– Summer 2012

Theaster Gates: Radical Reform with Everyday Tools

Hesse McGraw

Cosmology of Yard, 2010, installation with reclaimed ware boards. Installation view, Whitney Biennial, New York. Both images courtesy the artist and Kavi Gupta Chicago/Berlin

Theaster Gates is viral. In 2011 — the year Gates ‘broke’ — the ground for socially engaged work shifted in the US. One critic lauded Gates for providing contemporary art with sorely lacking purpose, and Jeffrey Deitch, contemporary art’s greatest pitchman, got to talking with him about art and real life on Mercedes-Benz TV.1 The ground-shift followed a year in which Gates was seemingly everywhere, with unabashed earnestness, re-framing conversations regarding ‘potent’ exchanges involving the market, arts institutions and disadvantaged communities with everyone he spoke to — curators, dealers, collectors, art students, architects, city planners, cultural philanthropists, gospel choirs and so many others in earshot. It’s become difficult to find a place he isn’t.

It is hard not to be consumed by the heat surrounding Gates’s practice, or to anticipate some inevitable backlash due to the pace of his international ascension. In person, his sincerity and brashness are disarming; Gates is possessed with an emphatic charisma. His particular magnetism moves fluidly between the seemingly polar spheres of his practice: African-American neighbourhoods and communities in the Midwestern United States, where he is deeply invested in site-specific cultural transformations, and exhibitions across the international art world, with major upcoming projects at both dOCUMENTA (13) and the cavernous new White Cube space in the London area of Bermondsey. Perhaps not fully at home, and certainly not contained, in either sphere, Gates’s work could hold import for the future of both worlds.

Gates is uncannily open about the relationship of his work to the market, and about his strategies to translate the work's market value into impact on places beyond the art world. His efforts to reanimate abandoned properties for new

  1. Christian Viveros-Fauné, ‘Theaster Gates’, ArtReview, , issue 56, January/February 2012, pp.66—71. See also Mercedes Benz TV, ‘Jeffrey Deitch and Theaster Gates: I Believe in Places’, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m34aIZG-_JM (last accessed on 26 January 2012).

  2. See Theaster Gates, ‘Clay in My Veins and Other Thoughts’, lecture at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, 31 March 2011, available at http://vimeo.com/23493473 (last accessed on 26 January 2012). See also Rebuild Foundation’s mission statement: ‘Rebuild Foundation activates creative community resources to build vibrant neighbourhoods. We act as a catalyst in local economies by integrating small business incubation, creative architectural rehabilitation, hands-on education and artistic intervention.’ Available at http://rebuild-foundation.org/about.html (last accessed on 26 January 2012).

  3. This episode reminded me of Joe Scanlan’s lament of the timidity of relational aesthetics and its inability to cultivate charged social space: ‘By contrast, art should be a place where we can “kill Grandma” and, rather than call an ambulance or the moral authorities, stand around and talk about what it means.’ J. Scanlan, ‘Traffic Control: Joe Scanlan on Social Space and Relational Aesthetics’, Artforum, vol.43, no.10, June 2005, p.123.

  4. Conversation with the author, 21 January 2012.

  5. According to Gates, ‘I created a story centred on a fictive pottery commune in Mississippi founded in the 1960s by an also-fictive Japanese ceramicist, Yamaguchi, who had fled Hiroshima, married a black civil rights activist and instituted a ritual called Plate Convergences, or conversations where people came from all over to discuss issues of race, political difference and inequity. Yamaguchi is supposed to have made ceramic plates specifically for the “black food” served at the dinners, and this dinnerware went into the Yamaguchi Institute Collection as part of the story. [...] We gave a huge Japanese soul food dinner, made by a Japanese chef and my sister, in honour of the Yamaguchis and their dinners. A young mixed-race artist enacted the role of their son and thanked everyone for coming.’ ‘Theaster Gates: In the Studio with Lilly Wei’, Art in America, December 2011, no.11, pp.121—27.

