In a theater at the Whitney Biennial, an empty façade strapped to a semi lurches up and down Michigan Avenue while the artist Mike Kelley is dead. For his final, unfinished project, a film series and public work called Mobile Homestead, Kelley addresses the binaries of presence and absence, new and old, artificial and authentic while considering his hometown of Deerborn, Michigan. As always, there is plenty to explore between the lines. Kelley projects frustration and masochistic delight on the subjects of how to get home, what is home, and why home matters.
Viewers familiar with Kelley’s work may wonder at first, “why would he produce a seemingly straight forward documentary about Detroit?” The playfully sinister spirit of his earlier work with plush, florescent animals is missing here. In his final interview for Artillery magazine, Kelley said he would take a break from making art. He sounded tired. I watched the blur of Michigan Avenue from the vantage point of the mobile homestead, listening to Kelley (presumably?) noodle on guitar, and wondered if the film is evidence that the artist was losing faith in his practice. Upon closer inspection, Kelley’s humor, candor and restlessness are abundant here, and serve to vividly capture the story of Detroit where other attempts fail—not to name names, but Vice’s 2011 film Detroit Lives is like a flaccid handshake in comparison.
Mobile Homestead evokes an impression of the artist circling his childhood home like a vulture—is he searching for a new subject to sink his teeth into or a place to rest? Kelley created the ridiculous looking façade-on-wheels because he could not buy the actual house he grew up in; another family claims it. The home is secular America’s religion, and so it seems especially odd that we give no second thought to recycling homes and putting them back on the market. Settling into that discomfort, the artist parades around his frustration with an empty, set-like structure, designed ambitiously and supported by the art world. Of this act, he is now oft-quoted to have written in the catalog essay for the biennial, “Public art is a pleasure that is forced upon a public that, in most cases finds no pleasure in it.” He must have had some faith—there was a plan involving MOCAD, an underground lair, the homeless. As Kelley tries to discover what home means to him, the viewer becomes enveloped in the liveliness, contradictions, inefficiencies, and peculiarities of a city that has long been in decline—a story that, of course, foreshadows the fate of a nation.
In Detroit, Henry Ford’s contribution to society is a chorus sung loudly, but in Kelley’s film, the Ford Museum is a stop along the way of Michigan Avenue and is displayed on even footing with the accounts of other members of the community. In this light, the grandiosity and artificiality of the telling of Ford’s story is rendered garish and hokey, ridiculous and untrustworthy. The birthplace of Henry Ford, a small colonial home introduced by a woman wearing period clothing is ironically preserved in simpler times. That home could have been anyone’s—it seems insignificant to display Ford’s home in this light when he sought to steamroll the trappings of this era with an eye toward modernity. And of course, Kelley’s deadpan humor brings him to confront this distortion of the past by pulling up alongside Ford’s home with his own idolized homestead balanced atop a 16-wheeler.
One electrifying scene, a visit with a forensics photographer, artist and snake owner, expertly depicts the complexity of what it apparently means to be from Detroit, but notably without exploiting—rather illuminating the personal story of the subject. The camera pans over the shadowy scene of the man’s studio filled with skulls, morbid drawings, sculptures and artifacts, then closely follows the visceral movements of a giant, yellow snake. All the while, the man describes how he had worked with the police department to develop a photographic technique to accurately depict the likeness of a serial killer on the loose. For verification, there is a quick jump cut to a prostitute’s testimonial of her near fatal encounter with that serial killer. Back to the photographer—the subject is obviously a uniquely skilled, contributing member of the community, and displays an unnervingly high threshold for the grotesque and decrepit. This disposition describes Kelley too. It is what makes him capable of such deadpan humor and surprising insight. It is also a defense mechanism which weeds out the inauthentic and the feint of heart.
People from Detroit, the vignette reveals, are unflinching about their loyalty to and intimacy with the dying city because they know that a dying city is not necessarily a city that will ever die. Most documentarians who want to depict the hopeful aspect of Detroit show people talking about potential and describing the city with phrases like, “blank canvas,” but that trope is noticeably absent from Kelley’s portrayal. The artist does not swap a morbid picture of decay for a bright and sunny portrait of the future. He stays in the present tense, as uncomfortable as it may be. That is Kelley’s genius.