Published in Asia Tatler, October 2013
Theaster Gates is in a cab on his way to Dorchester Ave in his neighbourhood of Chicago’s Greater Grand Crossing, when we chat on the phone. “My people are getting hungry … I’m gonna feed my crew,” he says. His crew is the team of builders who collaborate with him to realize the massive projects that have brought him world-wide attention in only a matter of years. Several years ago, 39 year old Gates — installation artist, urban planner, performer, and social activist — was barely able to find a gallery to show his work; then he was wisely snapped up by Chicago based Kavi Gupta. Today, only four years after his critically acclaimed ‘Dorchester Project’, which consisted of the redevelopment and transformation of three neglected neighboring buildings on Dorchester Avenue — casualties of the economic downturn — into a vibrant site of artistic an community exchange, Gates has scaled the highest stratosphere of the art world.
There have been exhibitions, museum shows and long waiting lists for art works, plus rising prices that reflect what all in the art world recognises: that Theaster Gates is a supernova. In 2010, Gates took part in the Whitney Biennial, followed by an exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, and the career defining 2012 Documenta  project, ‘12 Ballads for Huguenot House’. In 2012 ArtReview put him at number 56 on its annual list of the 100 most powerful people in the art world. Last year he signed with mega gallery White Cube, and this month is presenting solo exhibitions with the gallery, taking place simultaneously in Hong Kong and Sao Paolo.
Plenty of artists use their work to comment on political or social issues de jour. Few use art to really make a difference to the community and people around them. What sets Gates apart is this ability to act as a catalyst for social change through his work. His large-scale projects grow organically from the urban and are dependent on the urban environment to exist. They are in fact an extension of community and art objects at the same time. For ‘Dorchester Project’ Gates used his skills as an urban planner, reordering materials to reinvent spaces, transforming disused buildings from poor areas on Chicago’s South Side, where he still lives, into what has been described as a mini utopia with artist residencies, a library, performance venues and cinema — spaces that can once again encourage community progress, culture and inspire hope.
These spaces are repurposed through artistic intervention to better suit the needs of the community, and at the same time are transformed into powerful works that live outside and beyond the gallery space, charged with political and social meaning, but unquantifiable in terms of commercial art value. These buildings are unsellable; they won’t be dismantled piece by piece and sold off. It is through the sale of his more commercial gallery works that Gates can fund these projects. But with ever increasing success comes the pressure to create ever-increasing amounts of commercial works. Gates remains unfazed. “Who’s to say that every move you make is going to be favourable to the market? God, what a horrible life if you just did things that were favourable to the market, because the market isn’t always smart. It can’t be the impetus for inspiration”, he explains. “I need to be active in the world in order to get to the next thing that I want to make.” His work is very much grounded in reality, bringing the viewer back into communion with the real world through his art. It’s quite a departure from the glossy perfectionism that has dominated the contemporary art market for so long, but it is what has put him on the radar of every collector, critic and curator.
Gates’ other defining ambitious project, ‘12 Ballads for Huguenot House,’ (2012), united two disused buildings on two separate sites: one, the large and forgotten Huguenot House built in Kassel, Germany, built in the early 19th century; and the other a dilapidated building in his hometown. Using parts of each to rebuild the other, the project, part of Kassel’s Documenta exhibition, was a commentary on the parallel history of the migrant workers who built the Huguenot House, and the black and Latino builders in his own neighbourhood. In both locations Gates used locally-hired, often previously unemployed workers to achieve his projects, creating jobs in the community. His forthcoming Whitecube shows are a continuation of, and reflection on, his Documenta experience. “That project was so huge for my life, for my growth. And there was more to that work than I could show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, which was a kind of formal museum show,” he says.
Underlying every piece is a history of worksmanship, personal biography, American social history and determination to contribute something more than just the sum of his works. In Gates’ art the private and the public selves bleed into one another. White Cube Hong Kong director, Graham Steele, thinks it’s this infusion of the historical and personal that resonates with audiences. “By imbuing in his works a sense of the value of labour and the history of its making, Theaster somehow allows the viewer to truly experience the full weight of his practice in every object he makes.”
Trained as a potter, educated as an urban planner, and now holding a post as arts administrator at the University of Chicago, where he works on improving the institution’s relationships with the less affluent South and West sides of Chicago, Gates set about trying to save cities, spurred on by the inequalities he witnessed growing up between rich and poor neighbourhoods. The use of humble materials in his work — tar, roofing, scaffolding — not only helps create a form of social commentary from the actual building blocks of community but is deeply symbolic and connected to his own personal history. The son of a roofer and the youngest of nine children from a family living in Garfield Park, a poor, mostly black neighbourhood of Chicago, he regularly joined his father at work to help with tarring roofs.
Despite art not playing a significant role in his upbringing, this, and his involvement in the local gospel-church choir, sowed the seeds of Gates’ artistic awakening. “In many ways I trained as an artist before I even knew of the world of the arts. My dad was a builder, and I’ve always had a love for beautiful things. I’ve had a sense of architecture and design from an early age”, he says. Exposure to art or formal training didn’t come until much later in college when he was able to study and experiment with materials such as clay and pottery. “Just the work I did with my dad — building, using my hands — that was a good entrée into the world of creating. Later I could combine the stuff I learnt with my dad with my love of making, to arrive at this crazy place.”
Gates shows no signs of slowing or scaling down. He has been selected by the Chicago Transit Authority, where he once took a job as an arts planner, to create the largest public artwork in its history. The City of Chicago has also given the artist a bank building which he is in the process of restoring. The project will raise even more issues that the artist hopes to address. “If artists are good at creating things, how do we create things that create, systems that generate economic opportunity for the poor? How do we extend our generating beyond our studio? I’m trying to tackle that in really broad and big ways. It’s super exciting.”
Here is an artist who has clearly demonstrated the power of imagination and art to create the change you want. “In some cases, you just have to build the world you wanna funk in,” he remarks.