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Guest Blog: Eight Hours with Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates (third from left) pulls Christopher Blay (left), Leila Grothe and Roberto Tejada into an impromptu panel.

Theaster Gates, artist and urban planner, came to town last week, for a variety of speaking engagements. If you missed his conversation with Krys Boyd on KERA’s Think, you can check it out here.

Fort Worth artist and curator Christopher Blay attended Gates’ panel afternoon discussion at SMU and his evening lecture. Blay even became part of the show when Gates invited him and others on stage to be part of an impromptu panel.  We asked Blay to guest blog about the day, and he kindly did:

On March 23, I was invited by a dear friend to a panel discussion, and later a lecture by the indefinable Theaster Gates at Southern Methodist University’s Meadow’s School.   Mr. Gates works include urban planning, art, music and design. On the panel with Gates were the artists Annette Lawrence and Noah Simblist and Chair of the division of art at SMU, Michael Corris.

I’ve attended numerous artist lectures and panel discussions, and the first thing that struck me about this one was how attentive and captivated the audience was. I think it was because of Mr. Gates’ convincing and authoritative connection to what he does and how he does it.

He talked about his work in contrast to other artists working with design and architecture, particularly Gordon Matta Clarke and how his response to that artist’s signature destruction of buildings, was to see buildings “live again”. Gates’ work, heavily invested in community and social engagement, responds, I think, to the cadre of institutional critique that reduces art practice to a first world luxury. An intellectual, self- aggrandizing pursuit made possible by capitalistic excess, and fueled by institutions designed to self-replicate reassuring and validating Ideas of culture and class.

I found it particularly interesting to compare Gates’ practice of social engagement with that of artists Tim Rollins and Mary Ellen Carroll. In Rollins’ work With KOS (Kids of Survival) and the Art of Knowledge workshops, there seems to be a similar act of restoration both architecturally and socially. Rollins work in neighborhoods in the South Bronx, where buildings around him were razed, and residents were forgotten. It converges with Gates’ Dorchester Projects and his current attempt to restore the 3 million dollar Carver Bank building in North Omaha. Where Gates and Rollins diverge for me, is at the fruits of their labor. Rollins’ KOS artists have gone on to be collected in museums and galleries and deservedly so. However, the social intervention, if you will, seems to slow down there. For Gates and his non-profit, the Rebuild Foundation, the work seems tireless and the investment in communities is building not only art equity,  but skills and tools to completely restore communities.

Comparatively, the parallels I find in his work and that of the artist/architect Mary Ellen Carroll, are more structural and process identifiable. They both explore the possibilities of what a building means and what it can do. Carroll’s Prototype 180, in its literal uprooting and rotation of a house in a Houston neighborhood, talks about the same things I heard in the panel discussion, that is to say, the elegance of space in the idea of architecture. When these artists are in dialogue with a building and its spaces, everything is on and off the table. There was a moment in the discussion when I felt kinship with Gates longing to be a person who wants to use all their abilities to do a thing.

This connection was explored during his lecture later that evening when he randomly selected me to be on stage with the rest of his improvised panel, and at a reception held at a private residence. I can’t properly convey the vernacular of the experience that was the lecture, but it begs to be attempted, for it embodied both the value of chance and the vulnerability of action.

Gates began by laying bare the contents of his back pack and re-arranging the furniture on stage. He then blocked the south entrance of the auditorium with chairs and began to sing! Moving to the piano, he mimed his performance because the cover was closed and locked. His oratorio was punctuated with pacing across the floor, draped in the piano blanket cover, assailing the patrons of the Museum of Modern Art for all the buildings they own, but “none for me.”

All this, interspersed with art historical references to performance, singling out Joseph Beuys in particular, and exploring the duality within himself and his own work when he had an automatic response to George Clinton’s atomic dog being performed at an art reception! If this account is making your head spin, you then have a small sense of where it took the audience that night.

When I was called to join his impromptu panel up on stage, it was an unexpected honor.  I remember mumbling ” you don’t want me up there” but, true to form for this evening of unpredictability, apparently he did.  We talked about working in the construct of institution and how I felt his work gave permission to let the thing be what is, which I interpreted as embracing the unknown and unresolved in ones work.

So many artists are engaged on multiple levels with their identity, whether racial, social, sexual or gender, but as an African American artist, I was particularly taken by Mr. Gates engagement on all those levels. At the Panel discussion, I saw  the quiet mentor that gave deference to his panel members and really sparked connections with students hungry for direction and reassurance. At the lecture I saw an artist in complete command of his practice and his purpose, and at the reception I saw a very patient and engaged person that really listened and talked about all these ideas with the people around him.

At one point in his performance, while standing atop the baby grand piano, he looked out at the audience, smiling  and said “ This is what you get when you don’t pay an artist enough for a visit to your campus”.

At the end of eight hours however, it seemed obvious that he would have done it for free.

  • Quincy Miller

    This blog is very thoughtful and informative. I realize that I might need to pay closer attention to the Art and Seek calendar. I would have loved to have been in that room during the impromptu performance. Chris painted the picture well and left me yearning to learn more about this inspired artist. Just thinking of creativity as a way of integrating all of my human dimensions opens up new ways of understanding and expanding my own work and daily life experience.

  • Quincy Miller

    This blog is very thoughtful and informative. I realize that I might need to pay closer attention to the Art and Seek calendar. I would have loved to have been in that room during the impromptu performance. Chris painted the picture well and left me yearning to learn more about this inspired artist. Just thinking of creativity as a way of integrating all of my human dimensions opens up new ways of understanding and expanding my own work and daily life experience.

  • guest

    Thanks Chris! Good essay.

  • guest

    Thanks Chris! Good essay.

  • C Rees

    Thanks CB. Good analysis.

  • C Rees

    Thanks CB. Good analysis.

  • Ryder

    Chris- excellent! Thanks.

  • Ryder

    Chris- excellent! Thanks.

  • ALH

    So I am really engaged by the question of the relationship between the artist and the urban context/community…. and how artists develop and foster these relationships while also sustaining a position of institutional critique… so glad to know about Gates’ work and this evening.

  • ALH

    So I am really engaged by the question of the relationship between the artist and the urban context/community…. and how artists develop and foster these relationships while also sustaining a position of institutional critique… so glad to know about Gates’ work and this evening.

  • http://stealingkitty.com StealingKitty

    Thank for writing this wonderful essay on your experience. I missed Theaster’s insightful talks. I love how he did this impromptu panel and it worked. Wish I would have been there to witness. This provides a peek into the experience and it is appreciated.

  • http://stealingkitty.com StealingKitty

    Thank for writing this wonderful essay on your experience. I missed Theaster’s insightful talks. I love how he did this impromptu panel and it worked. Wish I would have been there to witness. This provides a peek into the experience and it is appreciated.