Detroit

Mike Kelley

Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD)

In Detroit, it is difficult to use an architecture-based vocabulary in a civic context without striking a topical note. The city—which since the 1960s, when white flight triggered a slow, decisive economic decline, has shrunk to less than half its peak size—wears the ravages of urban blight on its sleeve. Woodward Avenue, the metropolis’s most populated artery, and home to the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (mocad), doubles as a colorful architectural barometer of socioeconomically stratified decay. At one end, downtown, the center of big business and home to convention centers, hotels, and major league sports, remains viable, if not exactly vital. But as one proceeds northwest on Woodward out of the city center, toward the affluent suburbs of Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, the extremity and extent of the intervening desolation are incomparable. It is within this urban netherworld that mocad, housed in what was once a car showroom (of course), and Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead, 2010, exist.

Kelley grew up in Westland, a working-class neighborhood of Detroit, and Mobile Homestead, a work in progress initiated this September, will eventually be a fully functioning re-creation of his childhood home (as precise as memory serves), sited on MoCAD’s midtown campus in perpetuity and housing an artist residency and various community programs. As a sculpture, Kelley’s latest project is overwhelmingly bland and unremarkable by consequence of its total fidelity to the cost-effective suburban architecture that is its referent. The sparklingly white, one-story, aluminum-sided structure gains great distinction, however, from its context. While an endless line of documentary photographers have and continue to exploit the elegant deterioration of this city with carefully cropped abstractions based on the worn sides of brick buildings or the accidental beauty of countless weatherbeaten wooden doors, Kelley intrudes on this aesthetic imaginary with a glaring architectural, geographic, and historical anachronism made all the more noteworthy by the fact that it commands attention while remaining obdurately commonplace as a thing in and of itself.

Having traveled hitched to the cab of a big rig, Mobile Homestead is currently parked alongside a brick-sided building painted a faintly ironic powder blue. When complete, Kelley’s trailer home will gain a single-car garage and encompass two subterranean floors, providing significant space for the community projects and social services that will soon be staged there. The landscaping, too, will evoke a deliberately prototypical vision of the suburbs. (Although the design is subject to change, mock-up photographs proffer a conscientiously groomed lawn, a single tree, a paved driveway, and even a picket fence.) While the surrounding environment, MoCAD included, is defined by the relentless progress of history, Kelley’s project remains untouched by the combined violence of time and context, radiating a pristine imperviousness that is at once visually arresting and politically ambiguous.

That this suburban holdover will be the centerpiece of an artist residency program affords the structure a purpose, but it does not explain what, if any, social statement subtends Kelley’s impulse. The very concept of architecture in a city as despoiled as Detroit means that any artist so much as dipping his or her toe into the vast, contested waters of urban disintegration/renewal will be judged as sociopolitically motivated, particularly by the local population. Hence, Kelley’s project offers a counterpoint to standard art-world strategies for intervention wherein artists and architects either celebrate the aesthetics of decay irrespective of the social suffering that led to and perpetuates that marketable look, or wherein starchitects, trading in the spectacular, assume the mantle of social messiah, “elevating” the population with feats of engineering and imagination in the midst of otherwise dire circumstances. In this context, Kelley’s dull thud of yesterday’s everyday will at least induce a conversation—and perhaps one that will relate the fate of the suburbs to that of the urban center (throwing into relief a disjuncture that precipitated Detroit’s original downfall), at the very moment when renewal efforts are under way that aim to avoid a similar fate for this once great city in the coming century.

Christopher Bedford