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Finishing “Mobile Homestead” After the Death of the Artist

by Jillian Steinhauer on May 17, 2012

Mike Kelley, "Mobile Homestead"

Mike Kelley's "Mobile Homestead" in front of the abandoned Michigan Central Station (all photos courtesy MOCAD)

Just a few months after the sudden death of artist Mike Kelley, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), the LUMA Foundation and Artangel have announced that one of his last projects, “Mobile Homestead,” will be likely completed at MOCAD by the end of the year.

For “Mobile Homestead,” Kelley constructed a nearly exact replica of his childhood home in the suburbs of Detroit. He then drove the facade of the house through the city, from MOCAD out to his original home in Westlake and back, stopping along the way to interview local residents and use the space for public services. Kelley produced three videos about the project, all of which premiered at the Whitney Biennial yesterday and will screen through the weekend.

In addition to that voyage, which represents a brilliant inversion and critique of the white flight from Detroit in the 1960s and 70s, Kelley arranged for the mobile home to sit permanently on a plot of land adjacent to MOCAD. There, the publicly accessible first-level facade will sit on top of two underground floors built into the earth, which mirror the original house floor plan but at different sizes and function togther as a more secretive, private space — something like a labyrinthine artist’s studio.

“Originally, we were running the public side, and Mike was taking care of the two lower levels, the private side,” Marsha Miro, president of the board of MOCAD and the museum’s founding director, told Hyperallergic. Miro explained that all the plans had been made and the contracts signed before Kelley’s death: “We had been working on it for six years. He had really resolved all his questions. The funding was there, the contract was signed with every detail — he was such a perfectionist. The only decision the estate had to make was whether to go ahead or not without Mike.”

Although Miro isn’t involved with Kelley’s estate, she speculated that given his level of commitment to the project in the time before his death, the choice to complete it was clear.

Mike Kelley, "Mobile Homestead"

Kelley's "Mobile Homestead" with its twin in Westlake

MOCAD will now run both parts of the “Mobile Homestead,” keeping the public and private sides in independent coexistence, as Kelley wanted. “Our education people will have their offices on the first floor, and people can walk in and talk,” Miro said. “It’ll be more like the neighborhood stoop.” Some of the other wonderfully creative programs under discussion are a free barber shop every two weeks, classes in offbeat subjects like taxidermy (“there are a lot of animals in the city,” Miro noted), a post-office box for homeless people, a local library and possibly a playground on adjacent land.

“It’s a suburban house put back into the city. It would be fun to think of it as some of the things that people do in suburbs that have been taken way from people in Detroit, like swings and slides. The idea is to make it an integral part of the community, and that will serve Mike’s desires. He wanted it to feel like a do-gooder space.”

As for the two underground floors, Miro explained them as “more like mazes,” saying that “there will be ladders to climb into those spaces, and the doors are in funny places.” These are the parts of the project that still need to be built, with construction taking an estimated four to six months and beginning in July.

Without Kelley around to work in or curate the private space, though, the museum is still figuring out who or what should occupy it. They are hoping to find friends of Kelley or artists interested in his legacy to work down there. “The idea is that it’s really deep in the earth,” Miro said. “To me it’s like a living work of art — it carries on his whole exploration without him. The first side is the side we present to the world, and the other two floors are the subconscious.”

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