MostlyFilm’s art correspondent Ann Jones on the late Mike Kelley’s final work; a moving reflection on his native Detroit, and the house he grew up in.
Mostly, what I know about Mike Kelley’s work is that I don’t know enough about Mike Kelley’s work. There’s the anarchic, often funny, sculpture made from all manner of stuff. I’m generally in favour of that. There are the performances (or there were; Kelley stopped performing a long time ago, but evidence remains). And there are the video works. I know they exist. I’ve seen some of them – indeed I saw a big exhibition of Kelley’s work in Paris earlier this year – and liked them. But for some reason, beyond the vague notion that, like the sculpture, they are far from dull, the details elude me and I can only bring snippets back to mind. I’m pretty sure it says more about me than about him, but Kelley remains a shadowy figure on the periphery of my generally pretty good bank of knowledge about contemporary art; I realise with sadness that I remember the awful shock of his premature death last year more vividly than I remember a lot of his work.
So when I heard that there were going to be cinema screenings of the Mobile Homestead films, I was determined to see them. I knew about Mobile Homestead as a work – a replica of Kelley’s family home that acts as both artwork and functional community space in his native Detroit – and I knew that the frontage was removable and able to travel (the ‘mobile’ part of the work’s title) and, based on their titles alone, I like the sound of the films. Not wanting to miss out (and also because it was the only one I could easily get to), I opted for the screening with everything. Which is how come I spent a Saturday afternoon at the Curzon Soho watching Going West on Michigan Avenue from Downtown Detroit to Westland, Going East on Michigan Avenue from Westland to Downtown Detroit and Mobile Homestead Christening Ceremony and Launch, September 25 2010.
And if that’s a long and boring intro that tells you little about Mike Kelley, well, maybe there’s a reason for that…
Honestly, I’m not quite sure what I was expecting. Beyond the fact that, stupidly, I hadn’t checked the running times so didn’t realise I’d be spending quite as much time in the cinema as turned out to be the case, I guess I hadn’t really thought about it much at all. I suppose what I wanted them to do was perhaps tell me something about Kelley and his relationship with his childhood, about memory and sense of place. And in a way that’s what I got but without any answers to the underlying question of quite how Kelley reached the point where taking his own life, which he did in January 2012 a matter of days after finishing the edit of these films.
There’s an engaging absurdity to the premise of the first two films. In the first, Going West…, the front section of the replica house – the ‘mobile’ part of Mobile Homestead – travels through downtown Detroit and out along Michigan Avenue through a series of bleak inner city areas and out into the only marginally less bleak suburbs until it draws to a halt outside the house it mimics; Kelley’s childhood home. There’s something bizarre about watching what seems to be a narrow slice of house – the full width of the frontage but as a shallow section – travelling on a low-loader through the city. Downtown Detroit, in particular, towers above our valiant simulacrum, dwarfing the suburban house as it attempts to make its way home following the path of the ‘white flight’ that followed the race riots of the late 1960s and left the inner city so run down and, essentially, doing the opposite of what its maker is doing in making the replica and siting it at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit; the work, effectively a gift from Kelley to the city of his childhood, is a public artwork with a role to play in regenerating a city that has long been in a state of seemingly terminal decline.
The second film, Going East…, of course brings the Kelley house into the middle of Detroit in the same way as Mobile Homestead itself does. The work is sited at MOCAD where the fixed structure will remain – hiding a two storey basement the ‘real’ house lacks – while the mobile section will occasionally roam the city doing its bit to promote art in Detroit, taking part in other public events and generally doing good works. In coming to downtown Detroit, both on film and in reality, or replica, or whatever, Mobile Homestead is bring the suburbs to the centre, making an architectural anomaly of a piece of archetypal American vernacular architecture.
Both visually and conceptually, then, there’s a lot to like about the project and the way the first two films document it. While the films lack the chaotic intensity I expect from Kelley – and let’s not forget my inability to fully retain a grasp on his practice – in showcasing the incongruity that lies at the heart of the project they carry their own internal confusion.
Ultimately though, it’s neither the madness of the idea nor the visual charm of seeing a house carried about on a trailer that entrances me most. It’s the people. Along the way, we – Kelley (in the form of the film but safely hidden behind the camera) and the audience – stop to meet some of those whose lives are being played out along Michigan Avenue and it’s they who really tell the story of Detroit’s changing fortunes.
