Plato’s Philosophy Club meets on Saturday mornings inside the last work by artist Mike Kelley. Mobile Homestead is a full-scale replica of the suburban Detroit home where Kelley grew up—a one-story ranch with vinyl siding and blue shutters—and it is on permanent exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). Settled outside the museum on lush mown lawn, it is shrouded by Detroit’s high-traffic thoroughfares and century-old brick buildings.
Plato’s Philosophy Club gathers in a sunny corner, seated on blue stools with paper and pencils on their lap. The average age is eight. All is quiet: Alyson Jones, a Detroit educator who organizes this group, has asked the kids to write down a question about stories. “We’re thinking of questions like Plato thought of questions,” Jones says. “Something you don’t know the answer to, but wonder about.”
Zsahlyn, a girl with a brimmed hat adorned with a flower, props her chin on her fist. “I like how you’re thinking. I can see the wheels moving,” Jones tells her. After many long minutes, the group offers its questions to one another. “Who was the first one to write a book?” “If all the pages are torn out, is it still a book?” “Should people show scary books and movies to kids?” Jones pins all their questions to a bulletin board.
In Plato’s Philosophy Club, it is the questions, not the answers, which matter. Kelley’s installation is the right site for a Socratic dialog—a bewildering place that is itself an unresolved idea.
The internationally celebrated artist is currently featured in a massive retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art P.S.1 in Queens, N.Y. For the first time, an entire building—from boiler room to upper-story classrooms—is devoted to a survey of nearly three decades of Kelley’s art, which is known for unsettling the viewer’s experience of space by blurring the lines between public and private. The P.S.1 show includes Educational Complex (1995), a large architectural model of every school Kelley attended, and More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and the Wages of Sin (1987), Kelley’s famous ten-foot-long tapestry of shabby dolls, toys, and afghans that were found in flea markets and sewed together.
But as comprehensive as the P.S.1 show is, Mobile Homestead in Detroit is a pure distillation of Mike Kelley’s art. As with More Love, Mobile Homestead’s domestic design is punctuated by odd juxtapositions. The driveway before the attached garage leads nowhere. A metal square on the sidewalk is a locked door leading into a labyrinthine two-level basement on MOCAD grounds connected by ladders. This was intended as a private space where Kelley expected to work, with artists joining him by invitation. But he took his own life in 2012, before the exhibit opened.
The house itself is loudly dissonant in midtown Detroit. As Kelley wrote of the exhibit in 2011, its suburban architecture signifies “the complex racial and class-based issues that are representative of the Detroit area.” By moving a replica of his suburban home into Detroit, Kelley mimed a sort of reversal of the white flight that ferociously shaped the cityscape today. From time to time, the house will be driven through the city and suburbs; in fact, MOCAD is this month screening the film that Kelley made of Mobile Homestead doing just that, called Going West on Michigan Avenue from Downtown Detroit to Westland.
Kelley saw his “every man’s home” as a contrast to the collection of 80 original historic buildings amassed by Henry Ford in nearby Greenfield Village, including Thomas Edison’s light bulb laboratory and the Wright Brothers’ cycle shop. The idea is for Mobile Homestead’s traveling route to stop at Greenfield Village, speaking back to it by proximity about the tension between home and display, art and history, and whose lives we choose to celebrate.
The exhibition’s oddity is made all the more potent by Mobile Homestead’s open door policy. “It is my wish that the community gallery will not simply be an outpost of MOCAD, but that it represent the cultural interests of the community that exists in proximity to it,” Kelley wrote.
Which sounds nice enough. But in its first months parked at MOCAD, the space has stumped visitors and museum staff alike (Plato’s kids notwithstanding). Curators don’t know what to do with it. “It’s such an independent project. Such a strange, conflicted space,” said MOCAD education assistant Kottie Gaydos as she showed me around. “We’re still getting used to it, like when you’re moving in. We’re settling in.” Visitors come in, look around, and leave, despite the invitation to do something—anything—with the space. The Saturday morning gallery hosts I met on one visit encouraged me to get in touch if I ever wanted to host a meeting in Mobile Homestead, or maybe a party or event.
Kelley foresaw the unsettledness of his life-size public sculpture:
The Mobile Homestead project is my first sustained attempt to delve into the world of public art … The work could become just another ruin in a city full of ruins. … (But the) project, in its initial conception, expressed my true feelings about the milieu in which I was raised, and my belief that one always has to hide one’s true desires and beliefs behind a facade of socially acceptable lies.
Kelley, who left Michigan in 1976 for California and lived in Los Angeles the rest of his life, made a surprising return to the Midwest with this unusually personal exhibit. But even though it is a replica of private space— Kelley tried but failed to buy his original childhood home for this project—Mobile Homestead is determinedly, and uncomfortably, public. True, visitors take and leave books in the exhibit’s free library, and guests are invited to draw and paint inside. And MOCAD has used the space for self-referentially suburban activities, like a garage sale and neighborhood barbecue on the lawn.
But Plato’s Philosophy Club is one of the first ways Detroiters have adopted Mobile Homestead and made it their own, in a way that Kelley might appreciate. Alyson Jones, Zsahlyn, and the rest reveal the wonderful potential of the artist’s final work. If Kelley was concerned with depicting the falsehoods that overshadow our human experience, then there is something phenomenal about little kids making over this faux-suburban house into their own version of Plato’s cave. Here, it is not the shadows that matter, but good questions, the search for truth, and our own native wonder.