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A Public Art Project Symbolically Reverses Detroit's 'White Flight'

Public art with a purpose: Mike Kelley's mobile tract home flees for the city.

The late artist Mike Kelley spent most of his career working in Los Angeles, but his origins lie in Westland, Michigan, a working-class town 16 miles outside Detroit. One of his final works before his suicide in January reconnects with those roots using a replica of the classic ranch-style home he grew up in in the 1950s. The public art piece, called "Mobile Homestead," toured through Detroit and surrounding towns on a flatbed truck to demonstrate a symbolic reversal of the "white flight" from a struggling city to its suburbs.

The project began in 2005 when Artangel, a British organization that produces site-specific art, asked Kelley to create its first project in the United States. Kelley responded with the idea of transporting a model of his childhood home from downtown Detroit to his real-life home in the suburbs, then back again. A trilogy of films about the journey emphasize the extreme inequality between communities within the city and outside it, interviewing everyone from strippers to church officials to Ford employees along the route.

The house made stops at locations relevant to Detroit's history as well as Kelley's childhood: Corktown, the city's historically Irish neighborhood; Dearborn, where Ford was founded; Wayne, where Kelley went to school; and finally Westland, where he grew up.

Now the project is about to find its final resting place. Beginning next month "Mobile Homestead" will be installed on a parcel of land behind the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, to be completed next year. The ground floor of the house will serve as a functional community space with free classes and a barbershop, while a basement designed by Kelley will provide studio space for artists and room "for more covert activities—what he called 'private rites of an aesthetic nature,'" according to Artangel. (Sounds fun either way.) The film trilogy premieres today at the Whitney Biennale in New York City.

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