KULTURE KLASH: Motor City Summer

By on July 12, 2016

Exploring the ruins and rebirth of Detroit.

Amid blocks of abandoned homes is an eclectic outdoor art installation care of Tyree Guyton: The Heidelberg Project. (Photo: Meg Daly)

Amid blocks of abandoned homes is an eclectic outdoor art installation care of Tyree Guyton: The Heidelberg Project. (Photo: Meg Daly)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – This July I wanted to escape Jackson’s traffic and congestion so I hopped a flight to Detroit. The city has been so gutted by white flight and economic downturn the past 40 years that the wide streets are practically free of traffic. Famous for Motown, the auto industry, and architectural gems, Detroit is an anachronism trying desperately to become relevant again.

I had heard that Detroit is a contemporary haven for artists who are drawn to the renegade spirit and cheap rents. It feels a lot like Portland, Oregon, before gentrification overwhelmed the edgy, independent art scene there. I couldn’t wait to see two renowned contemporary art installations that couldn’t be situated in any other city.

The first installation is “Mobile Homestead” by Mike Kelley, who died in 2012. The New York Times called Kelley “one of the most influential American artists of the past quarter century.” Though he lived most of his too-short adult life in Los Angeles, Kelley grew up in a working class suburb of Detroit. Readers might best recognize Kelley’s sculptural pieces using stuffed animals. The Brooklyn Rail, described one of Kelley’s installations as “overwhelmingly large, color-sorted masses of stuffed animals suspended from the ceiling of a harshly bright room.”

“Mobile Homestead” by comparison is much less fuzzy or colorful. One of the last pieces he completed before his death, “Mobile Homestead” is a full-size replica of Kelley’s childhood home placed on a vacant lot behind the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. It looks basically like a generic white ranch home with blue trim. You’ve seen, and overlooked, homes like this a thousand times.

The brick wall directly behind the structure is painted sky blue. In the summer heat, the surrounding lawn has turned to yellow straw. That’s it from the outside. Just the façade of a home and the façade of a blue sky.

It helps to keep Kelley’s themes of memory and childhood in mind when viewing “Mobile Homestead.” What at first felt like, “so what” to me, transformed before my eyes into a blank canvas. I realized that Kelley had succeeded not only in bringing his childhood into the present, but he had also produced a blank slate for viewers to do the same.

The house is so nondescript, the sky so seamlessly, perpetually blue, that I could project my own memories onto it. I could imagine what it would be like to pick up my old childhood home as it was 35 years ago and plunk it down in field today, unchanged. I felt the weight of the memories we lug around, however dear.

It’s fitting that two of the city’s most famous art installations have to do with houses and home. Driving past blocks of abandoned homes, I arrived at The Heidelberg Project on Detroit’s East Side. Since the mid 1980s, Heidelberg Street resident Tyree Guyton has been transforming his childhood street from a dilapidated hangout for drug dealers to an award-winning, multi-lot outdoor art project.

Guyton’s childhood two-story childhood home is the central axis from which the rest of the installation radiates. His house is covered in multicolored polka dots. The sidewalks have been painted with faces representing the diversity of the neighborhood. Surrounding lawns and empty lots are filled with sculptures made from found materials.

A row of rusted car hoods appears like dominos suspended before toppling. Grocery carts appear repeatedly – at the top of telephone poles, carrying a heaping array of sports trophies. A small speedboat is piled high with stuffed animals, which made me wonder who came first, Guyton or Kelley?

Everywhere Guyton has installed planks of wood board painted as colorful clocks. The clocks appear high and low, big and small, always fixed in time, though not always the same time. I asked an attendant at the site what the clocks signified.

“We are here at a moment in time,” the man said. “We can make a decision, right now.”

My summer vacation souvenir may not be as warm and fuzzy as a “Virginia is for lovers” key chain or “California dreamin” bumper sticker. Instead, I’ve got a “Detroit vs. everybody” T-shirt that represents the visionary tenacity the place inspires. PJH

About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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