By Jerome Stuart Nichols
During his 35-year career, Michigan-born sculpture, installation and performance artist Mike Kelley went from humble beginnings to being labeled as “one of the most influential American artists of the past quarter-century” by the New York Times. His legacy of imaginative rebellion and thoughtful cultural critique remain a lasting testament to his impact on the art community and the world at large. With the posthumous completion and launch of “Mobile Homestead,” his final work, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit is making sure his legacy remains.
“Mobile Homestead,” a permanent sculptural artwork and mobile public space, will open to the public beginning at 12 p.m. May 12. The homestead is located on MOCAD grounds, 4454 Woodward Ave., in Detroit.
The eight-year journey from conception to finished product began in 2005 when Kelley met James Lingwood, co-director of London-based arts organization Artangel. From the beginning, Mike wanted to create something that would make a long-lasting impact on Detroit, a place he considered home. From there, they partnered with MOCAD and received funding from several different sources. The project started to become reality in 2010, but it almost didn’t.
On Jan. 31, 2012, at the age of 57, Kelley was found dead of suicide in his South Pasadena, Calif. residence. With his death the project was almost derailed, but with the help of those closest to him, the project moved forward.
“Mike died in early 2012. In spring 2012, together with the Trustees of the Kelley Estate, we decided the project should not die with him.” Lingwood said.
The “Mobile Homestead” project is a life-sized, near-replica sculpture based on Kelley’s Westland childhood home. While currently situated in a repurposed lot, Kelley initially hoped that it could be a part of the Henry Ford Village.
“Mike liked the idea of putting this kind of 1950s suburban ranch house, a replica of it, in that situation as short of homage to the middle class,” said Marsha Miro, president of the board at MOCAD.
According to MOCAD, “Homestead” “enacts a reversal of the ‘white flight’ that took place in Detroit following the inner city uprisings of the 1960s.”
“This is a living artwork, in a sense,” said Mary-Clare Stevens, Kelley’s long-time studio assistant and current executive director of The Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. “(It’s) really very unique in terms of Mike’s output as an artist. It is an extremely challenging work on so many levels; it addresses the role of art, public art and the artist in these times and it looks at history, memory and narratives that we create as individuals and as communities.”
“Mobile Homestead” is a two-part project that consists of a mobile home and a stationary living space for artists’ work. The mobile portion functions as a moving piece of art and a practical place for people to congregate and collaborate. The hope is that the people of Detroit who need a space will use it to create more art and positivity within the city.
“I hope that individuals and communities can utilize the work, the ‘center,’ as a place or platform of exchange with others in the community,” Stevens said. “It is an experiment of sorts, I suppose. The work was conceived as utilitarian on some levels, though it isn’t your regular meeting house.”
LGBT groups will find that the space is all-inclusive. This gives the homestead the opportunity to become a hub for LGBT artists who can often have a more difficult time finding work spaces.
“I see it also as a free zone where ideas can be exchanged unencumbered and outside of the art world in some ways,” Stevens said.
With all posthumous “completions” of artists’ works, there’s always the question of whether the original artist would grant approval.
“He would have been very curious about the way different groups started to use the place,” Lingwood said. “He would have been conspiring to do his own underground projects too. That’s the one thing we will really miss. He had plans for the basement.”
“I wouldn’t presume to guess what Mike’s thoughts would be,” Stevens said. “But in my opinion, I think he would be really pleased with it physically … and perhaps surprised that it actually got done!”