STIR interviews Theaster Gates discussing his immersive practice and the sacred

Theaster Gates’ ongoing solo, Black Vessel, at gallery Gagosian in New York harnesses Black spirituality practices and traditions to sacralise Black archives.

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : Dec 09, 2020

I have been obsessively relying on three black keys to bridge the distance between my body and Black Vessel, Chicago-based artist-musician Theaster Gates’ ongoing solo at Gagosian’s New York outpost. As I repeatedly strike the E flat minor chord on the Schimmel piano stationed behind my writing desk, its sonic ancestry becomes more and more obvious, especially the potential of its position within a 2-5-1 or 3-6-2 chord progression that is intricately linked to the history of Black American music. I attempt to revisit musical theory in order to better understand why Gates chose to have this chord ooze from a Hammond 83 organ on a Leslie speaker on repeat, I chance upon a Nigerian musicologist, pianist, author and clinician, Chuku Onyemachi (aka—‘Dr Pokey’), who breaks down Gospel chord progressions. “Congratulations! You are on the right page and this lesson is dedicated to show you some important 2-5-1 chord progressions that every serious gospel pianist should have at his/her fingertips,” he writes with an infectious enthusiasm that almost made me want to relearn piano. His eager greeting validated my suspicion about the spiritual register in which Gates’ artistic practice is cloaked.

Further evidence emerges from Gates’ interview with Laura Feinstein for The Guardian. The E flat minor chord is played at the exact moment when a Black preacher has taken his text, and he’s ready to hoop, he tells her. “It’s setting the tonal opportunity for the spirit to come,” he says. Feinstein hypothesises that the gesture turns his sea of clay vessels into a silent congregation. I audaciously disagree, despite not having witnessed the sculptural assembly first-hand but virtually. I feel in my gut there’s much more to this incantatory sound installation scored by the Black Monks, an experimental ensemble of which Gates is a founding member. I stalk his Instagram feed for proof of my intuition. I find an instance in which Gates speaks of the Black Monks as the result of a provocation by Charles Esche, director of the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, Netherlands, who, back in 2008, asked Gates if there was a sound contribution he could make to the world of music that could demonstrate Black people’s presence in the world. “This new music and performance ensemble are for me the platform through which I go back to the earliest DNA strands of Black American music. We are a brotherhood for the monastic,” he wrote.

Just as I was beginning to nitpick the presumably distinctive qualities of the E flat minor chord—like the fact that it consists of three black keys, I chance upon Eddy Frankel’s review of Gates’ solo,  Afro-Mingei at London’s White Cube’s Mason Yard from May to June 2019. Frankel detects a mournfulness in Gates’ then use of the F minor chord, though he rightly recognises it as a symbol of Black jazz. He ends his review hoping that the ‘sad, mournful F-minor chord haunting the space will resolve into a major one, given enough time,” which I interpret as him still missing the point about how Gates was strategically instrumentalising the minor chord, isolating it from a shadow progression, in order to arrive at the DNA of what constitutes the Black experience.

“In the case of these vessels, the atmosphere of the wood kiln—the Anagama—requires that you accept the unknown and surrender completely to what is possible,” says Theaster Gates | Theaster Gates | Gagosian| STIRworld
Theaster Gates, Black Vessel, 2020, Installation view Image: Rob McKeever, artwork © Theaster Gates, Courtesy of Gagosian

The more I read about all his earlier iterations using the exhibit format, the more it seems as though Gates has arrived at a kind of structural synthesis in his display. He draws from a consciously Black spiritual consciousness, sees himself as an inheritor of traditions in which religion was propagated as a form of Black congregation, and in which, to be possessed by the spirit implied being in a state of flow. The High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone, articulated this in her autobiography, when she spoke of the direct link between her background as a piano player in church and her later career as a performer. Gospel, she said, was part of church, which was part of normal life. Through her practise of it she learned how to shape music in response to an audience, and then how to shape the mood of the audience in response to her music. “When I played, I could take a congregation where I wanted—calm them down or lift them up until they became completely lost in the music and atmosphere... Over the years those lessons slipped into my blood and became part of me.” Gradually, she was able to tap into the state of grace that befell her when she played ‘in concert’ in front of a different kind of congregation—a receiving, secular audience. “At such times I would give a concert that everyone who witnessed it would remember for years, and they would go home afterwards knowing that something very special had happened.”

“Prayer is a process,” Gates—who, as a potter, likes to surrender his artistic free will before the altar of fire that is his kiln—confirmed over an email. “It is an act that solidifies a present moment with an inconceivable, invisible future. Prayer gives sound form to our deepest desires. In this way, prayer is a process, not unlike making. If making is a way to give material form to our thoughts, prayer is a way of materialising our hearts.” Black Vessel comes across as a manifestation of grace, and demands that its viewer be willing to be sonically moulded into a receptacle. Like Afro-Mingei and Black Chapel, which he staged between October 2019 to August 2020 at Haus der Kunst, Munich, Black Vessel continues Gates’ exploration of sculpture as an embodiment of prayer and an investiture of complex, generational affect. Central to the exhibition is the sacral enclosure he has constructed around two key works, Walking Prayer and New Egypt, both of which are sculptural compositions built to house Black archives. This is not the first time Gates has played with structural possibilities to store as well as make accessible these archives. I had seen an iteration at the Gropius Bau in Berlin in Spring 2019, at his exhibition, The Black Image Corporation, where he ‘show-cased’ editions of Ebony and Jet, published by the Johnson Publishing Company between 1945 and 2016, thus extending the afterlife of their documentation of the Black middle-class experience.

