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Why the art world is freaking out over a house in Detroit



That is a completely understandable reaction the first time people see the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit’s new exhibit. It’s called “Mobile Homestead.”

The "work of art" is a mobile house, a suburban-looking, one-story, white ranch house. It's the kind of house they've seen a million times before.

So why is the modern art world, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal breathlessly declaring this house one of the most significant, world-renowned pieces of 2013?

Because it’s the final piece by Mike Kelley.

“Who?” would also be a completely acceptable reaction at this point.

But let our mistakes save you some embarrassment. Do not say “I’ve never heard of Mike Kelley” in front of modern art connoisseurs.

They will look at you like they're librarians who just discovered you’ve never, ever read a book before.

And like you’re also not wearing pants.

Here’s what you need to know to fake it: Mike Kelley is one of the biggest deals in the last 25 years of modern art.

He grew up in Westland, Michigan and then moved to LA. He’s apparently much more famous on the coasts and internationally than in the Midwest. 

In Amsterdam, for instance, a modern art museum put together a massive retrospective of his work that drew 200,000 visitors. 

Kelley's work includes video installations, a tapestry of teddy bears sewn together, massive sculptures, cute but creepy toys, textiles, and on and on.  He's been called the most significant artist of the last 25 years, and an inspiration for countless modern artists.

Last year, at the age of 57, Kelley committed suicide.

But he was already working on his final piece: this house.

Marsha Miro is the founding director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, or MOCAD.

The house is plopped just behind the museum.

"It just doesn't seem to belong,” says Miro. “With the hospital behind it, and MOCAD next to it, and big buildings across the street."

This house is a replica of Kelley’s childhood home, she says.

"So he's paying homage to the suburban houses we all grew up in and hallowing them, and saying, 'you know, these houses had a lot in them.' They weren't just facades that all look the same. It may not be the greatest piece of architecture. But it represents so many lives."

Miro says at first, coming into the house is supposed to feel familiar, nostalgic, even cozy.

And then you notice the weird stuff, because Kelley also had some twisted feelings about his childhood in Michigan.

He talked about his background in a 2004 interview.

“I came out of a blue collar family. They hated art. They hated intellectuals. And the counterculture was my escape from, basically, a factory town.”

That darkness is also part of the house.

The entire basement is a complex maze. It's only accessible through hatches, like the ones from "Lost." Yet, you can’t go down there – seriously. It’s not supposed to be seen by the general public, as sort of a meta-statement on what we keep hidden from outsiders. 

"[Kelley] thought on the surface, people could be very civic-minded and want to do good,” says Miro. “But under the surface, they have all kinds of hostile feelings, or you know, personal feelings that they're hiding underneath."

The museum plans to take advantage of the house’s mobility.

They want to open it up to the city as more than just an exhibit. Miro says maybe it’ll be a meeting place for charities, AA meetings, or whatever the community needs.

They’ll also use it as office space for MOCAD’s education department.

But what about the big question here? What, ultimately, makes this house capital-A Art as opposed to, say, a quirky mobile home in Midtown?

That’s the kind of question art folks write theses about. And looooong newspaper articles.

But for Miro, the answer’s easy.  

"In art, if an artist says it's art, then it's art. And it's basically as simple as that."

You can check it out for yourself.  The exhibit is now open to the public

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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