Only rarely is the public presented with new work from an artist who has been dead for more than a year. But that’s what we’re getting this week in Detroit, a sort of gift to our community from beyond the grave, presented by one-time metro Detroiter Mike Kelley.
Kelley may be best known around these parts as an original member of Destroy All Monsters. That group, as much a seminal punk band as a kind of art collective, was at first composed of University of Michigan art students, including Kelley, as well as Jim Shaw, Niagara and filmmaker Cary Loren. Later, after Shaw and Kelley left for California, it was joined by proto-punk heavies such as former Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton and MC5 bassist Michael Davis.
Though he left punk rock behind to pursue a career as an artist, Kelley stayed true to his working-class and punk roots. In 2012, shortly after his death, a New York Times critic called him “a pungent commentator on American class, popular culture and youthful rebellion.”
Like many posthumous works, this one is architectural. In fact, it’s a full-size model based on his childhood home in Westland. This isn’t the first time Kelley has mined the buildings of his life for art. In 1995, he produced Educational Complex, an architectural model of his past schools, including his Catholic elementary school and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Unlike those projects, however, the new “Mobile Homestead” is a full-scale replica of the single-story ranch-style Westland house Kelley grew up in. The project, envisioned in response to a London-based arts organization’s invitation for Kelley to produce a site-specific project for Detroit, went up this year on an empty lot owned by Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit on Canfield Street, behind the museum’s parking lot.
The house is built upon a complex basement area that mirrors the floor plan of the original Kelley home. The individual basement rooms, however, can’t be entered directly from one another. Instead, ladders and labyrinthine hallways in a sub-basement link the rooms.
If that sounds high-concept, the first floor is much, much simpler: community space. Kelley was obviously a good guy, since he conceived the piece of “public sculpture” to have a public purpose, to be used for community activities and as a community gallery for the people in the neighborhood. The artist was determined that the work be relevant to its new neighbors.
Another unusual feature is the structure’s detachable facade mounted on a chassis. The front of the home can be removed and pulled like a street-legal trailer, and this mobile facade is to be used for public events through the community at large.
And yet, Kelly had said that the work has at its center the tension between the proud public purpose and antisocial private burrowing into others’ spaces. He had written in 2010 that the project “grew out of my initial desire to buy the actual house that I was raised in.” The plan, which involved haphazard and illegal tunneling, as well as a home the owner didn’t want to sell, was obviously unworkable, in fact, hilariously so.
All of which shows there’s something of the wag about Kelley, who imagined his “Mobile Homestead” as having a “parasitic relationship” with Greenfield Village, the assortment of 19th century homes Henry Ford assembled in Dearborn, writing that his replica home was “a somewhat ironic comment on such grandiose notions of history; it is an everyman’s home, associated with Greenfield Village simply through proximity when it is driven into the parking lot, and perhaps the village itself.”
It’s a piece that raises a lot of questions. Is it a commentary on the complexities underlying a working-class home? Or about what the threshold is for a home to be considered a work of art? Or how great a person must be to have their home institutionalized?
Or, frankly, to hell with what it means. It’s maybe Kelley’s final goof on us all from the great beyond, a prank that will send countless heads turning at the out-of-place suburban home on Canfield Street, or as the facade is driven around town, inciting curiosity, wonder and — likely — a lot of laughter. It sounds like just what Kelley would have wanted.
“Mobile Homestead” events begin at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, May 11 with opening ceremonies, continuing from 7 to 10 p.m. with a free video presentation in the museum; finishing from 10 p.m. to midnight with a live music show emceed by John Sinclair, with a performance by the Früt and a DJ set from the Blackman ($6 admission). From noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, May 12, expect live low-power radio broadcasts of performances and interviews, as well as children’s puppet theater and a neighborhood barbecue. From 2 to 3 p.m. there will be a panel discussion about the creation of “Mobile Homestead” featuring Marsha Miro, James Lingwood and Mary-Clare Stevens.
Michael Jackman is managing editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]