  6. ‘Cosmology of Yard’ was hailed for bringing ‘real nervousness and some bliss to the uptight uptownness of being at the Whitney’. C. Viveros-Fauné, ‘Welcome to the Mixed-up, Dialed Down 2010 Whitney Biennial’, The Village Voice, 2 March 2010, available at http://www.villagevoice.com/2010-03-02/art/welcome-to-the-mixed-up-dialed-down-2010-whitney-biennial/ (last accessed on 26 January 2012).

  7. For more information on banks' lending policies to African-Americans during those years, see Michael Powell, ‘Bank Accused of Pushing Mortgage Deals on Blacks’, The New York Times, 6 June 2009, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/07/us/07baltimore.html?pagewanted=all (last accessed on 26 January 2012).

  8. Conversation with the author, November 2009. 

  9. See Rachel Cromidas, ‘In Grand Crossing, A House Becomes a Home for Art’, The New York Times, 7 April 2011, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/08/us/08cncculture.html (last accessed on 26 January 2012). 

  10. See T. Gates, ‘Clay in My Veins’, op. cit

  11. See President George W. Bush’s public address, 17 May 2002, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNqQx7sjoS8 (last accessed on 20 March 2012). 

  12. George Maciunas was instrumental in the development of artist cooperative loft developments in SoHo, New York City. See Richard Kostelanetz, SoHo: The Rise and Fall of an Artist’s Colony, London and New York, Routledge, 2003.

  13. Seattle Channel Video, ‘Cultural Space Seattle’, 6 December 2011, available at Seattle.gov. http://www.seattle.gov/arts/space/cultural_space.asp (last accessed on 26 January 2012). Here Gates also expanded on the community implications of his engagement with institutions: ‘The $75k or 100k that was available to do a project in a museum seemed really wasteful, and it seemed like a bad use of my time. If I could leverage $150,000, why not actually have real transformative impact on a place? So I would ask museums and [organisations] if they would partner with me to think about parts of cities like St Louis and Omaha that had been forgotten about, think about the organisations that are real organisations doing real work already in those cities and could we think with those organisations about spatial needs? Could my “exhibition” be about connecting the museum to these other places? So this idea that artists could leverage cultural institutions [...] to think about other parts of the city became a really important part of my practice’.

  14. See T. Gates, ‘Clay in My Veins’, op. cit. The video ‘We Demand’ was produced as a document of Gates’s interaction with the students, who ranged from fourth to eighth graders. Available at http://vimeo.com/10633699 (last accessed on 26 January 2012).

  15. Seattle Channel Video, ‘Cultural Space Seattle’, op. cit

  16. Conversation with the author, 23 January 2012. 

  17. Ibid.

  18. Conversation with the author, April 2011.

  19. Joshua Decter, ‘Art and the Cultural Contradictions of urban Regeneration, Social Justice and Sustainability: Transforma Projects and Prospect.1 in post-Katrina New Orleans’, Afterall, issue 22, Autumn/Winter 2009, p.20.

  20. Conversation with the author, 23 January 2012. 

  21. See, for example, Bob Frick, ‘Best Value Cities 2011: 1. Omaha, Neb’, Kiplinger’s Personal Financial Magazine, Kiplinger, 2011, available at http://www.kiplinger.com/magazine/archives/best-value- cities-2011-omaha.html and Henry Cordes, Cindy Gonzales and Erin Grace, ‘Omaha in Black and White: Poverty amid Prosperity’, Omaha World-Herald, 2009, available at http://www.omaha.com/article/20110106/SPECIALPROJECTS/706179826 (both last accessed on 22 March 2012).

  22. Conversation with the author, 23 January 2012.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle Invites Jacques Derrida to Respond (trans. Rachel Bowlby), Stanford: Stanford university Press, 2007.

  25. ‘Try a Little Tenderness’, Life + Times [blog], 15 December 2011, available at http://lifeandtimes.com/try-a-little-tenderness#.T3r9eKDyQmw (last accessed on 26 January 2012).

  26. Mercedes Benz TV, ‘Jeffrey Deitch and Theaster Gates’, op. cit.