Mike Kelley, Mobile Homestead Videos, Site Gallery, Sheffield

Text by Chloe Reith

Viewing Mobile Homestead Videos – the three feature length documentaries which form part of the last work by the late Mike Kelley – it is impossible not to find oneself searching for some evidence that might explain away his sudden and untimely death. Indeed this work, his first public project and perhaps his most directly autobiographical, maintains an overtly reflective pace and nostalgic tenor that seems to anticipate this tragic frame, not least due to the landscape of Detroit, a city in terminal decline which provides the subject and context of these films. In this sense, Mobile Homestead pivots around dual tragedies; one private and personal, the other social and municipal, both equally beguiling subjects posing countless questions and dissatisfactory conclusions.

The Mobile Homestead Videos could be read as an epitaph, pathos wrung out of every scene, but Kelley’s work is rarely so neatly packaged. This interpretation of his final project would ignore the playfully recursive, endlessly subversive and densely layered pop cultural reference points, iconography and personal identifiers running through this complex work.

Commissioned by Artangel in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Mobile Homestead was conceived as a permanent public sculpture and functional community space erected downtown outside the museum. Taking the form of a clapboard, ranch-style bungalow, typical of the white working-class suburban dwellings which surround the city, it is a replica of Kelley’s own childhood home which still stands inhabited by new occupants on the outskirts of Detroit. Constructed in deliberate opposition to the surrounding metropolitan architecture, Mobile Homestead’s otherness exists as a statement about, and symbolical reversal of, the so-called ‘white flight’ that divested the city centre of its white population in the late sixties. Through this symbolically loaded structure and the accompanying videos, Kelley confronts the totemic ideologies and reflexive myth making, which are a deeply internalised component of American national identity, deconstructing its mainstream cultural signifiers and exposing the contradictions that are part and parcel of the Janus faced American dream.

Kelley’s version of the suburban home subverts the symbolic power of this architecture and its connotations of status, affluence, stability and family life. What at first glance appears to be an exact reproduction of the original, Mobile Homestead is in fact a sinister double with a cavernous two storey basement lurking beneath its benign exterior. These notions of unheimlich are reinforced by the mobile section of this home, crafted by an incision across the face of this residence which literally tears apart the family home to make an independent unit. Made mobile by way of a rolling chassis, this ruptured façade is emancipated, set free to travel into the community.

The documentaries accompany the Mobile Homestead, as it embarks on its maiden voyage down Michigan Avenue, out into the suburbs to meet its progenitor and back again; a circular performance of escape and return. The journey is both physical and psychological, parodying pioneering, the prodigal son and that quintessence of American mythmaking; the road movie. Like that well-known genre, the films offer unique personal encounters, formative experiences and space for reflection.

Coasting down wide boulevards on this long arterial route, often to a blues rock soundtrack, Mobile Homestead enters into a dialogue with the modern city, making pit stops at small businesses, roadside shacks, charity shops, family run delis and restaurants, barbershops, the Ford world headquarters, premises of the local dominatrix, a gay bar, trailer parks, burnt out houses, head shops and churches. Encountering oddballs and grafters, addicts and hustlers, entrepreneurs and big businessmen, evangelical pastors, and representatives of immigrant communities old and new, the inhabitants of the Motor City speak variously of the unraveling of their society, urban blight, economic and social strife, diaspora, fortune, pride and success, and their own prejudices. Kelley’s obvious enthusiasm for his subjects and lack of moral judgement makes for a multitude of potent and absorbing portraits. Together these narrative vignettes build a vibrant city geography and reveal a surprisingly earnest aesthetic, setting this project apart from the majority of Kelley’s past work.

Like the road movie, the Mobile Homestead Videos construct layers of nostalgia, seemingly in deliverance of a redemptive perspective shift. However the familiar moral lessons of this genre are open-ended and inconclusive here. Juxtaposed with the spectacular architectural tombstones of Detroit, this clean, sanitised version of American life is at once an absurd and serious statement, an image of escape and of hope, and now, an unintentional memorial.

Mike Kelley: Mobile Homestead Videos is on display at Site Gallery, Sheffield until 20 July 2013.

Chloe Reith is a freelance writer and Digital Coordinator for Art Sheffield.