I want to carry the weight of these things. I want to be a vessel. I want my Stony Island Arts Bank to be a vessel that could receive your archive. I would like it to live there and be imminent. And then I’d like it to emanate into the world, eminently. —Theaster Gates, SAIC Visiting Artist Lecture, 2014
Theaster Gates uses a variety of methods in his practice-based research, based on the concept form, context, and materials used (which range from ceramics to music to architecture and interventions in urban communities). Regardless of that diversity, Gates is continually evoking vessels and temples in his work, in the many senses of those words.
- a ship or large boat
[something that moves things from one place to another]
- a hollow container, such as a bowl or cask
[space to hold things]
- (chiefly in or alluding to biblical use) a person,
especially regarded as holding or embodying a particular quality
[being of service to others, community]
- a building for religious worship
- a thing regarded as holy or likened to a temple, especially a person’s body
- a place devoted to or seen as the center of a particular activity or interest
Before expounding more on that thesis, a few additional definitions are needed.
Practice-based research can be defined as a principled approach to production of new knowledge (aka research) by taking purposeful actions within a specific context, typically in a creative or professional way (aka practice). It is the “making, modifying or designing of objects, events or processes in which the research and the practice operate as interdependent and complementary processes leading to new and original forms of knowledge” (Candy, Edmonds and Vear, 2021).
Sullivan (2010) offers a framework for theorizing and deconstructing practice-based research. There are five distinct domains, each of which can be thought of as a layer of visual arts praxis: (1) research, (2) conceptualization, (3) contexts, (4) practices, and (5) projects. For this essay, the first three are the most salient; they are summarized in Figure 1.
This multi-part framework can help one to develop a deeper understanding of Gates’s thinking, the processes, techniques, or tools that he uses, and his methodology. We will use these frames to examine how vessels and temples are guiding constructs in Gates’s practice.
Practices/ Research. In the practices/research frame (Figure 1a), artistic practice is the core around which three different types of inquiry unfold: empiricist, interpretivist, and critical. Sullivan notes that “research draws on knowledge and experience and uses structures of inquiry designed to increase the human capacity to intervene, interpret, and act upon issues and ideas that reveal new understandings” (Sullivan 2010, 102).
Within Gates’s exhibition Black Vessel (2020), we see the results of these three types of inquiry. In talking about the making of the work, Gates mused:
You make beautiful vessels, and those vessels will cause people to gather….
My studio itself is also the empty vessel waiting to be filled with things that are waiting to become the outpour for others. The studio really is the place where things are converted, where value is re-assigned….
In the study, clay allows me the most play. The way the fire is making all these other decision that I can’t make. So I really enjoy losing the burden of a certain kind of art historical narrative. I get to just make things (Gagosian 2020).
These statements reflect all three types of inquiry: empiricism (the object), interpretivist (the sociality the object engenders), and the critical (selection of a particular object to release the burden of art historical narrative).
His musings move us from thinking about pottery to thinking about other kinds of vessels. Thompson notes:
Throughout countless interviews and speeches over the past decade, Gates often apotheosizes his potter’s identity, often drawing a parallel between clay processes and neighborhood regeneration, stating, “One of the things that really excites me about my artistic practice and being trained as a potter is that you really quickly learn how to make great things out of nothing “(Thompson 2019, 8).
Working with clay is a practice steeped with intimate process and material transformation. It is building at micro-scale. Thompson asserts that a ceramic methodology grounds his processes, which is visible in how he gathers and engages with materials, embraces communal engagement and collaboration, and emphasizes pedagogy. For example, akin to the potter, Gates mines his materials from his environment. However, rather than pulling raw clay from the ground, he gathers his materials from the urban environment. He recycles these materials for reuse by transforming the gutted detritus into gallery artworks (Thompson 2019, 9)
On a mezzo scale are works like Gates’s installation for the 2010 Whitney Biennial, with Shoeshine Stand as a centerpiece:
[I]n that biennial I made an architectural space in the courtyard. It was a temple dedicated to very humble labor. It was dedicated to shining shoes. It struck a chord as something that was either good ritual or like bad American politics or something. And that idea that, like a shoeshine stand could trigger lots of different kinds of emotions: nostalgia, anxiety, guilt, that was very exciting to me (Bloomberg 2015).
That takes us to the next frame.
Conceptualization/ Thinking. An artistic practice involves imaginative thinking that embraces both the know and the unknown. In the second frame (Figure 1b), “mindful practices are structured, framed, and embodied” (Sullivan 2010, 134). Sullivan posits that these practices occur within, across, between, and around the artist, artwork, viewer, and setting.
