Theaster Gates is an artist living and working in Chicago. Labeling him an artist certainly does not capture who he is and what he does, though. He is often referred to as an activist, community organizer, and performer, among other things. When asked about his art practice and all the labels attached to him, he responds by saying he is a problem solver. His interests are broad, and his solutions lead him into a variety of genres and material. Lately, he has been giving public lectures and presentations. Many times, his work is presented in exhibitions.
Gates’s work often takes place in the public arena with public gatherings or lectures. When asked what draws him to this method of engagement, Gates’s response is that, “there is a type of power in the public”—either in the ability to voice one’s opinion and know that it is being heard, or through the social aspect. As he explains, “I accept that the byproduct of me getting people together is that people might call it art or call it an activist moment, and that’s just fine. The part I’m trying to concentrate on is this: if I have a set of relationships that are broad and wide, how can I bring those relationships into conversation with each other when necessary or when I’m curious?”
To that end, Gates’s latest project confronts a variety of issues through gathering people around a meal. Gates and I spoke on October 28, 2009 by phone to discuss this developing project. His upcoming projects include Theaster Gates: Resurrecting Dave the Potter at the Milwaukee Art Museum (April 15-August 1, 2010) and an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.
Kelly Huang: Food has been a reoccurring subject in your work. Back in the spring, we spoke about a soul food project that you will be hosting on the South Side of Chicago in the near future. You describe how food is an important part of every culture—how it shapes people’s memories of place, speaks to history, and has the power to bring people together. Could you tell me more about the project you are working on and how you first conceptualized it?
Theaster Gates: I was approached by Stephanie Smith (Curator of Contemporary Art, Smart Museum), who was thinking about a project called Feast: Radical Hospitality and Contemporary Art. Feast was to be an attempt at surveying the history of food practices in contemporary art. She asked me pretty simply, “What would you want to do?” And I said, I am feeling pretty good about doing things outside of museums and I would like to try and relocate a food space outside of your museum, and concentrate on soul food, because it has such a rich history on the South Side. I decided to acquire a building on my block and over the next one and a half years, slowly build out that space into a sort of soul food temple, where—in the spirit of critical discourse on art practices and social practices—one could eat really good food.
But, it’s not just about food to the extent that food is a signifier of certain cultural behaviors, rituals. Food acts as a material I can play with to tease out certain rituals inherent in black people, Koreans, Chinese, white people, middle Americans. I think that the project has always been my labor and I will benefit from the fact that there are museums and other types of museums that are interested in what you call the “gastro-arts.”