An abandoned 1920s bank in Chicago’s South Side was known as the Stony Island Savings and Loan building. A neo-classical structure, it was unattended since the 1980s but now serves as a melting pot of art and cultural activities, thanks to the efforts of urban planner and performance artist Theaster Gates. At UChicago Center in Delhi last week, Gates, 43, spoke about similar projects, including the 2009 Dorchester Projects, for which he converted old vacant buildings into communal spaces.
After buying the Stony Island Savings and Loan building for $1 before its demolition, he raised funds for its renovation through “bank bonds” he made by repurposing marble from the premises and selling them at Art Basel in 2013. The building’s collapsing roof and crumbling walls were given a makeover, turning its interiors into a gallery,
event space and a library for books and vinyl records. Having hosted the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the space also harbours collectibles of “negrobilia” or racially insensitive art, images and objects.
These were collected by African American banker Edward J Williams to prevent them from circulation. “I feel I am responding to real problems that are close to me and around me, and thinking about how they may be words that need to be turned into a poem. The projects in Chicago are responses to what can be perceived as a big problem.
What do we do with the felling of 90,000 trees and what do we do about men and women returning from prison? I don’t have a solution for one lakh people coming from prison but I could have a solution for five. This poetic solution could be a kind of precursor to a bigger solution. My art seems to be trying to solve a real problem, and maybe it works or fails but the attempt is like my protest,” says the trained potter and sculptor.
His roamings through India introduced him to the paan shops and cycle stands. “The informal economies in Delhi are very exciting to me. The cigarette stands, the local bike selling chewing gums on the street and the care given to making these commercial outfits are excellent. I am very interested in learning from this,” he says.
Gates’ programmes in the US stand as testimony to his statements. In an effort aimed at finding a solution to the availability of surplus trees destroyed by the emerald ash borer beetle in his city, Gates, founder of the Rebuild Foundation, came up with an initiative that allowed the unemployed and underemployed people to come together with artists and craftsmen through the Dorchester Industries project to create high-quality handcrafted products.
The end result, be it in the form of tabletops and wooden boxes, could later be auctioned. One of Gates’ outstanding exhibitions, “Theaster Gates: Resurrecting Dave the Potter”, at Milwaukee Art Museum in 2010, was inspired by 19th century slave and potter Dave Drake from Antebellum South Carolina.
For his provocative installation piece, named To Speculate Darkly, Gates, whose mother once wanted him to be a pastor, brought in a gospel choir to walk through the galleries and sing songs adapted from the inscriptions of poetic couplets put on pots by Drake. He also engaged local craftsmen to produce ceramic works for the show. Delving back to a time when slaves weren’t allowed to be literate, Gates heralded a discussion on the history of slavery in the US by training his lens on Drake’s seditious act.
Talking about the biggest hurdle facing his art practice, encompassing space development, object making, performances and engagement with the public, Gates says, “The biggest challenge has been people’s perception of what my goal is. That, in a way, people would rather let you just be an artist or simply a Capitalist or just a real estate guy or a religious guy but that is not fun. When you put those things together, something special may happen. I think my biggest challenge is the perception of who I am.”