MILAN — Following the major economic crises in Europe and the US, political art has become increasingly visible in those parts of the world. At the same time, it’s become increasingly difficult to ignore questions about the art’s actual effectiveness. It is with this in mind that I went to see Theaster Gates’s solo exhibition at the Fondazione Prada’s Milan location — a vast complex designed by Rem Koolhaas that opened in May 2015 in a former 20th-century gin distillery, comprising warehouses, former silos, and a bar designed by Wes Andersen.
The show, curated by Elvira Dyangani Ose and entitled True Value, represents Gates’s continued efforts to examine the structures that underpin economic and social value. The artist has tirelessly brought attention to social inequality, the negative effects of urban renewal, and issues around race, immigration, and privilege. Beyond his art practice, Gates is also the founder of the Rebuild Foundation, based in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood of Chicago, that aims to foster a socially conscientious, culturally driven urban revitalization of underserved neighborhoods.
The centerpiece of True Value is an installation of the same name that recreates a hardware store in Chicago bought by the artist from its owner, Ken, who was otherwise unable to sell it ahead of his retirement, and with no one else to pass it on to. Hooks, screws, washers, and other familiar products have been arranged over vast wooden counters, evoking images of a dying culture that once thrived on independent inner-city stores. The work, situated on the first floor of the Prada’s Podium space, carefully recreates the color-coding of products arranged in hardware stores, lending the setting the feeling of a color field installation. However, far from being an abstraction, such codes have a wholly practical value in the world of the hardware store’s employees and managers.
But the work is by no means an archival attempt to document a bygone era. Rather, by moving the hardware store from Chicago to Prada’s Milan site, Gates invites the people of Milan to reflect on the local gentrification that has radically changed the city in recent preparation for Milan’s 2015 Expo. A number of prominent art-activist spaces, including the Isola Art Center, Pepe Verde, and MACAO — who, for example, occupied an entire skyscraper for some days in 2012 as a protest against urban development — have contested the city’s various construction projects.
Against this backdrop Gates performs a difficult balancing act, using Prada’s lavish, newly renovated site as a platform for a critique of the status quo. The Fondazione Prada itself is radically changing the area of Milan in which it is situated. True Value brings a discussion about economic exchange and urbanization to the heart of an entity perhaps otherwise completely removed from such realities, despite its arguable complicity in Milan’s gentrification.
The generic hardware store (or, in Italian, ferramenta) is also itself arguably part of the unseen fabric of an entity like Prada (both the fashion house and the foundation itself). Beneath the worktop surfaces and sales racks in “True Value” are large, open areas housing some larger hardware items — a space that is generally obscured from view. In a public talk Gates gave in July, he said he sees such invisible realms existing everywhere and that his work serves as a metaphor for hidden societal realities.
In Prada’s Cisterna space, Gates has included a ceramic display, “Boli, a Portion of the Team Lives in Heaven” (2014), in which human figures surround a West African boli, or “bovine,” on a pedestal. The boli is a power object of worship used by the Bamana people and is generally made of wood or other natural encrusted materials. Gates sees such spiritual objects as similar to those found in a hardware store, where they are also channeled by what he refers to as everyday “shamans.” These people can range from storeowners to politicians, though all have a role in shaping life (whether materially or socially) in a way that either creates or destroys the conditions necessary to fostering community.
In an adjacent room the floor is made up of wooden slats taken from a closed school gymnasium that have been rearranged to evoke early 20th-century abstractions. Aesthetically, “Ground Rules” (2015) is somehow familiar in its high-art environment, while the rough feel of the wood when barefoot (as the viewer is allowed to walk on it) evokes memories of childhood. The work inspires us to think of the many other schools and sports facilities that have closed, and how they slowly but surely shifted the nature of communal life in urban centers. How many of the community spaces in which we used to play are now closed? And what are the hidden processes that lead to their closure?
Throughout True Value, Gates asks who is responsible for building and dismantling communities — a question he deftly raises within the clearly privileged environment of Fondazione Prada, a balancing act that brings the difficult issue of gentrification to the cultural elite without causing much discomfort.
Theaster Gates: True Value continues at the Fondazione Prada (Largo Isarco, 2, 20139 Milano, Italy) through September 25.