Theaster Gates again – reflecting upon context-led works and deep impact on places

Theaster Gates – Sanctum, Bristol, commissioned by Situations.

Theaster Gates is an excellent artist. My previous blogpost looked at the way audiences responded to his performance lecture – this one also reflects upon the audience experience,  but also how projects engage communities in the process of building such an iconic work.

Architecturally, the work is brilliant. The pavilion has been constructed from green wood, some of it recycled, within the framework of the an ancient listed building-come-ruin of Temple Church. It is simple, yet complex – raw – with some beautiful detailed, delicate flourishes. Marks on reclaimed timber, patterned pieces of upcycled glass, and the way the unremovable stones in he space had seating made around them with pallet-like structures, providing protection for the historical and seating for the living, have been sensitively unaltered. The relationship between the past and the present provides a firm platform for encounters with culture in all its guises.

Having booked in advance, and paid for the tickets, rather than run the risk of not getting in, (it’s an hours drive away and was part of a larger social gathering that day), we were paying up front for a seat at an unknown performance/event. This requires trust and belief (see the last blog about Theaster for more on that). This lucky-dip ticket thing is something Banksy also had at Dismaland. It’s fine if you live nearby, but not if you are travelling. Dismaland was a risk, but at least even if you didn’t see a special performance or event, you saw the same exhibition as everyone else. We were unlucky with the performer we saw, but with no choice when booking it is a lottery. Of course if Antony and the Johnsons, or Bjork, had been there, I wouldn’t be discussing the system!

I also heard some urban myths that may or may not be true. The myth contained things like “the artist has never been to Bristol”, “the artist just put his name on it but was not involved at all”. For a work that’s whole focus is building community and embracing the creativity of everyone in the city, this was an uncomfortable thing to hear. I asked a few more questions about this and the people voicing those things explained they simply didn’t know much about his work. It seems they had heard this from people who had worked on the build and had jumped to these conclusions. Gossip can be troublesome. I once worked with the Territorial Army on a project, when the squad trainer said ‘its not the soldiers job to know what or why they are doing something, they must do as they are told’, which I could not challenge. But this is a socially engaged project. We must remember that contractors and volunteers are often our first audience and our primary advocates.

I held back on posting this text, because it might sound overly critical, which is rarely constructive. When I read an excellent article by Grace Harrison I decided I would publish – because evidently I am not alone in questioning some of the issues arising from Sanctum.

“A pitfall to such projects relying on international art stars is that they simply can’t be on every project at once. I acknowledge that there often is a deliberate use of the ‘big name’ in order to qualify backing for a project of this scale. But I wonder if there is an alternative methodology that could create the conditions for truly transformative forms of production and relationships to art in our society.” Grace Harrison

I share those reservations. The drivers for the Chicago project were very different. The Biennale Culture takes these embedded project concepts into another, arms-length,context. Transformative forms of production have to run deep to have impact, which demands slow-time and long-time.

When I wrote about Dismaland I riased issues of impact on place, whether or not the site will be used for art in the future etc. I have the same questions about this. I will go again next time I’m in Bristol – because I respect Theaster Gates. He’s very special.

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