Chicago-based Theaster Gates is a mid-course corrector, a diviner who propels things (objects, places, ideas) beyond their inevitable declines and conclusions.
He is renovating an abandoned building on Dorchester Avenue in Chicago to serve as a library and soul food kitchen; he leads the Black Monks of Mississippi, a vocal ensemble that melds gospel with Eastern meditative traditions; his recent galley work includes neatly-compressed fire hoses housed in rough, repurposed frames, each titled In the Event of Race Riot. Gates brings to his work a miscellaneous batch of interests stemming from both an unusual education – he holds degrees in urban planning, ceramics and religious studies – and an acquisitiveness for how systems define people (and vice versa).
Many of Gates’s visual art and urban renewal projects resurrect the broken and splintered, the temptingly disposable. Just as he does not want to see a neighborhood fragmented by socio-economic shifts, by upward mobility and poverty, so does he look to maintain collections of objects that were deliberately brought together by passion, logic or both. Recently, he has rescued thousands of glass lantern slides from the University of Chicago as well as the unsold inventory of a defunct art and architecture bookseller, transforming both into public collections housed at the Dorchester Avenue space.
Gates is the 2011 recipient of the Seattle Art Museum-administered Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Fellowship, awarded biannually to an early-career black artist, and is presenting an exhibition at SAM built around another collection: 8,000 soul albums purchased from Dr. Wax Records in Chicago. When the store closed in 2010, the owner set out to liquidate the inventory; Gates offered a lump sum for the albums to keep the collection intact. For The Listening Room, on view December 9, 2011 through July 1, 2012, the records will be set in the wall as a single, continuous line. The spines, a ragged array of faded cover art and peeling text, will assume the form of an unusual, dominant architectural component. Also installed will be found and assembled religious furniture (a prayer bench, a high-backed minister’s chair) and, at scheduled times, individuals playing the role of DJ (a minister of music) and of interviewer/ discussant. At the urging of these individuals, the audience will listen to music, recall music memories and contribute to the ongoing evolution/socialization of the Dr. Wax collection.