Some are upbeat. When we pass through Dearborn – the home of Ford – things seem to be going okay although there’s often a sense that we’re getting an official line from individuals representing corporations. The more interesting narrative comes from those whose lives – and businesses – are being played out right there on Michigan Avenue. We visit the cheap motels that are home to those who stand no chance of accumulating the deposit needed to rent their own place. We meet the barbers, the prostitutes and the deli, diner and bar owners who try to sound upbeat about an uncertain future while often harking back to times past when business was good. Some have moved to stay perhaps half a step ahead of the decline, others remain rooted in a place that can no longer sustain them, hanging on with fewer staff and harder working lives. It’s this sense of making do that lets the owner of the Hygrade Deli – where nothing has changed (except for the level of business) for almost forty years, following a move from a bigger, fancier deli in the area hit by the riots – put a positive spin on letting out space to the Private Social Club, whose owner tells us that the whips and splay canes that are the tools of her trade are made by a Detroit based company.
Though many of the people we meet are immigrants – and I may have imagined it, but I think there may have been an Albanian family doing Irish dancing at one point – the sense of nothing changing is a potent one. There’s also a sense that here the anarchy and strangeness that is so often a feature of Kelley’s work comes from the city and its inhabitants. Kelley simply documents. Narratives are also allowed to unfold from film to film. During Heading West we meet members of a biker gang whose on-screen posturing takes on a more menacing air when we discover in the closing credits that six of the gang are on trial for an assortment of offences including racketeering and that 91 are likely to face charges.
But though the films are essentially documentary in nature, these are not the films a mainstream documentary filmmaker would have made about Mobile Homestead, nor are they – with a total running time of approaching three and a half hours – the “trailer about a trailer” their producer, Artangel Co-Director James Lingwood, who introduced the screening, tells us he envisaged when he suggested Kelley make a promo to help get the nature of the project across to potential supporters. In almost every respect, I’m grateful for that. Though I wasn’t always quite sure why, I really liked the Mobile Homestead trilogy. I liked the way people and places we’d come across in the first film, popped up again in the second or third, familiar faces and spaces offsetting the weirdness of the premise and the city. Though I wasn’t surprised by the news of the biker gang’s criminality – the heavily tattooed trio we meet at one point certainly looked the part even if their big talk seemed at times like it might be little more than posturing – I found myself half-hoping the one who ran a bike repair shop because he just seemed to really love bikes might somehow not be implicated.
Above all, I think, I loved the visual charm of the house on a trailer – like something from a twenty-first century nursery rhyme – making its way in the big city. And I loved the resonance of original and copy when the two met. But I felt sad not to have got to know Mike Kelley better. In staying so firmly behind the camera – he appears briefly at the christening ceremony in Christening Ceremony but even here he is barely there, speaking briefing before smashing a bottle of champagne against Mobile Homestead, but on screen for far less time than those who spoke at the launch – in a way it seems as though Kelley is absenting himself from his home city even as he is symbolically returning to it.
In the first two films – at the end of Heading West… and the start of Heading East… – the real and replica houses meet. Kelley’s original idea had been to buy his childhood home; despite generous offers, the owner wasn’t selling. Eventually we get to go inside and meet the current owner; yet another barber. He knew the Kelley family. He cut some of their hair. There’s no animosity. He just likes the house – though the area isn’t what it was – and plans to live out his days there.
In searching for any sort of understanding about Kelley’s relationship with Detroit, his need to make Mobile Homestead and his frame of mind as he edited the films, it would perhaps be easy to read too much into the films. There’s a sense of reverie that comes from the pace and from being immersed in the life of Michigan Avenue for an afternoon. There’s a slowness to the whole thing and a sense that however long we stay – and the audience did drift away a bit, in much the same way that the audience at the launch party featured in Christening Ceremony and Launch did – we won’t get any real understanding.
In the end, the artist’s reworked lyrics to the song Detroit City, the refrain of the films, are really all we have:
Folks think I’m big now, out of Detroit City
From the things they hear they think that I am blessed
By day I produce sculpture, oh but at night I’m a vulture
Feeding on the corpse of the dim, dim past
I wanna go home, wanna go home, oh lord I wanna go home
London screenings of the films continue until 18 November 2013. Details here.