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Interview with Theaster Gates
by Abraham Ritchie

Chicago, May 2010 -- Theaster Gates was one of several Chicago-based artists included in the 2010 Whitney Biennial. If you missed his work there (Cosmology of the Yard, 2010), there's still time to see his solo exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum, "To Speculate Darkly: Theaster Gates and Dave the Potter" (April 16 - August 1, 2010) or his work included in the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston's "Hand + Made: The Performative Impulse in Art and Craft" (May 15 - July 25, 2010). Theaster Gates' practice takes many forms, and with pottery taking central stage in his most recent exhibitions, ceramics seemed like a good place to begin our conversation...

Theaster Gates; Photo: Chris Strong/Courtesy of

Abraham Ritchie: You have extensive training in ceramics. How has this influenced your wider practice? I know you have the ware boards that you use for the installations and then you’ve made ceramic pieces themselves . . .

Theaster Gates: If you look at the history of lots of contemporary [art] makers, clay is somewhere in that history. Clay is one of these formal materials that you’re introduced to, it's this amazing way of taking a thing without form or purpose and helping you imagine the plastic. For me, clay was a response to the fact that I had no interest in painting. It allowed me to be with a set of materials that could be heavy, that could resist me on the wheel, and all that. But the more I learned about clay the more it turned me on to other areas, culture, the history of culture through ceramic material.

Theaster Gates. Untitled (bowl). 2010. Ink on paper. 24" x 30"; Courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Berlin | Chicago.


In fact, I think that it’s clay that gave me a sense of the East and influenced my ideals of the importance of the everyday object, the importance of the beauty and the poetry of utility. I think throughout my work there is a functionality that I feel really comfortable with.

And I still make pots too.

AR: In a recent interview with Rachel Furnari for Newcity you talked about participating in choir since you were very young. With the book that James Elkins wrote recently On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art [Routledge: 2004], I have become interested in how religion may have influenced your art, or what place religion has in your practice. Elkins’ conclusion was that it doesn’t really have a place, but seeing your work, religion takes a bigger role. So what role does religion have in your art-making?

TG: I think in some ways Elkins’ has an interesting point in that the “god” part of it is maybe the most amorphous. What’s really clear and concrete is the role that ritual plays, and the way that religious orders have kind of canonized certain kinds of movements, gestures, ceremonies, or a particular kind of brotherhood or sisterhood, in the name of God. But really it’s about the rituals that people perform everyday--the everyday rituals of religion and the weekly rituals of a black preacher. Because I saw them so much and I understand the mechanisms, it’s hard to get away from those rituals having an impact on any set of things I make.

It’s more like religion gives me an opportunity to observe a kind of ritual mode that seems rich in content and gives lots of room for contemplation. Those rituals combine with the everyday rituals that play out in my neighborhood. My willingness to observe these everyday rituals might yield some profound knowledge. I feel like that’s the importance of observing without judgment. Like, these men are without jobs so they do these things, instead of going to work everyday. So what is their labor?

Theaster Gates, Broken Shovel with Nails. 2009; Courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Berlin | Chicago.


In some ways, the construction worker’s rituals and his labor, and the drug dealer’s rituals and his labor, they both are rituals that have one kind of defined manhood. So I am curious more about the rituals than I am about the right or wrong of them, or the god or devil of them. For lots of people who have a sensitivity to performative actions those rituals become really important.

AR: Would you consider yourself to be a religious person?

TG: I’m not religious. In some ways, I become more religious-acting as a result of my return to my curiosity in black church. It’s ok now, in some kind of way, for me to use mannerisms and the vernacular of the black church because I understand the value of them in culture. If you look at Cornell West and his manner of talking, that form is a powerful presentation form, it’s a performative work.

Theaster Gates. Performance view of "To Speculate Darkly" at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 2010; Courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Berlin | Chicago.


AR: You’ve mentioned performance before too, and many of your projects involve participation or an actual performance itself. How do you approach an event and its possible nature as spectacle? In some artist’s production spectacle can get in the way, but in your work it’s very focused. How do you feel about spectacle? How do you use it as a productive element?

TG: Well I don’t think at all about making spectacle.

AR: Sure.

TG: What I do think about is having a sincere moment. There needs to be some transparency, so that if I think that a group of singers and I are singing, that’s what we show up and do. I haven’t placed any value yet on the outcome of our singing or the byproduct of our singing, which may be wrong of me. But I approach the music and the performance the way a musician would, that is, my job is to deliver the best music possible. Real music, conceptual music, imagined music; it’s all music to me. I want to deliver music at the highest level possible.

Theaster Gates. Performance view of "Temple Exercises" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2009; Courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Berlin | Chicago.


I’m not a performance artist, like I’m not a painter. I haven’t read all the theory on performance. I show up and I sing. I show up and I sing, sometimes inside of installations I have built, because the things I know how to do are sing and think about installations.

AR: So you are approaching this more as an experience and should be viewed as such.

TG: It’s much more experiential than anything else. There is value in just doing what you do.

AR: We’ve talked about singing with a choir, and that some of your objects have been fabricated with another party. What are your thoughts on collaboration? Clearly you’re not worried about being the singular author, but what do you see as the value of collaboration, or interfacing with a community in order to bring a work into being?

