Trained as a potter and an urban planner, Chicago artist Theaster Gates is less interested in static categories than he is in the flow of materials and information. “My practice is about doing and undoing things, over and over again,” he says. Working in venues as diverse as the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Yamaguchi Institute in Woodlawn, and the Chicago club Sonotheque, among others, Gates enables new spaces and new structures for dialogue. Frequently they evoke motifs from Buddhism, black culture, ritual activity, and Japanese tea traditions. But they resist categorization. “The dominant narrative,” he says, “is curiosity.”
Gates and I caught up by phone and email to discuss his work, his connections to Chicago, and the role of fiction and history in art-making.
Emily Warner: Your project Temple Exercises was presented in January at the Museum of Contemporary Art. How did that project come about?
Theaster Gates: The MCA and I had been in conversation for a couple years regarding various projects, but this is the one that made the most sense for their space and my interest. I had constructed the first Temple in Pilsen in a Podmajersky space that I had been given for three months. Shortly after the opening of the Pilsen show, I sent images to Tricia [Van Eck, Curatorial Coordinator and Curator of Artists' Books at the MCA] to let her know what I was up to, and we moved from there.
EW: What was the audience like at the MCA, compared to your audiences at the Hyde Park Art Center or in Pilsen?
TG: Instead of a largely MCA crowd was a crowd that—it felt like the MCA crowd was on the margins, and my crowd, my friends, were in the space. That was part of what I was hoping to convey to the MCA: when you identify artists who are already immersed in Chicago, in Chicago art worlds and cultural worlds, and you pull people from what might seem the margins to you, you’ll find that there are lots of avid art lovers out there who’ve just never had a reason to go to the MCA.
I also love the idea of institutional collaboration and critique through collaboration. Working with the MCA was great because it allowed for an opportunity to try things that were not done normally. This way of engaging the museum and creating modes for collaboration with organizations, like Little Black Pearl and Shine King and Sonotheque, is also very much a part of my practice and not a by-product of the exhibition. I think of myself as a curator of new institutional engagements. I like that.
EW: In the first issue of Proximity, Ed Marszewski and [Creative Time's] Nato Thompson discuss the threat of selling out or being co-opted when you work with larger institutions. Did you ever feel that was a danger?
What I think was unique for me and for the MCA was that I was able to say, “in addition to your formal institution, there are other formal institutions, at least formal by my rubric, that have to be engaged in this exhibition alongside the MCA. For the audience to have a full exhibition experience, the Temple can’t just be at the MCA. It also has to be at Shine King. It also has to be at Little Black Pearl.” And I think that’s where I was able to not sell out at all, but instead add the MCA to the canon of cultural institutions I move through anyway.
EW: Temple Exercises as a title has a decidedly spiritual resonance. Can you talk a little bit about the role that the spiritual plays in your work?
TG: As much as “Temple” implies the spiritual, I believe it also speaks to the idea of the “constructed” or “inhabited.” Architectural, formal, informal, and non-structural allow for spaces where creative activity can manifest. These creative activities have extreme spiritual potency.
EW: I like the idea of the “constructed” space. Your work also involves deconstructing things: spaces, objects, dwellings. How important is the ephemeral nature of these things for you—some of which are formally very interesting?
TG: When you look at the exhibition that was at the MCA, it’s hard not to ask questions about modernism or minimalism, or other moments in contemporary art history, where there was a great concentration on industrial materials, taking them out of their place of origin and re-using them.
But I also think it’s hard to take materials like that and not think of places like Haiti, or Senegal, or Detroit, where you take raw materials and those materials are a form of survival. They’re based on a kind of economy. They have nothing to do with formalist art; they have to do with survival. And in my life, those populations on the margins that have used what was around out of necessity, I feel more of a resonance with them than I do with any modernist notion.
It’s interesting, too, when they start to conflate, and people say, “Oh, this is a throwback to modernism or minimalism.” Well, you wouldn’t have been able to sit on that bench, at the Guggenheim, in that moment, with Donald Judd. And in fact, I want you sitting. In fact, this material is absolutely functional. Because I need it to be functional. The space needs to survive as a space that you live in.
EW: You also work at the University of Chicago, as Coordinator of Arts Programming for the Division of the Humanities. Has that changed your work at all?
TG: What’s been great for the work is the access I have to great thinkers, like Hamza Walker [at the Renaissance Society] and Stephanie Smith [at the Smart Museum], and the University’s art history department. The practice is developing, it’s maturing much faster because I have time and space to think in big, interdisciplinary ways.
EW: Yeah, you gave a talk last September at the Hyde Park Art Center with [urban planner] Lee Bey called “Dreaming 63rd,” about Woodlawn’s past and future. Bey was there giving some great history and in-depth facts about the neighborhood. But you were asking questions along a more utopian line: “What can you dream up for this space?” I liked the juxtaposition. I wonder if being in an institution helps you to better bridge that gap?
TG: Being at U of C gives me the freedom to not have to know everything. To be able to ask my colleagues, “Hey man, can you pull from this database that’s in your head, and share with us these things?” And that’s back to this notion of a curated conversation. I don’t want to play the fact-giver; I want to be an instigator or a critic.
EW: Where do you think the Woodlawn-University conversation is right now? I graduated from U of C a few
years ago, and I remember seeing a lot of tension, as well
as attempts at dialogue, on both sides.
