Can the artist speak?

In a post COVID-19 reality, is it possible to foresee outreach initiatives by private galleries that privilege the artist’s subjectivity over jargon-heavy discourse?

by Rosalyn D`Mello Published on : Jul 30, 2020

One of the latest editions in Gagosian's recent Artist Spotlight initiative, developed in response to COVID-19 constraints, begins with the opposite of a disclaimer. The gallery, which has 18 global outposts, assumes full responsibility “in the wake of this moment” for its alliance with the subject of the video, Theaster Gates, and other unnamed artists with whom it is avowedly privileged to be working. “Theaster’s upcoming exhibition was scheduled in advance of both the COVID-19 crisis and the tragic murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor,” the introductory text reads, perhaps cautioning the audience against accusing the gallery of exploiting the circumstances of the present #BlackLivesMatter momentum to further sales. Gates’ Artist Spotlight, shot by Chris Strong, happens simply to coincide with this “unforeseen moment”. The second piece of non-disclaimer text acknowledges Gates’ own desire to acknowledge all those who work and believe in equity and justice. The gallery expresses hope that the project “resonates as a sincere demonstration that galleries have the capacity to work in meaningful ways with artists who believe profoundly in human rights.” This brief context dispensed with; we are now permitted to enter the creative realm that Gates negotiates in order to create his work—his Chicago-based studio complex.

Click here to watch Artist Spotlight on Theaster Gates.

“I remember the first time that I fired a wood kiln,” Gates begins. On cue, the screen begins to light up to gradually reveal first the surface of the hearth and objects that have emerged from it, within Gates’ work environment. The sound design is luscious, the cinematography poetic, and the video espouses overall high production values. Through the six-minute-duration we get a capsule glimpse into Gates’ material process and methodology, and the centrality of clay to his community-nurturing practice. Gates theorises about the relationship between vessels and gatherings. “You make beautiful vessels, those vessels will cause people to gather,” he says. For him, the kiln is symbolic of a point where “all of the alchemical work is starting to happen”. His upcoming exhibition, it seems, is an opportunity for him to talk about two early connections he had made, between how the world of craft shaped how he makes, and the invisible or spiritual world that informs the desire to make meaning from things.

Theaster Gates’ 40-minute video work ‘Art Histories’ brings together various archival elements, from interviews to archeological documents| Film – Art Histories (2019) | Theaster Gates| STIRworld
A still from Theaster Gates’ 40-minute video work Art Histories, first exhibited in 2019 Image Credit: Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery’s Facebook page

The video is riveting, and Gates is candid about some of the concerns that lie at the crux of his practice. The short duration makes for easy, immersive, non-pedantic viewing. Refreshingly absent, however, is the voice of either a gallery representative or a critic. There seems to be no need or no accommodation made for external validations. We have unfettered, intimate access to the primacy of the artist’s own subjectivity. It is he who scripts our potential or impending encounter with the works that we will eventually see as finished objects that will form the body of his upcoming, yet-to-be-scheduled exhibition at Gagosian. Gates speaks of the studio itself as an empty vessel waiting to be filled with things. “The studio really is the place where things are converted, where value is reassigned,” he says. “In the studio, clay allows me the most play, the way the fire is making all these decisions that I can’t make. I enjoy losing the burden of a certain art historical narrative. I get to just make things.” Gates also locates his studio as being a block away from Stoney Island, where there is the blare of sirens and the voices of protest against the recent, brutal killing of George Floyd and the prevailing structures of systemic racism that enable white policemen to overpower and brutalise black citizens.

In the Artist Spotlight film, we get to see the insides of Theaster Gates’ Chicago studio| Screenshot, Artist Spotlight | Gagosian Gallery | STIRworld
In the Artist Spotlight film, we get to see the insides of Theaster Gates’ Chicago studio Image Credit: Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery’s Facebook page

What are the implications of initiatives such as Artist Spotlight on contemporary art discourse, especially when it privileges more concretely the artist’s own intentionality while articulating the backstory behind the making of an artwork? Can we expect more legroom for artists to recover greater discursive agency than they currently enjoy in terms of how their practice is contextualised? The various videos that form Gagosian’s Artist Spotlight work as trailers for upcoming shows, they offer us a taste of what we might expect, and the suspenseful drama of work still in progress. They also firmly root the production of artwork within the studio, reminding audiences of the physical, emotional and psychological labour that’s otherwise invariably erased when work is pedestalised within a white cube and the artist’s voice is distilled into jargon-heavy wall text or is discussed by art consultants, critics, or gallery directors, thus eliminating the artist’s own will from the equation. Were more galleries to follow suit and take a cue from the influential Gagosian, could we anticipate a scenario wherein the artist is allowed to be the spokesperson for their own work? Could such an endeavour be construed as a means to reassign aura lost when artwork can only be viewed online amid COVID-19 restrictions to the site of its production? Given such videos allow us to access private spaces that remain otherwise out of bounds for most audience members, will these new conditions of our admission inevitably lead to the fetishization of the studio practice, or its demystification?

Still from Gagosian’s recent Artist Spotlight feature on Theaster Gates |Gagosian Gallery |STIRworld
Still from Gagosian’s recent Artist Spotlight feature on Theaster Gates Image Credit: Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery’s Facebook page

Most videos produced in this tenor have some of the narrative crispness of the Netflix series, Chef’s Table; a heavy reliance on soundtrack and cinematography to elevate the mundane articulation of artistic insight to a more high-minded pursuit that is distinctive and therefore unique enough to justify the price it commands. Even while we may delight at the pleasure of hearing directly from an artist, that there will be a commercial justification to the video’s existence cannot be denied. That there will be a level of posturing to the outreach being done by galleries is perhaps inevitable. But whether this translates into greater awareness among the public of the preoccupations that govern an artist’s practice and the relevance of art within social movements is to be seen. Despite being so slickly produced, the Gagosian video on Gates had, at the time of writing this column, just four shares, under 1000 views and 18 reactions on its Facebook page, though on Instagram it had been viewed at least 13,212 times, and had 18 comments. Intriguingly, Gates didn’t share it on his own Instagram account. Only one person (@dontgetgotnext) on the gallery’s Instagram post took the gallery to task over its non-disclaimer. “What substantive changes are you making within your organization to make it more equitable?” the handle asked. No response seemed forthcoming.

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About Author

Rosalyn D`Mello

Rosalyn D`Mello

D'Mello is an author, columnist, editor, researcher, art writer and critic. Since January 2016, she has been writing a weekly feminist column for mid-day, and, since mid-2016, a regular column for OPEN based on her visits to South Asian artists' studios, which she has been evolving into a forthcoming book for Oxford University Press, India, thanks to a research grant from the India Foundation for the Arts.

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