13th Ballad, an installation by Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates, is an extension of the artist’s 12 Ballads for Huguenot House, which was coproduced by the MCA and exhibited at Documenta 13, the 2012 iteration of the international art exhibition that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany.
Gates, whose practice includes performance, installation, and urban interventions, created 12 Ballads for Huguenot House as part of his ongoing efforts to rejuvenate—both socially and architecturally—his South Chicago neighborhood, a campaign that began in 2006 when he refurbished an abandoned building on South Dorchester Avenue as his studio and home. This effort was later expanded to include abandoned houses nearby, which the artist and a team of local laborers also renovated, reinventing them as alternative cultural spaces while also repurposing their materials to make both functional and purely aesthetic objects. For 12 Ballads, much of the raw building material from the house at 6901 S. Dorchester Ave. was transported to Germany and used in the partial restoration of the dilapidated historic building in Kassel called the Huguenot House—where the carpenters and students who were involved in this effort lived as part of the project—symbolically mending one neglected cultural history with another. Ultimately, 12 Ballads resulted in a poetic exchange of material and music. Before the sister house in Chicago was carefully disassembled, Gates and his collaborators from the musical ensemble Black Monks of Mississippi—an improvisational group that combines black spiritual music with the blues and Eastern chanting traditions—recorded a series of twelve songs and performances in the South Side home, which was later screened in Kassel and accompanied there by another set of live performances by the Monks.
For 13th Ballad, Gates creates a new large-scale installation in the MCA’s Marjorie Blum Kovler Atrium that comprises art objects and materials from the Huguenot House, as well as a set of repurposed pews from the University of Chicago’s Bond Chapel. The pews, having been removed recently in order to offer Muslim students a place to pray, are a symbolic gesture of religious tolerance. Gates thought broadly about spaces of worship while researching the religious persecution of the Huguenots, members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France, who were forced to flee discrimination by the Catholic Church and relocate in Protestant nations such as Prussia (modern-day Germany) between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. The installation features a monumental sculpture that showcases the everyday objects left behind by the artists and workers in the Huguenot House. This anchoring work, in combination with the carved wooden pews, creates an ecclesiastical ambiance within the museum, alluding to how art museums, not unlike churches, are sites of pilgrimage and contemplation. Providing context for the project, the MCA Screen presentation in the Turner Family Gallery on the fourth floor reprises key aspects of 12 Ballads, including video footage from Kassel and the original Dorchester project as well as functional objects Gates and his team created for Documenta.