CHICAGO — Theaster Gates’s installation 13th Ballad at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) continues his investigation of art objects and social activism, which started in 2009 with the redevelopment of derelict houses in a South Chicago neighborhood, and which he took to a national stage at the 2010 Whitney Biennial, and then an international platform at Documenta 13 (in 2012) in Germany. Gates undoubtedly deserves the current recognition in his hometown, but the exhibition at the MCA is only partially successful as a showcase for his work.
13th Ballad is a reworking of his Documenta installation, for which Gates took objects from a building in Chicago’s South Side (both things from inside the building and pieces of the building itself) and placed them in a dilapidated building in Kassel, Germany, called the Huguenot House. At the preview of the MCA show, Gates spoke very eloquently about how the history of the Huguenot House appealed on a personal level to him, both as an artist and an African American. “The Huguenots were a branch of Protestants who were forced to leave France three hundred years ago, and many of them found refuge in Germany. Obviously, I know something about forced migrations, so I was interested in reenacting this experience by a migration of materials from Chicago to Kassel, and now back again from Kassel to Chicago.”
The MCA show consists of two areas. The high-ceilinged atrium on the museum’s main level is taken up by a row of pews that were removed from a church at the University of Chicago. The school’s reasons for doing so were ecumenical rather than nefarious — they wanted to provide space for people of non-Christian faiths to worship, too — but there is an evident connection to the religious history of the Huguenot House. The pews face a large double crucifix suspended from the ceiling of the atrium. The cross is made of a set of boxes filled with household objects such as dishes and other kitchenware, an inkjet printer, umbrellas, small gift boxes. Unfortunately, it’s a crass and overblown object with a tired meaning: religion swamped by materialism! And as it happens, the simple act of moving the pews into a big museum space doesn’t really create an “intellectual/ecumenical/spiritual experience” in the atrium, as the artist hoped. The real connections that he’s trying to make between three buildings and their separate histories are overwhelmed by this particular space.
Much more successful are the two galleries on the fourth floor, filled with repurposed objects and videos that document the Kassel installation. That piece was titled “12 Ballads for Huguenot House,” partly because Gates recorded a series of musical performances in the Chicago building, which were then screened and recreated in Kassel. Positioned around the screening room and in an adjacent gallery at MCA are sculpture-like assemblages of doors, floors, a bed frame, pieces of ceiling, bits of wall, a section of lath and plasterwork from a wall’s interior.
Is it enough just to take these things, rearrange them to a greater or lesser degree, and say that you’ve created an entirely new object? Some might say you need to do more, that there has to be a more extensive transformation, but I actually think these pieces, and the video performances, are the best part of the show. The objects work because they retain traces of their original associations (of religious persecution, racial and social deprivation), and they seem to be the result of a sincere interest in aesthetic qualities of structure and balance, as well as the simple tactile qualities of old wood and flaking paint. In one piece, Gates has restructured the physical detritus of an abandoned Chicago house to look like the long-handled cart, laden with possessions, that we know from wartime newsreels of fleeing refugees. It has an emotional power that seems blunted in other parts of the exhibition, perhaps because of the analytical focus of a museum setting. That said, despite the show’s shortcomings, it’s valuable for the chance to experience the thought processes of someone who’s asking fundamental questions about what art is and who it is for.
Theaster Gates: 13th Ballad continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago) through October 6.