Sunday, February 03, 2013

Apply heat

It's a little hard to describe this weekend, beyond that it's been a blast. A sleep-over, a faculty training expedition, a look beneath Chicago's hood, all somehow inside the head of a remarkable African American installation artist-musician-impressario. (And... winter! Friday was ve-ry cold, windchill of -16˚ F; then it warmed up enough for snow!) In short: more than a dozen faculty from four divisions of The New School got to know the winner of our Vera List Center's inaugural prize in Art and Politics, Theaster Gates, on his turf.

Theaster's artistic practice grew from training as a potter, although by this time he already had a degree in urban planning. (An MA in religious studies happened along the way, too, and some time in Japan.) Nowadays he seems to shape opportunities for other artists as much as - indeed as - his own clay. His performances and installations always involve craftspeople in the neighborhood (often training new ones) as well as the various citizens of the art world, from beginning artists to carpenters to university folk to big-name philanthropists - if possible in ways that leave an enduring living for someone. It's quite poetic as idea but in practice dizzyingly, almost disturbingly entrepreneurial. And very successful. His star has risen decisively in the international art scene, and has enabled him to become a kind of salvage developer in Chicago's South Side, buying and transforming old buildings into spaces for artists. Many people in many places have participated in his projects, many, by design, spinning off into their own work. Of his team of seven planners he said he's a sort of organic corporation, one body.

The first of these buildings were on South Dorchester Avenue, and it is the "Dorchester Projects" for which he won our prize - old places which have been converted into quirky art spaces. The most recent, known now as Black Cinema House (the red brick building above), is where five of us stayed. Its story with Theaster is fascinating. Abandoned for a long time, he decided to buy it because of its accoustics - he was looking for a place to record some music for his contribution to Documenta, the big German art festival which takes place every 5 years. But more than the music went to the "Hugenottenhaus," a bombed-out shell of a house he restored in Kassel: every usable remnant of wood, etc. from 6901 South Dorchester was shipped to Germany and reused. To food and live music, Documenta visitors got to ponder history and locality, craft and displacement, in a Chicago-ensouled space. Material like wood and lath mutely hum with the forgotten lives they framed and contained.

This meant the house we stayed in, beautifully appointed in other reused materials of black Chicago, had none of its own guts. (We got to see the guts stacked up in his big studio, just returned from their transatlantic voyage.) Instead we had a floor from an abandoned church, a room whose walls were covered with green chalkboards from an old school, stained redwood wainscotting from an old water shed, etc. It's designed to be used as an art house theater, and as a kitchen for the "Soul Food Pavilion" dinners at which traditional African American food is served in hand-made dishes, many made by visiting Japanese potters. Across the street is the Library (the wooden building above) home to an odd assortment of de-accessioned collections, including the glass slide collection of the University of Chicago's art history department); the old Candy Store next door, his original perch in the neighborhood, is being gutted and rebuilt, too.

We also got to see other spaces Theaster's revived, including the Arts Block, an "incubator" of new talent, and the vast disused Anheuser Busch brewery which will be his new studio. He also directed us to meet people he's worked closely with at older institutions engaged with community and art - Hull House, the Experimental Station, the Gray Center for Arts & Inquiry. But it still added up only to what one of my artist colleagues described as an "extended studio tour" - we got to see behind the scenes of his work, but not the work itself. Even the Dorchester Projects aren't just spaces but designed for particular kinds of life. And what life that must be: I've watched some of his performances on youtube with his group the Black Monks of Mississippi, and they're fantastic. Check out the song "I was born with clay in my veins," starting at 22:40 here. Commanding stuff.

And if you listen a bit you'll hear this old work song, perhaps inspired by the life of the slave artist known as "Dave the Potter," yield to something quite different: a religious chant, namu myo ho ren ge kyo. What's going on here? Nichiren Buddhist soul? I'm keen to find out. I was invited to participate in the weekend because religion is important in many ways to Theaster's work. His first words to us were about the importance of the "belief muscle," and we learned also that at a recent musical session he started "scatting in tongues." He understands his work with reused materials as more than reclamation - if not redemption, it is a kind of resurrection. And perhaps a little retribution, too: the above (seen from the side) is one of his works made of deaccessioned fire hose, meant to recall not the putting out of fires but the use of fire hoses use against protesters during the civil rights movement.

We all meet again in a month, back in New York. I think we're all trying to understand just how his practice has widened out to embrace music, exhibition, historical reclamation, curatorial interrogation and urban renewal. I'm wondering if something in the experience of Japanese pottery - especially the waiting for glaze to assume colors and shapes you don't plan (but which also couldn't happen without you) - continues to inform his collaborations. He uses the language of "heat" to describe what he's making. I'll have to ask about the Lotus Sutra, too!

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