Theaster Gates, ‘My Labor is My Protest’
Review by Tom Snow
The first thing to note on approach of the White Cube in Bermondsey is a 1969 yellow Hahn Fire truck ‘My Labor is My Protest’ (2012), covered with patches of tar, stationed in the entrance yard. The vehicle is the first in a number of instances in which Chicago-based artist, curator, musician and urban activist Theaster Gates addresses recent American and Civil Rights histories through the creation of art objects and installations, for his first exhibition with the London gallery. Running the length of the entrance hall inside the White Cube is a decommissioned fire hose. Tucked neatly between the floor and exterior walls of the South Galleries, breaking at each respective entrance, the viewer is led sequentially through the exhibition courtesy of this and a number of other allegorised forms. Also on show is a short film portraying the making of the fire truck outside, in which the viewer can watch Gates perform with his musical outfit, The Black Monks of Mississippi.
The first room hosts an impressively large archive of race-related literature, stacked floor to ceiling across the length of the west wall. Borrowed from the Johnson Publishing Company in Chicago, publishers of Ebony magazine, visitors are invited to use the resource throughout the duration of the show. Mounted on the walls, with a significant nod to Robert Rauschenberg, are the first examples of Gates’ combine-type works. Reclaimed fire department hoses are stacked horizontally and contained in wooden frames. These works evoke an established theme in this artist’s practice. Many of Gates’ projects have involved collaboration with various individuals, groups and communities in the salvation of buildings and materials, with the fully realised intentions of re-purposing resources for the benefit of local communities in Chicago, St. Louis and Omaha. Objects such as the ones featured in this exhibition are subsequently sold in order to raise funds in support of these on-going initiatives. On the occasion of this year’s dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany, Gates was commissioned to renovate and perform in the derelict Huguenot House, the basis of which will inform his solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago next year.
Amongst the repeated use of salvaged materials, the artworks seem to reference other artistic antecedents or visual precedents. For instance, tar covered wooden panels such as ‘Roofing Exercise 1’ (2012) recall Barnett Newman or Frank Stella paintings. Elsewhere ‘Gees Red’ (2012) vertically aligns more decommissioned fire hoses across a surface reaching 150 by 1069 cm on the wall, imagining a kind of monumental non-painting made by Gordon Matta-Clark.
Probably the most striking aspect of the exhibition is the work ‘Raising Goliath’ 2012 on display in the South Gallery II, room II. This work involves another fire truck, a red 1967 Ford 850, suspended from the ceiling with thick cables and counterbalanced by a huge container filled with journals and magazines, again including Ebony. In the corner sits a lonesome tar bucket and mop. Gates is obviously interested in forms of institutional critique. Here, the viewer might consider an interrogation towards the materials and legacies of contemporary art from both a commercial and aesthetic viewpoint. But it is also important to bear in mind the symbolic registers of the objects. Fire hoses might, for example, recall the infamous Birmingham Campaign of 1963 - 64, which saw the city’s fire hoses turned on local non-violent demonstrators, including children, during demonstrations for African-American Civil Rights. Similarly, the traditional use of tar is to preserve vulnerable materials against rot and decomposition, whilst production and trade of the substance contributed significantly to the economy of Colonial America. Gates can be understood not only as an artist who is concerned with historicism, but also as a figure interested in reimagining and experimenting with the possibilities of his multifaceted practices, with the intent of real social change.