Mike Kelley: Mobile Homestead Videos
Site Gallery, Sheffield
8 June - 20 July 2013
Review by Laura-Jade Klee
‘Mobile Homestead Videos’ is an exhibition of the late Mike Kelley’s public art project and video documentaries, which delve deep into the contemporary identities of the artist’s hometown of Detroit. ‘Going West on Michigan Avenue from Downtown Detroit to Westland’ (2010) and ‘Going East on Michigan Avenue from Westland to Downtown Detroit’ (2010) films the journey of a mobile home between the city and suburbs of Detroit. Commissioned by Artangel, the project questions the history of a place, the personal significance of hometowns, and the challenges of public art.
Kelley’s mobile homestead films are comparable to Ed Ruscha’s ‘Twenty-six Gasoline Stations’ (1963); both survey aspects of American culture and retrace the artist’s road journey to his family home. Unlike Ruscha’s exterior architectural photographs, Kelley’s film zooms into humble sites revealing extraordinary stories, which often betray the bleak street façade to paint an intimate, surprising, portrait of the place. The film portrays a variety of people, places and lifestyles rooted in Detroit, from gentleman’s clubs to churches, as well as diverse neighbouring ethnic areas. With many speakers running family owned businesses that have survived strife, they convey a shared sense of identity deeply rooted in the locality, and inhabitants often promote community, finding ways to reduce Detroit’s already deteriorating state. While Mike of Mike’s Famous Ham Place asserts “nothing has changed,” Cas Bar owners fear losing their establishment with its fifty year legacy and becoming homeless in an unforgiving town.
The quaint mobile home (a replicated house with a white picket fence) represents the typical white middle-class American dream. Often standing in stark contrast to its surroundings, it parades through derelict areas or through sites of deviant sex, liberal drug use, and gaudy gay bars. The home is uprooted physically but also culturally as it recalls an archaic vision of Detroit, industrially progressive and prosperous, as reflected through some of the interviewees’ sense of nostalgia. Featured alongside the film is documentation of the journey including an eye-catching photograph by Corine Vermuelen of the mobile home in front of Detroit Central Station (2010). The grand pillars and pediments of the station are imitated by the mobile home’s frontage, conveying an aesthetic of success. The station’s abandonment in 1988 mimics the ‘white flight’ in which homes were made vacant in the fifties and sixties. The mobile home presents the distance between the American dream and the American reality in Detroit.
Throughout the films Kelley remains anonymous; the mobile home acts as a substitute for the artist’s presence. Only in the project’s documentation does it become apparent that Kelley grew up in Detroit in a house identical to the mobile home. While the vehicle visits public spaces, the mobile home remains private and unexplored, perhaps reflecting Kelley’s own apprehensions about becoming a public artist. In the audio recording of a 2010 interview with Laura Sillars featured in ‘Mobile Homestead Videos’, Kelley contests the social function of public art, deeming it as an often unwelcomed imposition on the community. His aim as a public artist is to provide a needed social service, and accordingly, the videos reacquaint the artist with a forgotten place, exploring what is valued. The result is an insightful, sincere glimpse into the simultaneously promising and desperate state of Michigan Avenue.
‘Mobile Homestead’ will be screened in independent cinemas across London from 2 - 18 November 2013.
Video excerpts can be viewed on the Artangel website:
Mobile Homestead Christening Ceremony and Launch, September 25, 2010 (2010-11)
Going East on Michigan Avenue from Westland to Downtown Detroit (2010-11)