Mike Kelley: Mobile Homestead, Dundee Contemporary Arts ****
Santiago Sierra: Black Flag, Dundee Contemporary Arts ***
Louise Hopkins: Flying Fox, Cample Line, Thornhill ****
The long-awaited opening of the V&A in Dundee has got a lot of people across the country thinking about Dundee, and has got Dundee thinking about itself. While, in the city at large, new hotels and restaurants are opening their doors to serve a fresh influx of culture vultures, the city’s art galleries are unveiling shows of international significance which also link back to the city on the banks of the Tay.
DCA, arguably the cornerstone of Dundee’s cultural rebirth when it opened its doors in 1999, has just unveiled two such exhibitions by international artists. Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead is both a love letter to his home city of Detroit and a meditation on cities in general, particularly on those left behind in the smouldering wake of heavy industry.
One of Kelley’s last major projects before his death in 2012, this Artangel commission saw the artist build an exact replica of his childhood home which is now used as a permanent community hub at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). However, before it was installed he took the building’s removable facade on a road trip the length of Michigan Avenue, one of the city’s major arteries, as far as the former family home in the suburb of Westland.
As well as a homecoming of sorts, it replicated the journey out to the suburbs of many of the city’s inhabitants, as industrial decline and racial tensions dominated Downtown. The building’s return journey to the museum then becomes a journey of hope, of life coming back into the heart of the city.
These journeys are documented in two superb films, both one hour 16 minutes long (a third, less compelling film celebrates the building’s inauguration at the museum). The two “road movies” are shown in the same space at angles to one another, so one can keep an eye on both and jump between the two, but they are good enough to be shown cinematically, and some more comfortable seating would not go amiss: many viewers were clearly in for the long haul.
Michigan Avenue encapsulates the story of Detroit, once the car-building capital of the USA, now home to some of the country’s most dramatic dereliction. The street which once thrummed with life is now, in many places, a no man’s land of boarded up buildings and vacant lots, but Kelley captures a much more nuanced picture.
By interviewing those who live and work along Michigan Avenue – the deli owners and taekwondo teachers, church leaders, thrift shop owners, barbers and bar-tenders – he captures something of the complex life which goes on beneath the surface of a city. You might call it the city’s soul, the people who have invested in it and remain committed to it, and, when the film was made, in 2010, were weathering yet another recession. Their poignant determination to serve their communities in hard times until things pick up and life returns has never been more relevant.
The accompanying exhibition, by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra, picks up another aspect of Dundee’s history, its link to polar exploration – Robert Falcon Scott’s ship, Discovery, is berthed a few hundred yards away. Black Flag documents one of Sierra’s most ambitious conceptual adventures, to plant a black flag – the international symbol of the anarchist movement – at both North and South Poles. At the centre of the exhibition are large-scale photographs of both flags in situ, displayed one above the other as if the earth was captured between them.
Much is made in the accompanying text about the meaning of this gesture and, as a statement of disatisfaction with the current political order, it feels more relevant today than in 2015 when the flags were planted. Text from Howard Elrlich’s book Reinventing Anarchy is brought in to explain that the black flag expresses many things: anger at cruelty and hypocrisy, opposition to right-wing nationalism, “strength,” “resolve” and “a breeding ground of new life”. However, visually it is profoundly nihilistic. The destruction of order is not the same thing as positive change.
Even if one buys the political arguments, the energy of Sierra’s work is in the performance, the happening, the event; the documentation (which also includes recorded silence from both poles) doesn’t do a great deal to bring it alive. Mostly what comes across is how much polar exploration has changed since the days of Scott’s ill-fated journey. With helicopters, sea-planes and snow mobiles, anyone with enough money can plant a flag at the poles. And though one has to admire Sierra’s ambition, one wonders about the financial and environmental costs of his grand gesture.
There is ambition of a different kind in Louise Hopkins’ new site-specific installation at Cample Line, the contemporary art space at Cample Mill near the village of Thornhill in Dumfriesshire. Hopkins is best known for working meticulously on a small scale, responding to existing marks on paper, reworking maps, advertisements or printed pages and turning them into paintings. However, she moved on to a new scale with Dance Number, her mural commissioned for the hoarding in front of the Mackintosh Building at Glasgow School of Art in 2017. It is a bitter irony that, while she was making her second large-scale work for Cample, Dance Number was destroyed in the second GSA fire.
The Cample Line mural follows a similar aesthetic, a geometric abstract watercolour by the artist which has been enlarged and printed on to polyester fabric which is applied to the walls. As in Dance Number, the shapes seem to move, the black circles threatening to bounce, tumble and roll, but held in place by a grid and a complex repeating pattern.
Hopkins’ art is always responsive, traditionally working with existing marks or folds on paper, and there are plenty of examples of that here in the smaller works which accompany Flying Fox. But in these large-scale works, she is responding to something much larger: the environment itself. Just as Dance Number spoke to its location, so Flying Fox addresses Cample Line, the colour of the roof beams, the red sandstone of the walls, the vibrant green of the trees outside. It’s as if she has found a way to take the principles by which she always worked and apply them on a whole new scale.
Hopkins’ work repays time spent, and the longer one spends in this show, the more one notices complex layers of response. Just as the
large installation responds to the environment, so the smaller works respond to Flying Fox, to one another, and to the environment around them.
Mike Kelley and Santiago Sierra until 25 November; Louise Hopkins until 15 December. Cample Line is open Thursday-Saturday, for more information see www.campleline.org.uk