But, like with his permanent sculpture, Black Vessel for a Saint at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, he builds a walled enclosure with custom-made black bricks, indirectly addressing the questionable state-sponsored demolition of churches in Black and Hispanic neighbourhoods across America and his investment in the ‘abstract maths’ of establishing a sustainable brick-building industry to regenerate Black neighbourhoods. The black bricks have been fired with a strong manganese content to an excessive 2300 degrees Fahrenheit, allegedly transforming the known properties of the materials into the mysteries of heat-based sculpture. “In some instances, the material loses its specificity when pushed to such limits; in others, the carbide shelves inside the kiln fuse with the bricks and other sculptural elements that rest on them, becoming host to material transformation,” the show’s press release informs.

“... I chose to make my murmurings tangible, as if the shelves could hold my prayer,” says Theaster Gates | Theaster Gates | Gagosian| STIRworld
Theaster Gates, Walking Prayer, 2018–20, Bound embossed books and vintage Carnegie cast iron shelving, 83 x 320 x 19 in, 210.8 x 812.8 x 48.3 cm Image: Rob McKeever, artwork © Theaster Gates, Courtesy of Gagosian

I had to ask Gates if all these gestures were modes of enshrinement, particularly in Walking Prayer, through his careful re-binding in black of 2600 historical, published volumes on Black experience, and his embossing of their spines with language, and his arrangement of it so that it can be read as grist for an infinite permutation of poems or haiku (a form he dabbles with on Instagram), or a long score that emerges through the movement of the viewer.It is somewhere around the immediate vicinity of this work that the E flat minor chord on sound loop begins its resonant voyage. Walking Prayer, according to Gates, tries to construct an opportunity for others to be in concert. “The power of the concert is not the character on stage, rather the power of the concert is the participation of those that are present,” he wrote. “While I hadn’t thought about Walking Prayer in its current iteration as an enshrinement, it is absolutely an embodiment, a materialisation of things that are often murmured,” he told me. “They are the murmurings while I drive, they are the incantations when I think about those dear to me long gone. I chose to make my murmurings tangible, as if the shelves could hold my prayer.” It is in this sense, he believes, that the architectural form is the Black Vessel [emphasis his], “and the materialised poem represents the conflation of memories and requests and a reflection on the state of things. Only half of the prayer is evident in the exhibition on the shelf, the other half is far too tender still to let go of.”

New Egypt, a 2017 work, houses bound volumes of Ebony, with red, black, green, and dark grey covers referencing the Black Power movement, while the wooden shelving structure references Africanized architecture. The work’s title and content derive from the teachings of Maulana Karenga, a prominent figure in early Africana studies who proposed that the Black American experience is adjacent to Nubian and Egyptian experiences of ‘African Kingdoms’. It’s a critique of the history of western civilisation that established dominion by burning libraries or erasing indigenous knowledge systems or assassinating scholars and intellectuals. “I am very invested in the ways in which we can make the power of Black people’s things, collections, and informal archives knowledge of the Black experience,” Gates told me. “How can we make the knowledge of a trans-disciplinary, translingual truth more obvious, more palpable, more formed and informed to others? Can we reshape ‘Black junk’ so that people begin to understand that what would have been discarded was, in fact, the bulk of our wealth?” Gates explores Black artefacts, objects, junks, and assemblages as a powerful resource. “I am deeply committed to articulating and locating where our wealth is. It has nothing to do with externalised, assigned value, and it has everything to do with our willingness to look closely at the things that our ancestors left behind for us. Crumbs of Egypt”.

“I am very invested in the ways in which we can make the power of Black people’s things, collections, and informal archives knowledge of the Black experience,” says Theaster Gates | Theaster Gates | Gagosian| STIRworld
Theaster Gates, Walking Prayer, 2018–20, detail, Bound embossed books and vintage Carnegie cast iron shelving, 83 x 320 x 19 in, 210.8 x 812.8 x 48.3 cm Image: Rob McKeever, artwork © Theaster Gates, Courtesy of Gagosian

It’s possible to theorise that Gates perceives the exhibition as part of a process and not the culmination of his and his studio’s physical and emotional labour. Also, he doesn’t seem over-invested in asserting any claim to having answered any singular calling. Trained as a potter, Gate’s study of ceramic arts in Tokoname, Japan, and his activist leanings seem to have led him to embrace the concept of Mingei that is steeped in a celebration of craftsmanship, upholding the intrinsic aesthetic value of ordinary crafts and functional utensils. He infuses strands of these ideologies with his Black consciousness, practising what he has called “Real Estate art” where he buys detritus only to repurpose it into his sculptures and installations, which he then sells, in order to buy abandoned real estate that he then re-energises into viable community hubs for encouraging Black creativity, thus investing in a circular economy. This radical dispersion of creative pursuit rooted in ethical ideologies of love and care, as preached by Black activists like Audre Lorde and bell hooks or Cornell West, makes his practice unique in the contemporary art world.

