“How do we deal with abandonment, ruin, decay? How do we start to imagine ourselves as deeper caretakers of the things that exist in the world?” —Theaster Gates
Theaster Gates’s (US, b. 1973) multifaceted practice includes sculpture, installation, performance, and architectural interventions. An important aspect of his work entails reclaiming and revitalizing abandoned buildings in neighborhoods across Chicago’s South Side. These spaces, which include Dorchester Projects and the Stony Island Arts Bank, have become catalysts for creative and cultural gatherings, and now also serve as repositories for thousands of objects. Taking things that have been cast aside from libraries, archives, and collections, the artist asks us to consider what it means to invest objects with new meanings through the simple acts of conversation, conservation, creation, and care.
Assembly Hall brings a number of the artist’s collections into a museum context for the first time. The Walker’s galleries are transformed into a total work of art, transposing his collections and studio environment into four immersive rooms, each infused with his own poetic interventions. The exhibition considers what Gates calls “resurrections,” or the act of bringing old objects and spaces back to life, while examining the historical and social context of their making in the process. Included are selections from 60,000 slides of art/architectural history from the University of Chicago Glass Lantern Slides Collection; books and periodicals, furniture, and other ephemera from the 15,000-piece Johnson Publishing Company Collection; a range of objects from the Ana J. and Edward J. Williams Collection of “negrobilia”; and ceramic pots and other wares that the artist has made or collected over the past decade. Seen together, these items speak to Gates’s “deep belief in the objects and histories of African American material culture” and capture moments of celebration and inspiration, exclusion and marginalization, renewal and invention.
In 2017 Gates unveiled his first outdoor commission, Black Vessel for a Saint (2017), in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Composed of custom-made black bricks, the temple-like structure provides a space for gathering and reflection as well as a permanent home for a salvaged statue of Saint Laurence, the patron saint of librarians and archivists.