Theaster Gates' practice includes sculpture, installation, performance and urban interventions that aim to bridge the gap between art and life.
Gates has described his working method as “critique through collaboration” – often with architects, researchers and performers – to create works that stretch the idea of what we usually understand visual-based practices to be. For his exhibition at Milwaukee Art Museum exhibition in 2010, for example, Gates invited a 250 strong gospel choir into the galleries to sing songs adapted from the inscriptions on pots by the famous 19th century slave and potter 'Dave Drake'. For the 2010 Whitney Biennial, Gates transformed the Whitney’s Sculpture Court with a spare, architectural installation that functioned as a communal gathering space for performances, social engagement, and contemplation. For the duration of the exhibition Gates collaborated with various creative practitioners on a series of 'monastic residencies', holding live events such as the session by Gates' musical ensemble, the Black Monks of Mississippi. In another recent exhibition at Seattle Art Museum, Gates transformed the gallery into an audio archive entitled 'The Listening Room', incorporating a hand-built DJ booth and a DJ who spinned selections from the now foreclosed Dr Wax record store in Chicago, formerly an influential hub for 60s, 70s and 80s music, in particular jazz, blues and R&B.
For his first major commission in the UK, Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates has created an installation in the grounds of a disused church in Bristol that will be alive with performances and discussion day-and-night for 552 hours.
Artes Mundi Bristol Public Art public realm Situations Socially Engaged Art Socially Engaged Practice
Raised in just 10 days, the physical structure of Theaster Gates’ Sanctum is an astonishing piece of architecture, rearing like a biblical apparition: an ark surfacing or a ramshackle shelter amid receding floods.
With building materials drawn from the detritus of the city, Sanctum features doors of Georgian houses, bricks from a recently-demolished Salvation Army citadel and timber from a nearby swing bridge currently under repair.
The Chicago-based artist describes his first major public art project in the UK, commissioned by Bristol public art producers Situations, as an act of “collaboration with a city.”
My review on Sanctum for Situations back in 2015:
Now the Sanctum hours are coming to an end, I begin to wonder whether a project like Sanctum actually has an end or it is beyond a timeline, beginning or closure. Sanctum is so much more than a one off project, it’s a new way to look at art, community and the city we live in.
Together with the 552 hours of performances within Sanctum there are also all those other layers of the project that unfolded in front of us. Attending the master class on Public Art (Now) from Situations allows you to go deeper into the thoughts, work, inspiration, logistics and effort that brought the project together.
Coming from a Project Management background I was expecting to focus more on the logistics of the project; health & safety, licensing, timelines, production schedule, etc. But I found myself getting immersed in the ethos and working practise that so characterised this project.
Before the master class I had assumed that the whole project was a strict operation and the final outcome was designed in every detail from the beginning. I was pleasantly surprise to find out how the project was developed with a much more organic / ‘work in progress’ approach. This allowed so many additional elements and ideas to feed into the project.
I was also very impressed with the honesty that both Claire and Matthew showed presenting the difficulties of the project, not just its successes. It also made obvious how the team used their imagination and creativity to turn all the difficulties into additional features and highlights. The team did not only build a physical space to perform in, but a community and a framework where the local creative potential was really maximised.
The master class or still trying to master it class, as Claire has called it, was a insight into the challenges, excitement, commitment, problem solving capacity, community engagement work and respect to the space and time that the teams brought together to make Sanctum happen. Admiration for the artist, persistence, a clear vision, respect for the local culture, ethical sourcing of materials that have a significant important to the city, curating the programme of performances, respect to the physical site, inclusive call for artists all across Bristol, a great production team, revisiting and adjusting the vision are some of the many great qualities the team brought to Sanctum.
Situations method of working is to define a set of principles, which sit around an artist’s practise and then start building around this. Working around the idea of a soul of the city and its spirituality, then starting to tell a very visual story about the city we live in. This approach led to more and more stories around the material, methods and ethos appearing and feeding into the puzzle that became Sanctum. Listening to Claire and Matthew presenting the process behind every aspect of Sanctum reinforces more and more the idea that every single aspect has been crucial towards the success of the project as a whole. And if you were to remove any of those elements the project would have not been the same.
Sanctum brings together all the aspects of working in the arts I strongly believe in; community, performance, creative use of empty spaces, history, architecture, time and above all people. The entire project is made of Bristol. It brings back to my mind the words of Theaster at his St George’s performance; ‘this is not my project it is Bristol people’s project. People are powerful and when we create platforms they can create powerful things. Sanctum is about Bristol’s capacity to be amazing’.
People are naturally interested in empty spaces and changing a space from private to public creates a feeling of ownership. Allowing them to come back as many times as they wish and experience the space in such different ways, has allowed Sanctum to become part of our daily routines and point of reference in our social circles like no other public art piece, performance or exhibition had. We went to Sanctum, and Sanctum came back home with us.
Everyone felt welcomed to Sanctum. One of my favourite quotes is ‘equality is inviting someone to a party, inclusion is asking them to dance’ and this is what Theaster, Situations and MAYK did. They invited the whole of Bristol to a party and asked them to sing and perform.
For the last hour of the master class we heard from the Exceptional Projects discussion panel, including Simon Cooper, Helen Davies, Luke Jerram, Zoe Sear, Claire Doherty and Matthew Austin. While listening to the panel presenting their projects it is clear why Bristol is such a great city to be in. Where so much art is created outside the four walls of a gallery and is accessible to all. A city can grow in so many important ways without always relying on large capital expenditures or a major construction. Instead well-placed, place-based projects encourage the emergence of new spaces and/or the creative use of the existing ones. Public art is the most durable part of a city’s infrastructure; it can constantly change form but maintain its function of bringing the community together.
This can be especially true when work is created in derelict spaces. Here it can help create dynamic and resilient places in and around our towns and cities and can clearly act as an urban catalyst. Such uses are an integral part of both the short and long term planning to help bring urban landscapes back to life. A temporary structure within the shell of Temple Church broadens accessibility to the arts by extending the locations in which these activities take place. A temporary structure within the shell of Temple Church can expand democracy and empower the local community. We are never going to look at Temple Church again as a derelict church; it is now a community space and a creative hub. Not many people will walk passed the space again and won’t take a second to reflect on their memories of Sanctum.
Theaster’s work is about shaping attitudes about the city we live in, and it feels like the raw material is becoming bigger. He states: ‘I feel like I am always in the middle of a breakthrough and am trying to work out those ideas, am still learning what change is, what my role is in articulating what needs to change.’ And so are we. This is why there is no end date to Sanctum.
Sanctum has allowed us to look at our city in a different way and re-connect with space and people. Sanctum is about positioning artists in the heart of the city as part of the creative community and allowing all to become contributors to re-designing the city and space.
Finding out that Sanctum will next rising in a different city is such an exciting life expansion for the project. I can only start to imagine how different Sanctum would be in a different city and all the exciting new work that will be presented there. It proves once again that Sanctum is its own entity and can survive through space, location, time and circumstances.