The Story Behind Mike Kelley's Highly Personal Project for the Whitney Biennial

The Story Behind Mike Kelley's Highly Personal Project for the Whitney Biennial
"Mobile Homestead" de Mike Kelley
(Courtesia Kelley Studio; Foto de Corine Vermeulen)

Critics remember Mike Kelley as an artistic polymath — he was a writer, musician, critic, and artist whose media ranged from felt paintings to stuffed animals to high school yearbook photos. But many in the art community of Detroit, where Kelley grew up, find themselves coming back to one artwork in particular when reminiscing about the artist, who died on Tuesday at age 57: "Mobile Homestead." The unfinished replica of Kelley’s childhood home was to function simultaneously as a public artwork, community center, and private monument. The work is more timely than ever: three documentaries Kelley made to chronicle the life of "Mobile Homestead" will be featured in this year’s Whitney Biennial. Back in Detroit, however, the future of the work — Kelley’s only piece of public art and his only permanent installation in his hometown — is now uncertain.

The project has preoccupied the staff of the Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art for over five years — it was in the works before the museum itself even opened. The idea for "Mobile Homestead" was born on one of Kelley’s periodic visits to Westland, the Detroit suburb where his family once lived. “He came back with this idea that he wanted to do a piece about the house that he grew up in,” said Marsha Miro, a former art critic for the Detroit Free Press and the founding director of MOCAD. After unsuccessfully offering to buy the house from the current tenant, Kelley decided to make a replica of the home instead. Artangel, the influential British nonprofit that commissions large-scale public art installations, agreed to provide the funding. It was that organization's first-ever commission in the United States.

Over the next several years, Kelley worked closely with Artangel and members of the Detroit community to develop the project. "Mobile Homestead" would be reminiscent of many single-floor houses in the Westland neighborhood, which in the '50s and '60s were populated largely by workers for the Big Three automakers. Kelley considered several venues for the finished product, from an abandoned drive-in movie theater to Greenfield Village at the Henry Ford Historical Museum, an outdoor space that is home to replicas of the residences of Thomas Edison and Rosa Parks as well as the Wright Brothers’ cycle shop. When neither panned out, Kelley called Miro, who was finalizing plans for MOCAD. “We weren’t even open yet, and he came over and looked around. I said, ‘Why don’t we put it in the back of the museum?’ We had an open lot, and I told him we could use it as a project space. He liked the idea of transplanting a lower-class suburban home into the middle of an urban center.”

Before constructing the entire model, Kelley decided to build a mobile home bearing the façade of his childhood residence. The trailer would travel throughout the surrounding neighborhoods, most of which are now filled with abandoned houses and dilapidated buildings. The idea was for "Mobile Homestead" to enact a reversal of the “white flight” that took place in Detroit after the inner city race riots of the 1960s. If the community responded well, Kelley and MOCAD would proceed with the entire replica. To date, only the trailer is complete. “He had approved all the construction drawings, we had an agreement that was signed, and we were supposed to break ground on the rest of the house in April,” said Miro. Because the property is still registered in Kelley’s name, Miro says she doesn’t know what will happen to the project now.

The main floor of the house was to reflect Kelley’s home exactly — the same size kitchen, bedrooms, and garage — but there would be very little furniture to allow space for public programming. “Mike very much wanted a social component to it — he thought we could use it for blood drives, and all sorts of things,” said Miro. Other ideas tossed around included neighborhood barbeques and a weekly barbershop that offered free haircuts. Miro thought the space might also be able to function as a permanent mailing address for the area's homeless.

Below the ground floor, Kelley designed two private floors for artist studios. “He called them the ‘underground artist floors,’” said Miro, “punning on that stereotype of the underground.” Maze-like, the high-ceilinged rooms had no doors, only ladders providing a link from one floor to the next. “It played with the idea of this being his house and reflecting the stages of consciousness and repressed desires,” said Miro. Kelley planned to use the space as his own studio when he visited the city. “Who knows the demons he was battling, thinking about this deep, underground space as his own.”

While Kelley was preparing the trailer portion of "Mobile Homestead," he created the films that will be included in the Whitney Biennial. He traveled along Michigan Avenue, which stretches from downtown Detroit out to suburbs like Westland, interviewing the characters he found along the way. The videos attempt to capture the people that line the route "Mobile Homestead" was to take on its maiden voyage from MOCAD to the site of Kelley’s childhood home in the suburbs. “It’s a fascinating thing, because Detroit is full of people who have been left behind in so many ways,” said Miro. “He edited the video very carefully to reflect all the flavors he saw in the city.”

The Whitney Biennial curators hadn't seen "Mobile Homestead" until they visited Detroit last year on a research trip. Curator Elisabeth Sussman notes the films are "a work in progress," but "even in their unfinished state, we were blown away by how well they told a story about Detroit. They were so hard-hitting, and so honest. But Mike's genius is that there would have been a meta-text he would have put over the films, about the whole project. I think he wanted to present the complications of creating public art in a city that doesn't have a penny to it's name." The films will be accompanied by a text on "Mobile Homestead" Kelley wrote especially for the Biennial.  

For many, "Mobile Homestead" is a symbol of Kelley’s deep connection to Detroit. “He may have lived in California, but he never left Westland,” said Julia Reyes Taubman, a longtime board member at MOCAD. “He always thought of himself as a blue collar worker from Westland, even when Larry Gagosian was representing him.”

Shortly after the trailer portion of "Mobile Homestead" was complete in 2010, Miro and Kelley prepared to send it off on its first public sojourn down Michigan Avenue. “He wanted to have a big county fair where we would all send the trailer off,” said Miro. The Michigan poet John Sinclair gave an invocation, and crowds gathered for the send-off. Though "Mobile Homestead" had made the journey successfully in a trial run, the hitch inside the trailer wasn’t quite right this time, and it got a flat tire. “It fell over before it even got downtown — it was just the beginning,” said Miro.

“It made Mike so sad, it broke my heart. I don’t even want to think about it because it made him so sad,” she said. “Everyone was excited because off it went down the street, and people were watching and cheering. And then, it didn’t make it all the way.”