan homeowner in the shadow of Detroit in the era Kelley grew up had seen his house as refuge from the city in turmoil. In 1967 my dad bought a "sport-irized" Finnish army rifle (its wooden gunstock cut back from original army issue) from Sears, Roebuck in case Detroit's rioting blacks planned to "march down Michigan Avenue" forty-some miles to Ann Arbor. Were Kelley's parents any more progressive in their racial views?

That Saturday, bands and a DJ continued throughout the afternoon, but many guests went inside to view MOCAD and its artworks. A screen near the entrance showed a rough cut of a video documenting the journey of the Mobile Homestead earlier that week, down Woodward Avenue and around the Detroit area. One segment showed the web blogger Dearborn Underground, grumbling about that suburb's Arab population. In an odd coda to the artistic day’s proceedings, as we left the Museum, we were met by David Byrne, surprised to be recognized and greeted in passing. Byrne was clad entirely in white like a Bahian at a beach ritual; the anti-Kelley, Nueva York's Luke Skywalker to the Detroit Darth Vader? Was this Bryne’s high-visibility uniform for riding around the graying, depopulating city he's praised as surprisingly bike-friendly? Like Kelley, Byrne is another media-agnostic artistic polymath, who wields vocal music, installation and visuals, as he likes, throughout multiple conceptual art traditions. Though Byrne's warm and witty 1985 movie "True Stories" seemed to come to peace with the mysteries of mid-America, in Detroit I could only recall the east coast savant's earlier song line, sung with the Talking Heads, about the flyover states:

I wouldn't live there if you paid me to.

Mike Mosher is Professor of Art/Communication and Digital Media at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan, ninety minutes northwest of Detroit.

Randy Schwartz offered a critique of this essay.

Copyright © Mike Mosher 2010. All rights reserved.