TG: It’s much more unnatural to be a single maker. People who claim to be single makers, often, are liars. For me, I don’t think that I’m collaborating, I think that I’m living. The work that I’m making needs people, and that feels native and natural and normal. If I were to try to work alone that would feel foreign, it would be a stretch for who I am. I think that everybody else that works by themselves, they’re the ones that should be asked, Why do you work by yourself?

I’d like us to begin to think that my way of making art is normal. The people who I work with are people who I care about. They’re people who I believe in and who are really amazing at making things. But my hand as author is only one part of the conversation of objects.

Theaster Gates, Temple performances, 2008-2009; Courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Berlin | Chicago.


AR: Right.

TG: I think the objects have the burden of doing much more than just delivering themselves as something made exclusively by Theaster. I can’t be forty voices, when I need a forty-voice choir, it’s no longer Theaster.

AR: Of course the single author is a modernist idea--

TG: I don’t believe in it. I’m not religious and I’m not a modernist.

AR: On that note of modernism, could you talk about what you think an art object should do, if anything? Clearly your objects and projects have social roles, they can build community, but they also have a very interesting aesthetic as well, like with the stacking of ware boards. How do you approach an art object that can do something in the world yet still be aesthetically autonomous?

TG: Each new opportunity gives me a chance to think about the specific thing itself. I think that objects need to, in some way, point at something other than itself. The function of the objects are multiple: it allows people to believe in me, it gives the world a kind of index card to larger sets of ideas that are playing out, my objects become like footnotes to projects signaling that there’s some work that’s happening somewhere else in the world that Theaster’s a part of and here’s a little something from that world.

Theaster Gates, Temple, 2008-2009; Courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Berlin | Chicago.


I want them to also make you hungry, like make you want to pick up a ware board, make you want to re-stack them, make you wish you could hear the performance ensemble [or notice] “why is there no one singing right now?” I want them to almost complete themselves, but leave a little bit out.

AR: This sounds similar to your thinking about collaboration or authorship, that you are not an Artist, with a capital ‘a,’ that other people can be involved with this and art isn’t just for a few.

TG: Yeah it’s like how I have a problem with architecture. When a building gets built, the person whose name is on the building is either the funder who paid for the building or the architect. But all the motherfuckers that built the building, what about them? Right? But no one says to the architect, no one said to Mies van der Rohe, “This isn’t your building,” but there was room for Mies van der Rohe to be a lot more generous than he was.

Now every once and a while one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s number twos will pop up, and this guy may be responsible for some design Frank Lloyd Wright got credit for. I don’t want to do that. I want to be able to say, I had this idea for this soul food temple and John Preus built it and that makes John and I collaborators. P-R-E-U-S. You know, I paid John, but I’m not the builder of this thing, but it’s my thing. It feels important to talk about John because the reality is we’re not just exchanging money, we’re exchanging ideas. It might mean that if you publish John’s name then maybe someone else is going to want to have John build something, and if the value of John’s labor is based on building stuff, well, you should know who he is.

Theaster Gates, Installation view of Shoe Shine Stands, 2010; Courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Berlin | Chicago.


AR: Definitely.

TG: The only time I wouldn’t tell you who John is, is some modernist shit. Designers don’t talk about who their fabricators are because that’s about money. Like, if I tell you who my fabricator is, you won’t need me anymore, you won’t need to go through me. That’s that middleman shit.

AR: You’ve lived in Chicago, off and on, but for a number of years. How does your work respond to Chicago? Why live here in Chicago, out of anywhere in the U.S.?

TG: I’m from Chicago, but I think the examination and problem of the city has more to do with my desire to overcome the issue I have had with the city for such a long time. Growing up, I thought that there was nothing I could do to change neighborhoods, or have a substantial impact on a place. Now I know that to be untrue. I know that, in fact, I can do as much cultural, spatial, political work as any other motherfucker in this city. The artist, with more force, with more generosity, with more single-mindedness, with more connective and collaborative ability, may be able to have more impact per square block. You know, not just painting murals, but how can artists help cities heal? Heal the physical space?

Theaster Gates, Black Cloud and One Building Standing, 2010, Sumi ink, gold leaf and acrylic on wood; Courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Berlin | Chicago


The problem of Chicago is a problem of a spatial sickness that has evolved over the last forty or fifty years, like many cities. I feel like a doctor, a space doctor. Part of the practice is just about helping black neighborhoods become good neighborhoods.

AR: Did that desire to help neighborhoods and help people come from your background in Urban Planning?

TG: Well I don’t know if I want to help people.


I have to be thoughtful of people, but I’m not a social worker. I did study Urban Planning because I knew that cities had problems, and black people in cities were considered the problem. Cities have problems and their problem is black people and their problem is poverty. Those things are the case because part of this problem is there’s certain kind of inequities that continue to be perpetuated in this country. It’s hard not to think about the built environment with thinking about the educational facilities in them, the access to creative and cultural resources, access to good public transportation.

Yeah, I’m a space doctor.


Artslant would like to thank Theaster Gates for his assistance in making this interview possible.

--Abraham Ritchie


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