“How can we make the knowledge of a trans-disciplinary, translingual truth more obvious, more palpable, more formed and informed to others? Can we reshape ‘Black junk’ so that people begin to understand that what would have been discarded was, in fact, the bulk of our wealth?” says Theaster Gates | Theaster Gates | Gagosian| STIRworld
Theaster Gates, Top Heavy, 2020, Industrial oil-based enamel, rubber torch down, bitumen, wood, and copper, 108 x 108 in, 274.3 x 274.3 cm Image: Jacob Hand, artwork © Theaster Gates, Courtesy of Gagosian

Yet, he never abandons his concern with technique or his engagement with materiality; he just seems to keep expanding the vocabulary of what can be considered medium, drawing on his inheritance of his father’s acumen with roofing techniques and incorporating non-art material like tar and instituting it within contemporary art history (like in Flag Sketch and Top Heavy). I asked him to articulate for me his state of bodily emotion during the suspense-filled moments, when he is compelled to surrender to whatever material transcendence might occur beyond the limits of his agency as an artist. His response was tellingly spiritual—

“Firing a wood kiln is a kind of surrender. The atmosphere necessary to create the temperature that would make an unfired object vitreous could be destructive in the wrong context. In the case of these vessels, the atmosphere of the wood kiln—the Anagama—requires that you accept the unknown and surrender completely to what is possible. The surrender doesn’t feel like a surrender of fear, it feels like a quiet acknowledgement of the power of materials and alchemical transformation.

Many potters over time learn to exploit the possibilities within the Anagama so that they yield controlled results. That, however, is not my hope in the use of the kiln. My hope is that I am constantly surprised by what is possible and that I surrender myself to processes that are always new and fresh. Somewhat like a prayer, there is a ritual at the beginning of the firing process where you essentially ask fire, nature and the deities that govern the kiln to be on your side, to protect the vessels from potential harm. Logs may crash into the pots. A temperature climb that is too high could cause the pots to explode. Meltdowns, inexperienced kiln handlers, a rainstorm, a shack caught on fire—so many things are possible both in and outside of the kiln’s atmosphere. That prayer is intended protection.

There is another offering that happens each time you stoke the kiln, each time you peer in as you move the embers around hoping to create more flashes on the fronts of your pots. This sacred occurrence is when a person communes deeply with nature and with oneself. It is when a person chooses to recognise the power of the uncontrollable and creates space for the uncontrollable to be used demonstratively on a vessel. The concepts of surrender and fragility are an absolute wonder for me as I fire.”

“Somewhat like a prayer, there is a ritual at the beginning of the firing process where you essentially ask fire, nature and the deities that govern the kiln to be on your side, to protect the vessels from potential harm,” says Theaster Gates. | Theaster Gates | Gagosian| STIRworld
Theaster Gates, Vessel # 19, 2020, High fired stoneware with glaze, 19 x 20 x 20 in, 48.3 x 50.8 x 50.8 cm Image: Chris Strong, artwork © Theaster Gates, Courtesy of Gagosian

Despite my physical distance from the exhibition and the ensuing impossibility of a tactile interface with his work, perhaps through the intonation of the E flat minor chord, coupled with some enjoyable stalking of Gates’ Instagram posts—particularly video snippets of him conducting choral ensembles as part of Black Monks’ performance—I found myself able to gleam the auratic dimensions of his spiritual practice. I unearthed a not-so-uncanny equivalence between my body’s intuitive reception of his work and the state of rapture I had been delivered into during a recent listening of Nina Simone’s My Sweet Lord / Today is a Killer, her 18-minute,1972 composition with the Bethany Baptist Church Junior Choir of South Jamaica, New York, for Black soldiers at Fort Dix, which returned George Harrison’s hit to the Black spiritual tradition from which it had doubtless originated. Gates’ E flat minor sound loop is akin to Nina’s dual exploration of My Sweet Lord and the David Nelson poem, Today is a Killer, or Kamasi Washington and his ensemble’s reimagining of Debussy’s Claire de Lune. The sound loop feels invested in the legacy of what the composer, double Bassist and multi-instrumentalist, William Parker called the ‘inside songs’, which exist ‘in-between the sounds and silences and behind the words, pulsating, waiting to be reborn as a new song’.

(Theaster Gates’ Black Vessel is on display at Gagosian, New York, until January 23, 2021. However, schedule might be disrupted due to the ongoing pandemic.)  

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