Throughout Shirin Neshat’s video installation Passage, on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts through July 7 as part of the museum’s retrospective of her work, a young girl plays with rocks, arranging them into a circle. It’s not clear what she’s building, but given her focus on order and sequence, it seems as though she’s building some kind of structure, possibly even something utilitarian.
Video of this young girl is interspersed with shots of two other scenes: a group of men carrying an undefined burden, and a group of women who rhythmically chant and dig a hole in the ground. At the end of Passage the three seemingly separate scenes coalesce: The men arrive near the women — here we come to realize it that the women’s labor may be resulting in a kind of primitive grave — and the men, the woman and the child are finally joined in a single shot as the men place what appears to be a shrouded body in the ground and a wide arc of flame races around the landscape.
I thought about Passage and its themes of journey, communal accomplishment, generational succession and even rebirth a few weeks ago at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, which is just a few blocks south of the DIA and its Neshat show. I was visiting just as MOCAD was putting the finishing touches on “Mobile Homestead,” a project created by the late Mike Kelley. The project is sited in a formerly vacant lot behind MOCAD’s Woodward Ave.-facing building. (In this Google Satellite image, the land behind MOCAD is being leveled, probably for “Mobile Homestead.”) Kelley’s project is motivated by the same themes that fill the Neshat, a kind of physical realization of ideas that have interested artists at least since they started making Flight to Egypt paintings. (Speaking of which, the DIA has a nice Murillo take on such.) More on that in a minute.
MOCAD describes “Mobile Homestead” as a “permanent art work” and as “a public sculpture and a private, personal architecture,” which is to say it isn’t quite sure yet what it is. The Museum also describes “Mobile Homestead” as “permanent,” but is it? Well, no, not exactly: Much of the structure can be driven away from MOCAD’s nascent campus — and periodically will be — into Detroit neighborhoods where it will serve as a community space, possibly as a sort of art-cum-bookmobile-style something-or-other-ish.
Is it a public sculpture? Um, it was certainly ordained by an artist, but other than that, no, not really. “Mobile Homestead” is a functional house-like structure, complete with heating and plumbing. Is it a “personal architecture?” Yes, that’s certainly MOCAD’s most accurate description of “Mobile Homestead”: Kelley loosely modeled the thing after his boyhood home in suburban Detroit.
So as it’s not exactly clear yet what “Mobile Homestead” is, perhaps the best way of explaining the thing is to consider what it is for. Except, well… that’s mostly TBD too. MOCAD is putting the offices of its public education and community engagement department into “Mobile Homestead,” and those offices will effectively keep the schedule of the place. The museum hopes local arts groups or knitting circles or revival meetings or who-knows-what-else will use it. The building also has a garage, and the museum hope bands will book it for gigs, or even that Aunt Maude and Uncle Jim will use it to show slides from their Upper Peninsula vacation. To the extent that there is a pre-specified plan for the Kelley, it is to have no pre-specified plan for the Kelley. The idea is simply to open up a structure that will serve as a place where people and community groups that need a place to continue their journeys or to pass knowledge or ritual from one generation to the next may do so. Who knows how it will turn out?
As such it’s a very Mike Kelley idea: “Mobile Homestead” rejects the traditional idea of what an art museum or a kunsthalle is, an idea that’s been in place in the United States since the late 19th century. To understand how radical “Mobile Homestead” is, think about what an art museum typically does: It takes the result of an artist’s labor and presents it, either as part of that institution’s collection or in a contextualizing exhibition. And while MOCAD is billing “Mobile Homestead” in terms that contextualize the Kelley within that exact museo-tradition — note MOCAD’s use of terms like “sculpture” ” and “art work” in describing the Kelley — “Mobile Homestead” is really bricks-and-mortar-siding as subversion, an idea-cum-structure that forces an art museum to place the artist’s ideas and goals ahead of a curator’s (or a director’s or a marketing department’s or anyone else’s). Then because we almost never accept radical ideas when they’re presented in their most seditious form, Kelley has cloaked his rebellion in something Americans are trained to accept, or even aspire to: the blandness of suburban architecture.
Kelley’s camel’s-nose-under-the-Beaux-Arts-pile would be doomed to eventual assimilation, to being subsumed within the art museum or kunsthalle that hosts it, but for one key factor: Money. The Mike Kelley Foundation, which sources tell me will have an asset value in the mid-to-high eight figures when the Kelley estate is settled, is likely to to fund the operation of “Mobile Homestead,” whatever operation that ends up being. (So too is the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.) Kelley’s crazy idea has a chance of long-term success mostly because the art world has effectively supported Kelley’s most radical ideas buy buying his most traditional ones: Art objects.
That said, art museums are catching up with Kelley’s idea — and fast. “Audience engagement” is the new museum buzz-phrase. Institution’s as nimble as the Hammer Museum and as traditional as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art have staffers with the title of “curator” whose job is essentially to take the ideas or projects of activists who call themselves artists and to find a place for them within the time-tested art museum format. For example: At the Hammer, Allison Agsten holds the title “curator of public engagement” and puts on ‘events’ such as Fritz Haeg’s communal project “Domestic Integrities” (above right). The same museum office enables unexpected interventions into the museum’s spaces or products, such as this Kate Pocrass project. These, uh, things, whatever form they may take, are typically less art than they are activities, community projects or activism that fits within the spirit of a contemporary art museum’s progressiveness. (Picture the ultimate super-meta art event: Haeg holding one of his “Domestic Integrities” knitting circles inside Kelley’s “Mobile Homestead.”)
That’s not to say that ideas like Kelley’s or “audience engagement” curators are completely divorced from art. Think back to Neshat’s Passage or to Murillo’s Flight into Egypt. Both are traditional artworks, manifestations of artists’ process and decision-making. To the extent that Kelley’s “Mobile Homestead” or Haeg’s “Domestic Integrities” have a claim to being art, that’s it: They eschew the idea that artworks must be objects. Instead they strip art down to one of its elemental roots, process, and dictate that the processes of others is in itself an artwork (even ‘their’ artwork). Think of them as Richard Serra’s Hand Catching Lead (1968, at left) — only with the hand being yours, and minus the video.