Gates’s Dorchester Project is both vessel on a mezzo-scale and temple\ born of deep mindful practices that structured the thinking about form and materiality, framed the possibilities, and ultimately brought them to life. Gates said:
[I]f form is a thing that is malleable like clay, then I could imagine that city policy is form, that form should be manipulated, that if I understand how to use the intricacies of policies, the complexities of my hand and heart and brain, that there are ways in which we could shift what a city imagines itself being, and as a result, kind of shift city form.
In the same way that we understand the nature of a hardwood or a soft wood and the tools that we use in relation to each of those, that if we have a deep understanding through like constantly moving wood through our hands and through chisels and through saws, and the kind of learning, smelling, rubbing, getting splinters, not getting splinters, sanding, that if we could like exhaust our intimate encounter with the material thing that we’d over time have the capacity to shift what that thing knows itself to be, so that a rough hewn piece of wood becomes something else as a result of our ability to touch it right. That form is formless.
Form is always waiting, always capable of being something else. If we were to imagine blight as form, racism as form, pressure as a kind of metaform. That there are things that could happen even while it is still trying to be itself, like a tree is still a tree, but I could like carve my joint into it. That there are ways that I could eat at its large superstructure in order to kind of create new languages, new meaning, things that as people passed by that tree, they will never forget my emanating imminence, ever (SAIC 2014).
Those comments reflect all three elements of the second frame: thinking in and of medium, context, and language/symbol/meaning. In imagining the city as both medium and context, and policy/blight/ racism as forms, Gates engages in boundary-spanning transcognition, using the creative process to catalyze a recursive process of change. Gates on this project:
Could that architectural image of Dorchester, where people normally get through Dorchester as quickly as possible, they drive away from Grand Crossing, could I get people to want to slow down? That’s exciting. Inviting people to a neighborhood that they would never go to out of psychic fear felt like a way of regenerating, reimagining a place, reloading it with promise.
The various elements of the Dorchester Project—housing, artist studios, industries—are both temples where faith in the area is renewed and vessels in which that renewed energy is contained.
According to some, the Dorchester Project was bold but they, and Gates’s practice, were put on the map by Documenta 13. His installation, 12 Ballads for Huguenot House, involved the restoration of an abandoned hotel with labor and materials from Dorchester and Grand Crossing in Chicago. It was a site for sculptural works, musical performances by the Black Monks of Mississippi, and other community-building activities. Gates noted that it amplified his interrogation of the space, “taking it from Black concern to one that has legs in the larger conversation of both institutional critique and a new notion of Land Art” (artist website).
Which takes us to our third frame.
Contexts/ Artist-Theorists. In using the third frame (Figure 1c), one can examine the diverse contexts for Gates’ contemporary art and cultural production, as he takes on the role of artist-theorist. This frame centers the transformational and relational, in service to ideas and agency (making in communities), forms and structures (making and remaking in systems), and situations and actions (making in cultures). Sullivan asserts:
The space between theory and practice becomes a site for making art and doing research and takes creative inquiry beyond discipline boundaries, cultural borders, and technological divides. The artist-theorist makes use of the transformative power of art and an interactive and resistant practice and as a means of individual and cultural change (Sullivan 2010, 159).
Although it is clearly present throughout his oeuvre, Black Chapels are works that are indicative of Gates in an artist-theorist role. Gates has done at least two versions of Black Chapel, one for Haus Der Kunst in 2019 and one for Serpentine Galleries in 2022. On the surface, these couldn’t be more different installations. The former was a multi-part installation composed in part of backlit billboards showing images from the Johnson Publishing archives, mirrored Housebergs sculptures, and the vinyl record collection of Olympian Jesse Owens in 800 square feet (Schnieder 2015). The latter was a spartan, voluminous round modular stained black a plywood structure in which there were also musical performances by Gates’ ensemble the Black Monks of Mississippi and many other musicians. Both, however, were constructed as sacred spaces for engaging with transformative ideas, forms, and actions.
But the project that epitomizes Gates’s role as artist-theorist—and his dedication to vessels and temples— is Stony Island Arts Bank, where we began this essay. Gates envisioned and spearheaded the restoration of this 17,000 square foot space, which houses many of the archives that Gates has collected (including the Johnson Publishing archives), offers diverse performances and events, and serves as a gathering place for neighbors, Chicagoans, and visitors from around the world. In the process, Gates noted:
There are times when making art isn’t enough. And that to be black in America, if you were waiting for opportunities to have an exhibition or opportunities for people to write about your work, or a venue where you might make music, you could be waiting for a very very very long time. I found myself preoccupied with space for the last several years because sometimes you have to build the house that you exhibit in, you have to build the house that you make music in….
