Walking up to the clapboard rancher surrounded by a sod lawn in front of a brick building whose facing side was painted a sky blue, an uneasy feeling of displacement crept up my spine. On one side was downtown Detroit, the other was suburbia. Except it was some sort of self conscious version of suburbia, reminiscent of the prosaic childhood setting so many of us are familiar with, but with an almost mythic nature as a newly fetishized art object. Originally “launched” in 2010 as an intricately choreographed performative sculpture, Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead finally opened to the public on May 11, 2013 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit as a permanent fixture on the adjacent lot. As a recreation of the late artist’s childhood home in suburban Westland, MI, the resulting structure is fairly straightforward. As an art work, it is extremely complex, a nearly uncatagorizable masterpiece, wholly embracing major themes of his life’s work while barreling into new territory altogether in the most ambitious project of his far too short career. Mobile Homestead asserts itself as both public and private sculpture, focusing on community involvement and outreach, yet retaining a strong sense of privacy and secrecy inherent in homes by the elaborate basement labyrinth which will be kept off limits to the general public.


Image by PD Rearick, which can also be found on page 277 of this month's Art Forum. (Used with permission)

Mike Kelley and Emily Gustafson during the Mobile Homestead launch in Detroit, MI, Sep. 25, 2010. Image by PD Rearick. (Used with permission)

A small lending library greets visitors open entering the house, while in the room to the right an electric organ is tucked by the doorway leading to two back rooms furnished as offices of sorts, with donated or second hand furniture. This office vernacular continues through the back hallway and restroom, with overhead lighting and white walls, gray linoleum floor that denies the sense of warmth typically associated with a home. Having looped around to the back left of the house, the last two rooms before the garage contain the most engaging participatory elements of the house thus far. On wall pegs were thrift store items that could be “purchased” by creating money from materials provided on a nearby table. Visitors can determine the perceived value of the item of their choice, which were mostly fake food items, knick knacks and toys: objects of little use, or like the invented monetary system, items of play. While both a welcoming and generous proposal for a new economic system of exchange, it underlined an important critical perspective of the art. We are pretending that art can make an impact on a community that has little need in or interest of art. Kelley’s mistrust of public art is manifested in a contradictory work that both invites and refuses, both provides a platform for social empowerment and an expectation of failure. By paying for a sequined Mexican Wrestlers mask with hand drawn currency I am not helping anyone but myself, for something I don’t need at all or that will serve me any purpose except momentary enjoyment. Carrying it around the rest of the night, I felt stupid and a bit guilty, that I had taken advantage of the generosity of an invented system that could have bettered someone else instead. With the gift is the debt, and Kelley has specifically talked about this with works like More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987):



“ ‘…we can make an art object that can’t be commodified.’ What’s that? That’s a gift. If I give you this art-thing, it’s going to escape the evils of capitalism. Well, of course that’s ridiculous, because if you give this thing to junior he owes you something. It might not be money, but he owes you something. The most terrible thing is that he doesn’t know what he owes you because there’s no price on the thing. Basically, gift giving is like indentured slavery or something. There’s no price, so you don’t know how much you owe.” – Mike Kelley in conversation with John Miller in 1991

Experiencing this sense of debt, an acknowledgement of worth arises. Art must have some worth in one’s day to day life, but to come at it through debt is to force its sense of worth on the indebted. Yet in the bowels of the house is a very private and crucial element of the art work that is off limits to the general public, harkening all the way back to the Tree of Knowledge in the Book of Genesis. The desire to enter the basement becomes even more significant. To be invited into an elite group that has access to the more private or sacred space of the artist. A twisted mentality develops of feeling slighted by the benefactor, that class or some social identifier has determined one’s limit in the consumption of the work. This sinister turn of emotional understanding complicates one’s position towards Homestead as a public artwork, while invoking the gothic nature found throughout Kelley’s art. The unattainable labyrinth basement sets the house as a sort of prison in which the inmate was just informed of his captivity after a lifetime of believing they were free. How would the programming develop, would it actually create community impact, would it fail, and quickly? What types of programming would be offered and when? From this comes the question, for whom? Would the programing be for me, or someone else? How am I included or excluded?


Public art and social practice typically engages a community by attempting to fill a need which is usually seen from someone outside of that community. They rarely give the community the chance to discuss if these actions of altruism are actually beneficial to them or not. In essence, the underprivileged remain unrepresented, denied agency to speak while seen without agency to overcome their perceived situation. Slyly cynical as a suburban home entering the city of Detroit as a reversal of White Flight, Mobile Homestead can potentially become a carefully disguised form of oppression like many other public art and social practice works. As Kelly has stated in his essay accompanying Mobile Homestead for the 2012 Whitney Biennial, “…public art is always doomed to failure because of its basic passive / aggressive nature. Public art is a pleasure that is forced upon a public that, in most cases, finds no pleasure in it.”


Throughout the house and walls of MoCAD on opening night everyone wondered how the programming would unfold, and thus what would the fate of Mobile Homestead be. Without the guidance of the artist, it is up to the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts and MoCAD to do the best in executing the artist’s wishes. Thus Mobile Homestead is not at an end point but just a new phase of its ongoing development. As MoCAD is encouraging public suggestion and development of supported programming in the house, it seems then that even though Kelley believed that it wouldn’t work, he may have wished for it to, that Homestead was an honest attempt at public art performed in “bad faith,” as the artist put it. It will continue an unwieldy yet potentially revealing choreography as one of the best artworks of its time, a harsh critique of power, public art and social engagement that challenges its audience to prove it wrong by embracing it as a tool for community enhancement while remaining an autonomous work of art.


More information on Mobile Homestead, including visitor hours and programming can be found on MoCAD’s website:


Thomas Friel

Tom Friel is an artist and writer currently based outside of Detroit. He works within the cracks of performance, video, sculpture, sound and drawing, and has shown his work both nationally and internationally.