“My Labor Is My Protest”

Doug Burton, OCA sculpture tutor reports…..
On approach to the vast new White Cube space from Bermondsey Street, I was confronted by a bright yellow fire truck, reminiscent in character of the American fire trucks I had so fondly seen in Films and TV shows of the 1960’s. It also reminded me of Charles Ray’s replica of a toy fire truck that used to stand at the front of house to the Saatchi Gallery in St John’s Wood in the 90’s. My relationship to such an iconic object of American values and the commitment of service to others in times of peril had set the tone for the show and something I’m sure I will return to. As I move to enter the Gallery I see three daubs of black mattery tar on the external surface of the fire truck that add to my curiosity as to the subversion that is taking place here!

The first space that I entered was South Gallery housing the start of an exhibition by Theaster Gates. The longest wall of the space is filled to its extremities by a bookcase with two long ladders leading up the shelves to the library of books. I leaf through some of the books titled “Black Mathematicians and their Works”, and “Black Folklore and Humour”, Theaster Gates has borrowed the books from the Johnson Publishing Company creating a surveyable history of black American culture. On the two opposite walls adjacent to the bookcase are a make-up area with bottles of skin colouring complete with chairs ready to accommodate a willing participant. In the centre of the wall is a picture of a woman from Ebony Magazine, her pleasant vacant gaze reaches out to the opposite wall. I wonder down the centre of the gallery to find her gaze meeting a dusty aluminium frame holding a crumpled image of Martin Luther King, his eyes are folded and compressed, the title of the work is “A Maimed King”!

Moving out into the corridor I can hear some male voices singing the “Blues”, their echoing voices draw me towards a flat screen TV showing the fire truck from outside the building now indoors with the musicians. As I watch the film I see Theaster Gates standing near his father, he is working a hot barrel of tar with a mop and proceeds to mark the fire truck with the mattery black daubs that I noticed on the fire truck outside. The whole film appears to be part of a performance prior to the show opening, almost a ritual or right of passage, marking a transition from Gate’s archaeological excavations in Chicago to the classification of the works in a Major Art Gallery. The performance is also the marker for the title of his show, as I read about his father having tarred roofs for a living as a form of protest during the 1968 Chicago Riots.

In South Gallery II room I there are a number of wall based works that commodify the found fire hoses into framed works and sculptures. They remind me instantly of American Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism of the late 1960’s, The fire hoses in the work “Gees American” also reminds me of a Jasper Johns painting of the American Flag somehow rippling with faded patriotism. The works are monumental and seductive and combine the history of modern American art with the archaeology of the area he is immersed in. The next room that partners this is the show-stopper, that takes the monumental to its sublime motif. In “Raising Goliath” another fire truck is suspended from the ceiling of the gallery by a number of theatrical pulleys, they run along the ceiling and down the wall to a counterbalance of another bookshelf, this time stacked with Volumes of Negro Digest, Blackworld and Ebony Magazine. The installation has a slapstick comedy about it, but I’m intrigued by the bookshelf; as I start to move further away from it a colour field forms – revealing what looks like a landscape with a suburban house in the middle of it. Layers of visual information are constantly revealing themselves to me.

For me the climax of the show is a short film being shown in the auditorium titled “The Secret Of Selling To The Negro”, starring Robert Trout, suddenly I’m transported back to the 1960’s. It is a marketing and advertising tool that would have been sent out to businesses and shop owners to explain to white proprietors how to capture the growing “Negro Market”! There is a weird sense of the American Dream within the film, as having captured the Black American in this rose-tinted version of reality, but I know this idealised version of America where the “Negro” is meant to represent a “$15bn” expanding middle-class market doesn’t relate to the version of history that I’m aware of or see in the deprived areas of America that Theaster Gates currently works in. The show has left me with a wide eyed intensity and excitement having seen the works of an artist that is able to deal with a powerful, almost overwhelming subject matter and translate it into a multi-layered visual language, with a stratification of history at its core.

Images: Theaster Gates, My Labor is my protest, 2012, 1969 Hahn fire truck, tar and Video,
Dimensions variable, © Theaster Gates, Photo: Ben Westoby, Courtesy White Cube
Theaster Gates, Johnson Editorial Library, 2012, 1969 Books Wood and Metal, Dimensions
variable, © The Artist, Photo: Ben Westoby, Courtesy Johnson Publishing Company, LLC. All
Rights Reserved.
Theaster Gates, ‘My Labor is my protest’, South Galleries and 9x9x9, White Cube Bermondsey
© Theaster Gates, Photo: Ben Westoby, Courtesy White Cube

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