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It’s Only a Step from a Miracle to a Disaster - Visiting the 55th Biennale di Venezia
Pictures of the End of the American Dream - Philip-Lorca diCorcia in the Schirn Kunsthalle
Enchanted Geography - Sarnath Banerjee: Forays through Berlin
The Subversive Potential of Hermès Scarves - Shirin Aliabadi discloses the desires of young Iranian women
MACHT KUNST - The Prize-Winners: Keep painting - Lovro Artukovic
MACHT KUNST - The Prize-Winners: Gray Zones - Radoslava Markova´s Emotional Landscapes
Theaster Gates: Inner City Blues
Violence and Creation: Imran Qureshi in the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle


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Theaster Gates: Inner City Blues

Theaster Gates received international acclaim when, for his documenta project “12 Ballads for Huguenot House” in Kassel city center, he transformed a building slated for demolition into a cross between gesamtkunstwerk and cultural center. Now, the history of the Huguenot House continues in Chicago, where the Museum of Contemporary Art presents the Deutsche Bank-sponsored project “13th Ballad.” Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on Gates’s vision of an art that not only comments on today’s social realities, but is also in a position to alter them.

"Artists generate heat", as Theaster Gates said in a lecture in March of this year. They possess a unique talent: “When we gather we can do things that nobody else in the world can do—we can do this out a series of nothings, a series of abandoned buildings or out of detritus, a little paper, things that people would discard. Artists have a way of connecting belief and ability, and they are willing to work longer on a thing than most would, so that there is heat.” And wherever there’s heat, people gather around it, especially in cold times. Gates explains that people like being around artists. And if artists would find a better way of dealing with the available cultural capital, they would be the ones who could really change communities.
Indeed, the 1973-born African American artist seems able to perform true miracles: he awakens forsaken buildings, people, and things to new life. In 2009, together with a team of young unemployed men from his neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, he renovated a condemned building next door to his studio on Dorchester Avenue and transformed it into a cross between an installation and a cultural center. The project became a huge inspiration for the area, which is troubled by vacancy and social problems; it was so successful that additional buildings have followed since. At first, with over 14,000 books from the stocks of a bankrupt bookstore for art and architecture, Gates set up the Archive House, a self-organized public library. When the “Dr. Wax” record store in his neighborhood was forced to close down, Gates purchased the collection of 8,000 records and opened the Listening Room, where people can hear music and concerts and deejay events and listening parties are held.

A former student of ceramics, theology, and urban planning, Gates has developed a universal art form that works with what is already available, resources that remain unutilized due to indifference, inattention, or social coldness. Neglected and forgotten people from the neighborhood or artists and musicians from Gates’s own network are mobilized as construction crews, designers, performers, handymen, and cooks. Together with his friends and collaborators, he creates installations and wonderful sculptures and objects from old window frames, wooden planks, furniture, and leftover fittings in which the border between art and daily use blur. “Poetic and pragmatic,” is how Gates describes these works. In the midst of so-called problem districts, “poor” and simple materials give rise to living and working space, performance venues, and places of education that bring a wide array of different people together and generate new creative energy, inspiring them to continue the thought process and to find new forms of production and communication.

Then, his most recent project, in the summer of 2012, was the Dorchester House, which he transformed into an artists’ house. The idea was to use material from the gutted building thousands of miles away—at the dOCUMENTA 13 in Kassel. As with his 12 Ballads for Huguenot House, Gates once again took on a condemned building. His project was to turn the whole thing into a gesamtkunstwerk, and he not only brought over recycling material from the Chicago construction site, but also his companions, among them The Black Monks of Mississippi, a jazz ensemble he has been performing with for years that incorporates a variety of traditions from the blues and gospel to Buddhist chants. The public was elated.
Now, the story of the two “sibling buildings” is continued in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. For the Deutsche Bank-sponsored exhibition 13th Ballad, Gates has developed an installation in which he brings construction elements and objects from the Huguenot House back to Chicago to combine them with discarded church pews from a chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago, where they were removed as a sign of religious tolerance to make room for Muslim students to pray. For the exhibition, Gates realized a huge sculpture in the form of a double cross from the material he brought with him. In an allusion to the Huguenots, who as Protestants were religiously persecuted in France from the 16th to the 18th century and found asylum in Prussia, he transforms the museum into an alternative place for refuge and commemoration, a production site where new ideas can be developed for a more social and spiritually-minded society.

