Theaster Gates is a sort of omnimath. Often billed as a “social practice installation artist”, Gates creates work that ranges across painting, urbanism, performance, music, sculpture, community outreach and more. And this week, speaking at Frieze’s brilliant annual Art & Architecture Summit, the multi-minded American emerges as a sort of architectural visionary. Perhaps the best-known parts of Gates’s practice are his building interventions in his native Chicago where, on the derelict South Side, he has acquired and repurposed a series of enormous abandoned properties, starting with a handsome neoclassical bank he bought from the city for $1. Now a repository of cultural values, it houses a gallery, library, archive, performance space and community centre. But this is not an arty form of gentrification; Gates makes that very clear. He talks the language of uplift — of “hopeful architecture”, of the need to “experience awe”, even of “mansions in heaven” — and of his desire for his fellow African Americans to “encounter a better way” — but his discussion with Elvira Dyangani Ose, director of The Showroom in London, was more about intellectual adventure than down-to-earth community projects.
“Why did I build? The intent was not kindness to black people, not to make them an experience of streets of gold . . . it was more cerebral — I wanted to play with space and concepts of abandonment.” The term “abstract space” recurs in Gates’s super-eloquent flow, even as the video playing behind him displays all-too-concrete spatial images of dereliction and poverty. Almost as if he’s tired of being depicted as some saintly do-gooder, Gates emphasises that all of his work makes up a coherent artistic practice. He draws parallels with the Land Art movement of the 1960s and 70s: his is an urban version — a similar “durational engagement with space” which, he points out disarmingly, is born from a “selfish energy”, namely the simple desire to create things that could never fit inside a museum.
“My primary practice is making things,” he says, “just really big things. And pre-existing built form is a ripe canvas.” With huge tracts of Chicago’s South Side as his original “canvas”, he now regularly brings his work across the world, re-creating installations, performances and exhibitions. “The Black Image Corporation”, based on photographic archives and surrounded by a programme of screenings, music and discussion, is currently in London. But, with this artist, it’s never clear what will be next. “Making can be a work of art,” as he says, “or else just the ability to transform things. With no limit to the scale . . . ”