The Archive Is a Bell
“Theaster Gates: Young Lords and Their Traces” (on view through February 5, 2023), curated by Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari, is monumental in two ways. The number of objects, paintings, drawings, sculptures, and videos arrayed over three floors approaches 100. One piece alone consists of the 4,500-volume library of the late scholar of Soviet Modernism, Robert Bird. Like the poet bell hooks, the curator Okwui Enwezor, and Gates’s father, Bird serves as a tutelary spirit here, a friend, now gone, who inspired, instructed, and guided the artist in various ways. In this register of loss and memory, the show also expresses an immense, inward sense of scale, an indwelling of personal and spiritual longing that inhabits every object and the exhibition as a whole, offering a summa of Gates’s journey to date.
As I meandered through the arrangement of his fired-clay vessels (Gates began his artistic life as a ceramicist), studied the totem-like objects of memorial significance to the artist, sat to watch and listen to videos of preacherly singing and Gates pacing in snowy landscapes or working at a potter’s wheel, or stood in front of panel paintings in metal and tar and Minimalist wood wall works evoking early Frank Stella paintings (one of which, Delta, from 1958, is on view), a string of words came to mind: funerary, totemic, mnemonic, honorific, archival, elegiac, choral, risen. This incantatory string invoked in a cumulative way the exhibition’s aura of exuded presences, spiritually emergent and haunting the present—an archaeology of remembrance floating, invisible but felt, its traces in the air.
Gates, who has long invested his prodigious creative energy in the reanimation of stray and disused objects, includes a salvaged church bell, humbly housed in an almost chapel-like shed of metal siding and wood, with a cross built into its back wall. As Dieter Roelstraete, citing the writer Elif Batuman, notes in the catalogue, church bells in the Russian Orthodox tradition (and resonantly so in other cultures as well) are aural “icons of the voice of God” that serve to call out, to announce the communion of community. At least in one sense, then, the second floor of Gates’s show, with its gathering of clay vessels, represents a commons of creativity that celebrates making as essential to the very core of our communal being. In this choral aspect, making is understood as a deep well of harmonized, collective emotion and care. These beliefs, so crucial to Gates’s vital sense of purpose as a Black artist living with the history of this country, further present making as an act of social and political resistance, a communal voicing of what it is to be in communion with and beyond the self—a within that in its spiraling, centrifugal constellation is a with-others that seeks its unburdening, its attention to and renouncement of the legacy of chattel.
Gates’s highly individual clay forms—some spiked and tall, some squat and shiny, bulbous, cylindrical, or drawn upward as narrow tubes—are an assembly of voices, each with its own sensual concentration of material density and un-mattered spirit. The curatorial enterprise of planning their spatial arrangement rhymes with what Stefano Harvey and Fred Moten describe in their book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study as emancipatory acts of social production: “Planning is self-sufficiency at the social level, and it reproduces in its experiment not just what it needs, life, but what it wants, life in difference.”
These works are proclamations of an inherited culture of difference from the ruins of the historical margin. They are sculptural acts of social production that, in the literal rendering of the etymological meaning of the word “inspire,” breathe the sacredness of life into inchoate lumps of clay—inspiration as the music of liberatory breath, of lungs that generate the creative shape of being, of being as the creative formation of shapes entering and lighting the world differently, with an unbound rhythm of their own. That rhythm, that beat surging between these fired-clay vessels, has a percussive energy as you walk among them, a punctuation of space and form, pitchy earthen colors and highlights of reflective glazes alternating in this assembled network of difference, of a deep, cultural, embodied presence there before you.
When I went to the press opening and met the artist for the first time, I impulsively touched his arm. I don’t say this out of some hagiographic intention—Theaster Gates as saintly being—but out of the sense that his works impart a charismatic bodily presence, a thickness of coiled energy that they hold. Afterward, when I’d read more about the exhibition’s dedication to people who had been in his life, that density of energy made sense in the particular way that the intention of elegies has to snare the haunting trace of those now gone and capture it in a thing, which is a mysterious investment of an afterlife that we project onto objects as totems of loss and spirit and desire. It is often the case that we worry that this after-sense, this living echo is only illusory, but not so, it would seem, for Gates.
All that he makes and gathers form, for him, a breathing archive, and archival collection is at the center of this exhibition, with the first floor filled by Bird’s library and a gallery of vitrines housing mementos of personal significance: sneakers designed by Virgil Abloh and some of his jewelry; a dinner bell gifted by hooks; a paint-encrusted boot belonging to the recently deceased painter Sam Gilliam, so bright with splattered colors it has the wattage of an electric bulb; a hymnal; and pinback buttons issued by the Young Lords, the New York- and Chicago-based Puerto Rican political activists of the 1960s and ’70s recognized in the show’s title. This is Gates’s supreme impulse—archiving is also at the luminous core of his primary work in Chicago. For more than a dozen years, his Rebuild Foundation has bought a gamut of abandoned buildings and converted them into community meeting places, collection sites for publications and slide libraries, gallery and performance and study spaces, workshops for cottage industries, and artist studios.
But then, this entire exhibition, true to its memorial ambitions, acts as an archive, an archive as a bell voicing the spirit of past intelligences of activist will. All forms witnessed here are sculptural vessels that hold their reserves of expansive and applauding will, expatiating hospitality and grace at the same time that they signal the potent weight of objects whose maker’s people were once regarded, and not too long ago, as objects themselves, as things to be bought and sold. And so, I think of this exhibition and of Gates’s broadest, most generative impulse this way: the archive is a bell because music is a sequence of notations that signals a private order in the mind made public, a storage apparatus and emotive index intended to consecrate a commons for listening and to inscribe and project into the air that collection of notes, of signs and traces, of created things and their histories, for as long as listening and witnessing last.