Although this might sound somewhat esoteric, Gates’s art is based on necessity born out of crisis. It was 2008 when the housing bubble burst in the US and he began to radically expand his artistic practice. During this time, many people saw everything that still meant something to them suddenly devalued: their home, their work, their plans for the future. Around 40% of the houses in Gates’s neighborhood were vacated, emptied of their tenants and owners who either moved away or were evicted because they could no longer pay their mortgages. “I live and work in Grand Crossing, a black neighborhood eight miles south of downtown Chicago,” he writes in his documenta catalogue statement on 12 Ballads for Huguenot House. “When the Great Migration transformed the population from majority Irish and German to 90 percent black, the area was left to rot. Someone somewhere decided that these streets were ruins, and I wondered whether I had the power to transform them.”

For Gates, however, the restoration meant more than just the reconstruction of the building itself. For houses, things, and people to become valuable, they have to be in demand. And for this to succeed, something has to be created that is either missing or has been lost: warmth, community, culture, spirituality. When she visited the Dorchester Projects for the first time, says documenta head Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev in a catalogue interview with Gates, she was completely surprised by their beauty and elegance—they have a style that she’d never have expected to find in the USA outside New England.

The modern-seeming wall covering, which Gates assembled from strips of old fire hoses and wooden slats, his interiors and furniture reminiscent of Bauhaus and classical Japanese architecture, his subtle, simple designs for cutlery and ceramics—all have a very seductive quality about them. “I am a bit of a trickster,” says Gates. “I want to seduce with an object, and I don’t even want you to know of my social agenda. The object will be like a key. As a result of the seduction, you find yourself concerned with questions of places and people.”  
Gates’s shoeshine sculptures resemble archaic thrones or totems. Based on the form of the shoeshine stand you still find today on streets and in shops all around America—which is closely tied to African American history and culture—they are removed from their everyday context. Built from raw found wood, they are symbols of social and interpersonal power relations. Who sits on the chair, and who bends down before him? These objects address the history of suppression and rule, but also the idea of community and service to another. Like the step-shaped construction that Gates built in the rooms of the Huguenot House in Kassel, they give rise to both imaginary and entirely concrete possibilities. They can be used either as functional furniture and objects or viewed as abstract forms. They are, in fact, both.
The revolutionary thing about Gates’s work is that he not only comments on the social and political reality from the standpoint of the art establishment, but also exerts a direct influence on it, in both an artistic and economic sense. Over the course of the past several years, he has developed a kind of snowball system that unfolds in the following sequence: purchase real estate, transform the available material into art, generate capital from it in order to purchase new property - an alternative to gentrification. While Gates’s idea to help poor people with his art might have seemed far too idealistic a few years ago, it is a reality today. Along with the Dorchester Projects, similar projects have already been launched in St. Louis and Omaha and are attracting more and more people and inspiring subsequent projects.

His goal is not only to revive individual buildings, says Gates, but entire neglected neighborhoods of thirty or forty buildings. He has ideas to purchase and refurbish not only restaurants and stores, but also theaters and schools—to create real cultural and economic alternatives to the existing system. To make this plan a reality, he works with a network of non-profits, city administrations, and educational organizations, and cooperates with museums, biennials, and the most powerful galleries. For many years he was represented by the Chicago and Berlin-based gallery Kavi Gupta, and for the last several years by Jay Jopling’s White Cube in London, which also represents Damien Hirst. Jopling is considered to be the epitome of the dealer in investment bank art—a blue-chip gallery that would ordinarily be regarded the complete opposite of Gates’s alternative ecosystem. The fact that Gates has entered into an alliance with White Cube has nothing to do with corruption or compromise, however. On the contrary: it shows just how far he is prepared to go. “White Cube is a gigantic reinforcement,” he told the German Interview magazine, “Jay needs me for his soul—and I need him for his financial possibilities in order to make my vision a reality.”

Theaster Gates: 13th Ballad
May 18–Oct 6, 2013
MCA, Chicago

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