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VIDEO: Nasher Prize Winner Theaster Gates – What Does He Do, Anyway?

by Jerome Weeks 16 Mar 2018 6:43 PM

He’s picking up the big award, of course, but there’ll be a symposium on his artworks, which range from traditional clay figures to re-purposing entire buildings for his Chicago community. So maybe the question should be, ‘What is sculpture?’


Asking ‘Who is Theaster Gates?’  — as the video does, above — actually poses an interesting question because his artworks – like all of the previous Nasher Prize winners – push at the boundaries of what constitutes ‘sculpture.’ The Nasher’s new video, made by Quin Mathews, shows some of Gates’ characteristic, wide-ranging artistry, using everything from reclaimed wood, roofing tar, magazines, whole re-purposed buildings – even singing performances.

As Christopher Blay wrote for Art & Seek in 2008 when the Chicago artist spoke at SMU, “Gates’ work, heavily invested in community and social engagement, responds, I think, to the cadre of institutional critique that reduces art practice to a first world luxury.”

Personally, what I find so compelling about much of Gates’ work is that he is truly, deeply, socially engaged, re-shaping entire neighborhoods – and simultaneously, his works are as visually fascinating as any first-world luxury-lover might want. During his lecture, Blay reports, Gates emptied his backpack on stage, re-arranged the furniture, blocked an auditorium entrance with chairs – and then began to sing, with no one playing the onstage piano.

The man knows how to make an art lecture a memorable piece of performance art. And yes – considering the well-intentioned but deadening nature of most TEDTalks – that’s an achievement.


Hand axe, Ashmolean Museum

Speaking of pushing boundaries, ‘Dallas Morning News’ visual art critic Rick Brettell recently decided the Nasher Sculpture Center’s current show of paleolithic stone axe heads (‘First Sculpture’) represents the museum seriously stepping outside what constitutes art. Instead, the show moves into tool-making and weapon-making, however ancient and impressive those might be. ‘First Sculpture’ simply isn’t about sculpture; it’s about utensils.

OK, but this would seem to mean we can shut down (or at least, re-name) the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Arms and Armor Department. Not to mention the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Samurai Collection. Swords, helmets, shields, spears, entire suits of armor: They are weapons, not art.

Certainly, the argument can be made that when it comes to weaponry, creating an almost abstract, steel-and-copper-alloy helmet for an Italian knight in the 15th century or a stunning, iron-and-leather sujibachi kabuto (ridged helmet) for a 16th-century samurai – these require so much more sophistication in design and military technology, so much more considered engineering and creativity, than choosing and knapping some small flint stones. You’re just turning rocks into multi-purpose tools. These axe-knives-spearheads are utility-belt stuff. They could be employed for hunting, weaponry or food preparation.

Who knows, maybe even shaving.

On the other hand – the hand holding the rock – I suspect that either the Japanese or Italian armorer probably lacked the knowledge and skill to create such effective – not to mention handsomely shaped – stone axes like the ones on display at the Nasher. To his credit, Brettell presents the counter-arguments to his own skepticism over what constitutes sculpture and what constitutes an appealing stone arrowhead – like the ones he used to pick up in Wyoming as a lad.  He calls ‘First Sculpture’ a beautiful show, and he praises these particular rocks for their ‘haptic’ (tactile) power over their ‘optic’ (visual) power.

But such a distinction between eye and hand is precisely a recent and rather arbitrary, even finicky one. It’s akin to the modern prohibition not to touch the art works in a museum. Providing surfaces to be touched is not the sculptures’ and paintings’ particular ‘function.’ We stand back and appreciate them solely with our eyes, although the best visual art works often make us intuit their ‘feel’ with great power. It’s often what we mean when looking at a painting or a sculpture and call it ‘sensual’ – without ever having ‘felt’ it.

Of course, if we all stroked the surface of, say, Gerald Murphy’s ‘exploded’ oil painting of a watch at the DMA, it soon wouldn’t have much oil paint left, let alone any decent surface worthy of ‘intuiting.’ But as much as that ‘don’t touch’ restriction represents the noble, archival purpose of a museum – the need to preserve artworks for future appreciation – it reflects preciousness. Uniqueness. Protecting market value. Keep your grubby fingerprints off the good stuff, Jack.

Is such preciousness, such uniqueness another quality of an object that stone-age people could appreciate? It seems so – they apparently carefully selected these stones, as Brettell points out. And having worked on one, the stone would represent ‘time value’ to its creator.


Efu no tachi (sword), early Edo period (1660-1670). The Anne And Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum.

Brettell’s concern for ranking these rocks not for their artistry but on how ‘useful’ they are recalls Oscar Wilde’s famous quip about art being essentially useless. Wilde, for his part, was mocking the Victorians’ earnest drive for social utility and purposefulness. Everything needs to justify its own cost of creation: houses, carriages, water pump . Of what use, then, were Wilde’s own public wit and fabulous posturing? None whatsoever – except to delight (and sometime to provoke thought). They were some of Wilde’s most characteristic (self) creations.

And if ‘utility” is our primary guide to divide works as either (useless) art or (functional) ‘non-art,’ there’s always, as I’m sure Brettell knows, the DMA’s remarkable collection of silverware, porcelain dishes and furniture. Out they go.

All of which is to ask, ‘Who IS Theaster Gates?’ And how are his boundary-expanding and Nasher Prize-winning artworks substantially different from those sharpened stones? Of what use are they? Some of Gates’ works have an immediately obvious purpose – enriching his community – some are not so immediate (giant tar baby heads?). Since the Nasher Prize’s inception, it seems the judges have aimed at precisely pushing those kinds of boundaries – but in a much more contemporary, even future-oriented fashion. Looking back at stone-age humans who had no notion of art as a distinct kind of item, a function unique to some stones and not others, a purpose apart from combat or cuisine – this is what Brettell seems to balk at.

It’s a credible point. A number of contemporary critics have argued that the entire Western notion of ‘art’ was foreign to African cultures, for instance. Africans considered all their masks and jewelry and shields and totems as everyday items, even if they had spiritual or ceremonial purposes. The idea of hanging them on the wall to look at and never use again just didn’t exist. So there goes the DMA’s impressive ‘Arts of Africa’ collection as well.

Yet at the Nasher, those stone axe heads, Brettell admits, do make the viewer want to heft them. You instinctively want to feel their balance, how well they fit your hand. I suspect paleolithic peoples felt the same – otherwise, they would have chosen different stones, shaped them differently.

For my part, I certainly would love to heft the Barbier-Mueller’s efu no tachi (a 17th-century sword) – even if, as the great Japanese philosopher Miyamoto Musashi once declared, “You shouldn’t have a fondness for any particular weapon.”

But then, Musashi was also a samurai, even arguably one of the greatest swordsmen in history. At any moment, he had to be able to turn almost anything into a deadly weapon, discard it if necessary and grab something else.

In contrast, preferring an individual sword or stone axe over another because of its looks, wanting to hold it, linger over it and appreciate it for its particular feel, the thinking and the craftsmanship it took to create this sharpened egg – that is a kind of pleasure. So is marveling at this perfectly curved katana blade or these wooden pews and book shelves that Gates has re-purposed – these are not martial or utilitarian values.

All of these pleasures may be intuited, unconscious. They may be instructive. They may not even be even fully articulated or understood. But they’re still artistic judgments.

There’s more on Genzken and all the Nasher Laureates, in the Nasher Prize section of our site.