Interview: Artist Theaster Gates Discusses His New MCA Exhibit

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Credit: Nathan Keay/MCA Chicago

As one of Chicago’s brightest stars in the international art community, Theaster Gates’ current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art opened last weekend to great anticipation. 13th Ballad is an extension of 12 Ballads for the Huguenot House, Gates’ work which was co-produced by the MCA last year for dOCUMENTA (13), an international art exhibition in Kassel, Germany.

13th Ballad examines the melding of two abandoned buildings and the accumulative effects of migration. Gates purchased the first building on Chicago’s Dorchester Avenue in 2009 as part of a continuing effort to rejuvenate his South Side neighborhood. Much of the Dorchester building was dismantled and its raw materials were used to reconstruct the historic Huguenot House in Kassel for dOCUMENTA (13) by a team from Chicago and Germany who worked and lived in the space. At a media preview prior to the exhibition’s opening, Gates described his curiosity regarding similar negative energies surrounding the former crack house in Chicago and dilapidated historic relic in Germany. “I wanted to put these two buildings in conversation with each other to see what could arise.”

For his largest solo exhibition to date, Gates imbues two spaces at the MCA with objects and song that serve as a dialogue between the projects. In the Marjorie Blum Kovler Atrium, a large sculpture of a double-cross contains everyday items left behind at the Huguenot House. Hanging prominently above the public gathering space, the installation inspires reverence for labor at the house and its seemingly mundane instruments and recalls the religious persecution of the Huguenots. The sculpture is joined by rows of church pews which had been recently removed from the University of Chicago’s Bond Chapel to offer space for Muslim students to worship.

The installation continues in the MCA’s fourth floor Turner Family Gallery featuring aesthetic and functional objects from the houses as well as preparatory drawings highlighted by video footage from the Dorchester and Kassel projects. Gates and his collaborators, the Black Monks of Mississippi ensemble, recorded a series of musical performances prior to the dismantling of the Dorchester space as well as at the Huguenot House. This combination of black spiritual music and Eastern chanting resounds through the gallery. Building upon these prior performances, a series of three collaborative performances entitled The Accumulative Affects of Migration 1-3 will be held in the atrium installation. These original compositions serve to explore the migration narrative between African Americans who settled on the South Side during the Great Migration and the forced relocation of the Huguenots from France.

Prior to the opening of 13th Ballad, which runs from May 18 – October 6, Theaster Gates spoke with Chicagoist about the restoration experience of 12 Ballads for the Huguenot House and the continued journey of these objects through 13th Ballad.

Read the full interview on Chicagoist.

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