ESSAYS Mousse 32
The New Revolutionary: Theaster Gates
by Michele Robecchi
What role can a revolutionary play today? Starting with this question, Michele Robecchi zooms in on the practice of Theaster Gates, the artist from Chicago who through the creation of soul food restaurants and the construction of temporary temples generates multicultural dialogue. Programmatically eluding classification, Gates institutes physical and non-physical spaces in which to exercise the right to say challenging things without getting trapped in facile categories.
A recurring conundrum that stymies those enthused by the movements that shook occidental society in the 1960s is: what role can a revolutionary have today? The problem is not just to define the meaning of continuing along a path of public dissent and demonstrations of protest when a pragmatic analysis of the present might suggest that they are obsolete weapons, or in any case tactics that have been too fully digested and absorbed by today’s political context to still be effective. In spite of the galvanizing global effect, the events that have recently taken place in North Africa and the Middle East, precisely because we are talking about locally new or at least unexplored languages, would seem to confirm this. But even if we set aside this obstacle, the problem remains on an individual level. In a world that over the last three decades has witnessed sudden, radical political changes, with organizations and alliances that are constantly overturned or challenged, and where protest has also wound up taking on such organized forms that it is vulnerable to corruption or manipulation, what should be the position of the revolutionary?
One widespread theory states that the revolutionary ceases to exist when his mission has been accomplished. According to this school of thought, being a feminist today, for example, is like being a Suffragist in the 1960s. Not a problem of extinction, then, as much as one of anachronism, due to the fact that the battle begun, data at the ready, has been to a great extent won. Yet a quick glance at the international scene suffices to show that equality and civil rights are still blurry or even unexpressed concepts. So we are faced with a slippery situation that is generally hard to decipher, which creates a gray zone subject to a process of revision, mutation and growth. The work of Theaster Gates grafts its way into this space made more of questions than of assertions. He is an artist whose formal and conceptual elusiveness has played a decisive role in favoring his quiet but unstoppable rise to fame. The idea of art as a place in which to assert one’s right to say difficult things without getting trapped in facile categories fits him like a glove.
Gates comes from Chicago, the third most populous city in the United States. Its history, physiognomy and geographical position have made it a playground over the years for the most famous modernist architects, a destination of immigration of epochal proportions for the rural society of the South when the industrial age was in full swing, and a theater of conflicts and uprisings in the name of racial equality and integration. The city’s intense cultural and social fabric has produced, over time, a climate of tension that has spared no-one, not even the officially more liberal, open wing of American politics, as the bitter clashes between police and demonstrators at the Democratic Convention in 1968 made only too clear. Chicago, in substance, is an urban center in which the mass, or in the more specific case the public, has a power constructed on diversity as well as quantity, and perhaps this is the first point to examine if we are looking for a key of access to the art of Gates. When he was recently invited by Stephanie Smith to take part in “Feast: Radical Hospitality and Contemporary Art”, a group show on a theme that has been widely explored but always timely, namely that of food and the rituals that accompany it in contemporary art, Gates responded with a formula of participation/non-participation, moving his project into a space on the South Side, where he lives, and transforming it into a Soul Food Restaurant (Soul Food Pavilion, 2012), a temple of a school of cuisine that, as often happens, is closely associated with the identity of a community, though it is based on the contamination of ingredients from very different, distant cultures.
While from a structural viewpoint the idea of dislocation and possible recontextualization is not exactly new, in the case of Gates it benefits from the overlapping of a series of elements, including the social gap between the north and south of the city, which is dramatically wide, the gathering towards consumption of a diet based on rice, probably the most political and multicultural food that has ever existed in history, synonymous with slavery, colonization and contaminations, and above all the potential renewal of an area, directly subverting the simple urban planning principle according to which a depressed zone is destined to remain such when the economic development of the community that lives there inevitably coincides with its desire to climb in social ranks and thus move elsewhere.
Similar dynamics were also involved in Temple Exercises (2009) at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, an exhibition with a performative/environmental character that was even more explicit in its combining of aspects of Asian culture, like Buddhism and Zen disciplines, with Chicago. The choice of the word “temple” is far from random. The term is usually associated with the idea of a place of worship whose spirituality also extends to the resulting activities of habitation, celebration and creativity, and above all with the need for a work of architecture specifically “fabricated” for these purposes. The dislocation effect happened simultaneously, with part of the exhibition on display in different places, like the Shine King (a shoeshine service) or the Little Black Pearl (a design school), again in the southern part of the city. The risk of possible manipulation usually implied in the arrival in such an important institutional setting was, in this way, not only exorcized, but even openly defied, placing institutional critique in a role of collaboration. The architecture of the museum was overshadowed by the arrival of the throng, which became the true protagonist, in many cases visiting for the first time a place that had taken on, in parallel with its authority, a certain inaccessibility, even with respect to those who are sincerely interested in art.
Gates has repeatedly summed up the main motive behind his actions under the heading “curiosity”, a way that is as good as any to underline the transverse character and continuous flow of information that makes him hard to categorize. The concentration of industrial materials at the MCA in Chicago did not address only the history of the city and its passion for modernism and minimalism. During his travels, Gates couldn’t help but notice that the same materials, which outside the boundaries set by an art space take on a predictably ordinary character, in certain cases become an image that is a symbol of survival. Having verified the evocative power of the material, Gates fully exploited it for “An Epitaph for Civil Rights and Other Domesticated Structures” at the Kavi Gupta Gallery last April. The title referred to a dramatic episode that happened in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, when the Commissioner for Public Safety Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor ordered the police to attack a group of peaceful demonstrators with fire hoses. The images of this outrage, in the segregated America of the early 1960s, triggered a chain reaction that led to some of the first victories of the civil rights movement. As already indicated by the title, Gates approaches these themes in a solemn way, developing an exhibition composed of sculptures in wood and glass, framing the hoses or stretching them in parallel, granting them in this way a propitiatory importance for a moment of mourning, redemption and, above all, reflection.
Gates’ observations on the multiple interpretations that can be made of the material become particularly interesting if we compare them with Arte Povera, and demonstrate that it is possible resuscitate the driving qualities of formal and social innovation that marked an era without necessarily falling into the trap of imitation. Taking the temporal and geographical distance between today’s Chicago and Turin in the late 1960s into account, the conditions exist to draw some parallels, mostly regarding the working-class character of the two cities and the inevitable moment of tension that arises when generational shifts take place that are destined to alter social structures that had previously seemed immune to challenge. The rueful awareness that water and firemen, synonyms for rescue and survival, had been used to destroy a legitimate request for social equality reappears in this static form with a living spirit that has nothing to do with mannerism.
The true danger for an engaged approach to art like that of Gates is not so much references to the past as the still thriving tendency to overlook the more personal aspects of the work of an artist, concentrating only on the collective aspects. The objective difficulty of describing an individual path inside a framework composed of social issues, cultural identities, religion and politics is tempered, however, by their coexistence, which is not random or forced, but gathered around a common denominator—the artist himself—and unmistakably seen through the eyes of his experience.
Originally published on Mousse 32 (February–March 2012)