This small temple is the first of a series of temples that take on lost collections and tries to make sense of them within an architectural form (Bloomberg 2015).
Gates lead a team that salvaged this building and the materials and collections within it, all different forms of discarded knowledge. In turn, they created a site and a container social engagement that facilitates critical memory. Thompson notes. “By producing spaces that hold objects embedded with historical and cultural value, particularly for the African-American community, Gates demonstrates the value of reparative remembrance and resurgence (Thompson 2019, 10).
For Gates, this is the practice. His methodology is a way of producing original, validated, contextualized and shareable knowledge that is embodied with and in artistic practice, enacted through artistic practice, and extended by his practice.
Bloomberg Quicktake. 2015. “Theaster Gates Explores the Politics of the African-American Experience | Brilliant Ideas Ep. 14.” Youtube. November 10, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1D4ne1jQKs.
Candy, L., Edmonds, E., & Vear, C. 2021. Practice-based research. In The Routledge International Handbook of Practice-Based Research (1st Edition, pp. 27–41). Routledge.
Crawford, Romi. 2014. “THEASTER GATES.” Journal of Contemporary African Art 34: 90.
Gagosian. 2020. “Theaster Gates: Black Vessel”, artist spotlight. Youtube. June 11, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OWRGkXaQi0
Gates, Theaster. 2011. “Clay in My Veins and Other Thoughts”, lecture at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, March 31, 2011. http://vimeo.com/23493473
Gates, Theaster. 2014. “The Artist Corporation and the Collective.” Journal Of Contemporary African Art. https://read.dukeupress.edu/nka/article-abstract/2014/34/74/48966.
Gates, Theaster, and Romi Crawford. 2014. “Theaster Gates in Conversation with Romi Crawford.” Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art 34 (1): 90–92.
Hirshhorn. 2022. “Theaster Gates and David Adjaye in Conversation.” Youtube. June 13, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBS5Fgal2Pk.
Matz, C. A. 2021. “Theaster Gates, Freedom, and the Long View.” In Design of the Unfinished: A New Way of Designing Leftovers Regeneration, edited by Luciano Crespi, 129–34. Cham: Springer International Publishing.
McGraw, Hesse. 2012. “Theaster Gates: Radical Reform with Everyday Tools.” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry 30 (May): 86–99.
New Museum. n.d. Theaster Gates: Young Lords and Their Traces. https://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/view/theaster-gates-young-lords-and-their-traces
Serpentine Galleries. 2022a. “Serpentine Pavilion 2022: Black Chapel by Theaster Gates.” Youtube. August 17, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxXFZovBWog.
———. 2022b. “Theaster Gates on Black Chapel | Serpentine Pavilion 2022.” Youtube. September 28, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKC0jKC-h7E.
Schneider, Anna (editor). 2019.Theaster Gates: Black Chapel [exhibition catalog]. Munich: Haus Der Kunst.
Sullivan, Graeme. 2010. Art Practice as Research: Inquiry in Visual Arts (2nd edition). Los Angeles: Sage
TED. 2015. “Theaster Gates: How to Revive a Neighborhood: With Imagination, Beauty and Art.” Youtube. March 26, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9ry1M7JlyE.
The Art Institute of Chicago. 2016. “Artist Conversation: Martin Puryear and Theaster Gates.” Youtube. February 16, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_LVmdOrC91c.
Thompson, Laura Beth. 2019. “Theaster Gates’ Artwork in Perspective: Craft, Discarded Knowledge, and Critical Memory.” Edited by Brianne Cohen. Ann Arbor, United States: University of Colorado at Boulder. https://www.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/theaster-gates-artwork-perspective-craft/docview/2305944564/se-2.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 2014. “Theaster Gates: William & Stephanie Sick Distinguished Visiting Artist, Visiting Artists Program.” September 2, 2014. https://saic.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=26e75968-bccd-4266-92ae-332b3c81c6a7.
The New School. 2015. “Bell Hooks with Theaster Gates and Laurie Anderson: Public Art, Private Vision I The New School.” Youtube. October 7, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZ3WJoNC4lU.
Yau, John. n.d. “Theaster Gates and the Shapes of Black History.” Accessed October 28, 2022. https://hyperallergic.com/599862/theaster-gates-and-the-shapes-of-black-history/.