TG: We’re in such a tough financial moment, and in poor places situated right next to neighborhoods that seem to have thriving intellectual and economic opportunity, there’s always going to be a tension. And one can’t forgive the other enough, because of the way that capitalism works in this country.
But I also feel like art practices and engagement are, more than others, a place where hard things can be said. They can be created for folk to have interactions that never would have existed. And those things are happening. Last week, for example, Guillermo Gómez-Peña was on campus [as part of the University's "ArtSpeaks" series]. And this wonderful Mexican community came out to support Guillermo and to ask him very hard questions in Spanish in Mandel Hall.
I think that at the Race Center, and the Civic Knowledge Project, and the University at large, we’re all grappling with how do we not just be an intellectual territory? How do we have other voices present? Voices who are at the top of their game. The important voices in Woodlawn and at the University. There are things that are deeply rooted in the black community around the University, and folk can learn a lot from it.
EW: Your art practice, too, deals very much with conversation between cultures. And yet it feels different in character to me than art that speaks from a more explicit “identity politics” sensibility. I’m thinking here of work at
the Ren’s Black Is, Black Ain’t last Spring, or even the Stereotypes show at the Spertus Institute in the Fall. Do
you feel that’s the case?
TG: Well, it’s hard for an artist of color or an artist who feels like they have any cultural weight, social weight on them, to not be in thought about issues of identity and representation-and about ways that culture gets exhibited. At the same time, I’m not very interested in making this or that culture comment. What I’ve tried to do instead is ask questions about how these categories fit together for my life. I don’t want to talk about Black; I want to talk about my experience at church. I don’t want to talk about Black; I want to talk about my experience at a local commercial space. I think that’s a much more sincere way of dealing with the complexity of representation.
With [Temple Exercises], I really just wanted to build a space where all of my different worlds, these isolated geographies, could come together. And inside that space, I can do what I do. And that’s what I did: I made a secular sacred space.
That act of constructing a space is super empowering, even at a kind of meta level for these topics of race we’re talking about. If the church is not the exact place, and the club is not exactly the place, then this Temple will have to be. Where Black fails and Buddhism fails and Sonotheque fails and Shine King fails, I can build a space.
EW: Often in your work it can be difficult to tell where truth leaves off and fiction begins. What role do storytelling and fiction play in your practice?
TG: In order to share hard truths, you need a vehicle. The vehicle could be something that I invent to reveal and other times, the stories come from the mouths of people who have lived them. Whether [Shoji] Yamaguchi was real or not doesn’t matter. The idea that there’s a place where a Japanese man can marry a black woman and they can produce a ritual for the preservation of soul food and the preservation of Japanese hand-craft, that really excites me. I’m committed to those things. The actual details might be more boring. But what will keep you there is to think that Yamaguchi lived in Mississippi, like, Oh my God, this motherfucker in the ’60s would move to Mississippi-it seems so absurd but so plausible at the same time.
I don’t imagine myself to be a storyteller necessarily. More like a preacher. Part of the magic is in the story and part of it is in the vehicle that shares it.
EW: One of the Temple Exercises performances was sited at Shine King, a shoe-shining institution on Chicago’s Southside. I was very interested in Francis Alÿs’ Bolero (Shoe Shine Blues) at the Ren last fall. It’s interesting that the shoe-shine metaphor is a fruitful departure point for you, too.
TG: What’s great about the Francis Alÿs piece for me is he was using the idea of shoe-shining-which is a major profession in Mexico City, it’s very prevalent-but using the idea of shoe—shining and rehearsing as a metaphor for the inability of a place to get to the final performance. You’re always practicing but never quite getting there.
But for me, shining is part of the final performance. It is not the preparation. It is the thing. It’s not like: I shine shoes until I can get a better job. It’s like: I shine shoes. Or: I make. Or: I cook at a soul food restaurant. Or: I’m the president of the United States. Or whatever that thing is. So shining for me was like, “how do we take this humble thing and think about it and its people differently?” There’s something equally monastic about the shoe-shiner as the Buddhist priest.
EW: Where does your interest in Buddhism come from?
TG: My interest in Buddhism stems from the tea ceremony. This idea that social codes could be carried through rituals that were not quite everyday rituals, but were meant to be microcosmic versions of ways to relate. And the tea ceremony was loaded with class and politics, but inside of that was a sensitivity toward the value of natural things, and the value of simple things.
For a person struggling with very little, it’s extremely compelling to have a way of living that says you don’t need to subscribe to some sort of black prosperity ministry, or some notion of “if you don’t roll in a Lexus, you’re not blessed.” There’s this other model where a person who’s poor could in fact have dignity and see their poverty as a way to be. Not a way to be without.
EW: What are you working on right now?
TG: My next project will be with the Milwaukee Arts Museum. It combines several ideas that have been brewing for awhile, the biggest dealing with the history of black slave labor in early American decorative arts.
I was studying crafts and looking at the other craft traditions of the world and was thinking, “where’s the black craftsman in all of this? “And I found that in fact, hell-they built everything. So here is this moment again where I get to ask questions about historicity and myth and academia. How is it that we ascribe a name or a value to an object when we’re not exactly sure who made it? And what’s the language of the academy for doing that?
Giving voice to histories and asking questions of the objects that exist with already contrived histories has always been important to my practice. What I am, what I want of history, no one’s written. What I need of history, doesn’t exist.
by Emily Warner