Electronic music by Brian Monahan of Bristol in a sacred space within a sacred space

Electronic music by Brian Monahan of Bristol in a sacred space within a sacred space (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

BRISTOL, UK — On Saturday night here, in a concert hall whose former life as a church moved him to sing hymns, artist Theaster Gates gave a site-specific performance that brought many audience members to tears and prompted others to walk out. The evening was billed as a combination of performance and lecture — but several of the walkouts said they’d expected less of the former and more of the latter. Or, at least, some indication of when the free-flowing hymns would end and a bit of explanatory exposition about when they would begin.

Facade of St George's Concert Hall, where Gates sang hymns on Saturday night (click to enlarge)

Facade of St George’s Concert Hall, where Gates sang hymns on Saturday night (click to enlarge)

As one woman — an artist who’d watched Gates’s TED talk and been on board with his project from its early stages — told me as we left the building: “I thought it would be a lecture, but I enjoyed the first bit of singing. He has an extraordinary voice. But my heart sank when he said he was going to sing every hymn he knew.”

Another woman was put off by Gates’s unbridled Christian testimony. “I know he’s a man of faith, but that was offensive.” And then there was the man who looked like he’d have been happier watching the Rugby World Cup. He put it rather more succinctly: “Bollocks. It was bollocks.”

Sadly I couldn’t stay to see Gates pull it all together at the end, which was what I suspected he’d do. Instead, I was catching the last train back to London, while remaining audience members joined him in singing “Amazing Grace,” the hymn written by a repentant slave-ship captain. It was painfully apt for Bristol, given the city’s history as a center of the slave trade.

From what I could gather, part of the problem was that many in the audience couldn’t gauge how serious Gates was with his singing and get-down testimony. In addition to facing an oceanic divide from the artist, the majority of the attendees were white and secular, and many laughed nervously when Gates used a mix of physical gesture and vocal inflection to emphasize his relationship with Jesus.

Theaster Gates surveys a video during prep for his Saturday night presentation (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Theaster Gates surveys a video during prep for his Saturday night presentation

All of which was unfortunate, given that the other facets of his work in Bristol seemed to be striking quite a resonant chord. Gates’s primary project was a site-specific installation called Sanctum, a sort of ark-shaped hut built inside a ruined Anglican church in the center of the city. So tiny that it can scarcely accommodate more than 20 visitors at a time, Sanctum was constructed from materials recycled from a number of abandoned sites around town, including a Salvation Army center and a former confectionary factory.

Gates launched the performance space last Thursday with a round of bagpipe music. Since then, every hour has seen successive presentations by Bristol-area performing artists. They will continue, 24/7, through 6pm on November 21.

The idea for all of this has been in the works for about two years, since a local group of entrepreneurs called Situations decided that Gates was the one artist who could help Bristol mark its appointment, in 2015, as the European Green Capital. Situations collaborated with other organizations to produce Sanctum, bringing on board hundreds of local presenters and volunteers. Gates himself made visits to Bristol to determine a site and conduct general research. He chose the remains of one of four ancient churches that had been destroyed during the Nazi bombing raids of early winter 1940 through spring 1941. Temple Church is not ordinarily open to the public, but English Heritage, which takes care of it, agreed to make the ruin available until the end of the project, when the performance ark will be demolished.

Listeners inside the intimate space of Sanctum

Listeners inside the intimate space of Sanctum

My first stop in Bristol was that intimate, resonant space. At the time, a string quartet was playing “Autumn Leaves.” The music mixed with views of surrounding trees, which had turned glorious hues of golden green and salmon red. As the string performers followed up with “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” a lone digital performer stepped in with his laptop and began layering his own music on top, creating a seamless transition from one hourlong performance to the next. Along with the rest of the small audience, I was spellbound. This is the aspect of Gates’s work that will continue long after he’s returned to Chicago: Bristolians will turn out to perform and to enjoy the performances for weeks.

Dr Paul Stephenson, center, with his wife of 50 years, Joyce, and local author Roger Griffith, awaiting Gates's presentation at St George's (click to enlarge)

Dr Paul Stephenson, center, with his wife of 50 years, Joyce, and local author Roger Griffith, awaiting Gates’s presentation at St George’s (click to enlarge)

Another, smaller number of them might also remember and act upon the one-on-one time that Gates spent with area residents during his whirlwind visit. Earlier on Saturday, Gates had done a mentoring session with some local students and visited with one of Bristol’s elder statesmen, Dr. Paul Stephenson. Inspired by American civil rights activism, Stephenson organized a bus boycott in Bristol, among other peaceful forms of protests against racism in the UK. If Gates used his time with the students to inspire them, Stephenson told me that the American artist sat and listened intently during the visit they shared.

I’m not certain when Gates was scheduled to leave Bristol. His Saturday night program was to be followed by the sale and signing of copies of his new Phaidon monograph. But my sense is that he did what he needed to do, including unsettling people with his hymn-singing. He activated a monument, bringing it out of the past and into the present, and perhaps the future. He set in motion new relationships between local artists and possibly inspired some young people to try and use their own lives to make a difference. All that is or was left for him to do is get out of the way.

Gates, about to be shuttled away for some time to himself

Gates, about to be shuttled away for some time to himself

Gates has his name on it, but Sanctum is really about Bristol.

Gates has his name on it, but Sanctum is really about Bristol.

You can't have a progressive art project without free-range food. This is on-site at Sanctum.

You can’t have a progressive art project without free-range food. This is on-site at Sanctum.

A path lined with bricks given by the Salvation Army leads visitors from the gate to the performance space.

A path lined with bricks given by the Salvation Army leads visitors from the gate to the performance space.

Sanctum continues at Temple Church (Temple Street, Bristol, UK) through November 21.

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Janet Tyson

Janet Tyson is an independent art historian, critic and artist. She lives and works in a semi-rural part of Michigan for about nine months a year, and in London for about three months a year.