A Ballad for Chicago: Theaster Gates at MCA Chicago

Last year, Theaster Gates and a team of collaborators took over a run-down building in Kassel, Germany called Huguenot House, renovating the space for performances and creative interventions as part of 12 Ballads for Huguenot House, the artist’s contribution to dOCUMENTA (13). It was a fitting gesture considering the restorative origins of the first dOCUMENTA in 1955, which reintroduced modern art to Germany after years of banishment under the Nazi regime. Building off his work at Huguenot House, Gates has returned to his native Chicago with an outstanding installation in the atrium of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago titled 13th Ballad.

Theaster Gates, Double Cross, 2013. Courtesy of the artist, White Cube, and Kavi Gupta. Installation view, Theaster Gates: 13th Ballad, MCA Chicago, 2013. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Gates’s installation enhances the atrium like no installation I’ve seen in the same space. Normally a sun drenched thoroughfare, the spacious multi-story glass reception area directs patrons to the two galleries on the main floor or to the café overlooking the museum’s sculpture garden. With Gates’s additions, the space is transformed into a kind of secular church, though perhaps ‘transform’ isn’t quite the right word. Augmented with thirteen pews repurposed from the University of Chicago’s Bond Chapel, an altar, and a giant double horizontal axis cross, the installation calls attention to the already cathedral-like quality of architect Josef Paul Kleihues’s entrance, while also referencing the migratory history of religious communities. Gates’s work fits so well within the museum architecture, one might think Kleihues himself commissioned the installation.

According to museum literature, the row of pews was recently removed from Bond Chapel as an inclusive gesture to open floor space for Muslim students to pray. Here, the pews offer a place to rest, reflect, or gather and discuss the work in the adjacent galleries, as a group of students was doing on the afternoon I visited the show. The slightly worn edges of the benches suggest a history of use from their previous life. Similarly, Stage Floor (2012), an assemblage of white rectangles hanging on a nearby wall is still dusty and stained from recent activity. Evidence of time and use places Gates’s objects within a continuum of purpose, serving as a reminder that everything has a past and could have a future when given the opportunity. This connection to accumulated history, purpose, and reactivation is reminiscent of the artist’s past work, particularly, Dorchester Projects (2009), an extensive undertaking in which Gates converted abandoned buildings in his South Side neighborhood into an artist residency, library, soul food kitchen, and community space.

Theaster Gates, Double Cross, 2013. Courtesy of the artist, White Cube, and Kavi Gupta. Installation view, Theaster Gates: 13th Ballad, MCA Chicago, 2013. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Functionally, the pews also point the way toward Altar (2012), a long, simple table partially comprised of the faces of old filing drawers; followed by the three-story-high wall of windows facing east toward Lake Michigan, where Gates has installed Double Cross (2013). The twice-crossed cross is complex symbol. On one hand, the title is critical, perhaps alluding to the complicated history of religious inclusion for non-Protestant communities living in America. And yet, the cross is composed of plywood crates containing the umbrellas, saw blade, plates, pitchers, toothpaste tubes, tambourine, and other items that Gates and his team utilized during their one hundred days in Kassel. These individually lit compartments function as reliquaries for objects imbued with the history of Huguenot House’s reconstruction, making the piece a secular symbol of renewal. Double Cross also lights the way upward, toward the skylights that surely go unnoticed by the casual museum-goer given that most of the action below only exists sixty inches from the floor. In assembling these elements so deftly within the architecture, Gates activates the atrium from floor to ceiling, converting a transitional space into a destination in itself, one that’s rich with overlapping and complex histories.

Installation view of Theaster Gates: 13th Ballad at MCA Chicago, 2013. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

On the fourth floor, more objects from Kassel are displayed next to monitors and a video projection documenting the performances and creation of Huguenot House. The projection features the musical improv group Black Monks of Mississippi pounding out an epic soul jam for a dancing throng of young bohemians at Huguenot House. Further on, the video picks up with the Monks chanting Nina Simone-esque improvisations while one performer poetically recounts the horrors of African slaves transported to America, again emphasizing history, migration, and the revitalizing potential of creativity. The video offers a taste of the life and energy Gates and his collaborators produced during their time at dOCUMENTA.

Also on display is Migration Rickshaw for Sleeping and Playing (2013), a cart made of found components and stuffed with bedding and pillows. The cart is held together with duct tape printed with the words “Allan Kaprow_Art As Life,” referencing the title of Alex Potts’s book about Kaprow’s praxis, which stressed creating art not for museums and galleries, but within the context of everyday life. Gates is at his best when this axiom is put into practice. Within the fourth floor gallery, works like Migration Rickshaw are robbed of their potential functionality. Gates may assemble objects, but his true art lies within the action his creativity fosters, as is evident from his Huguenot House video, the atrium installation, and his continued efforts on the South Side. Fortunately, the artist has a series of MCA activities and performances planned for the summer.

Oddly enough, Gates’s exhibition opened less than a week before the Chicago School Board decided to shutter fifty public schools, many of which are on the city’s South Side. Given that the artist has an outstanding knack for building community and revitalizing neglected resources, maybe his next project should be running for mayor, although perhaps that might slow him down from building so much.

Theaster Gates’s 13th Ballad will be on view at MCA Chicago till October 6, 2013.