Notions of Rebirth and Reinvigoration: Finnian Schlieker Blythe reports from Theaster Gates’ Performance Lecture

“In the rare instance in which he spoke to the captivated audience, his words revealed the thinking of a man whose work revolves on notions of rebirth and reinvigoration”.

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Photo: Max McClure

On a typically crisp and autumnal Bristol evening I make my way across Clifton and find myself flanked on either side by couples huddled together, their hushed and excited voices trailed by clouds of breath. It is only when I turn down Great George Street and climb the steps of the magnificent church that I realise that these are fellow pilgrims, journeying from distant places to see Theaster Gates’ equivocally named ‘performance lecture’.

Having perhaps somewhat naively arrived with pad and paper at the ready, expecting something more akin to the lectures I attend weekly as a student, I soon realised my mistake when Theaster, fittingly dressed in a plain grey tunic, took to the stage and with eyes screwed tightly shut opened with a rendition of the hymn ‘I am a child of God’. What followed was a swiftly assembled compilation of every hymn that Theaster knew, but in the rare instance in which he spoke to the captivated audience his words revealed the thinking of a man whose work revolves on notions of rebirth and reinvigoration. Almost as though he was remarking the fact to himself he murmured, “interesting to be in a church that doesn’t do any church music”, before adjusting his microphone and launching himself into the next hymn. Of course St. George’s faced redundancy after the death of its last incumbent, Canon Percy Gay in 1976, and its revival relied on the enthusiasm of local music lovers who converted the church into the concert venue it is today. For Theaster to reanimate the identity of the space through hymn is somewhat representative of what he stands for as an artist; someone who is able to connect place with meaning on a profound and emotional level whilst simultaneously providing a medium and platform through which ordinary people are able to do the same.

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Interior of St Georges, Bristol

While Theaster’s performance was as moving as it was humorous and playful, the most memorable moment came midway through. After singing the first line of a hymn, he asked the audience whether anyone else knew it. Sure enough several hands crept up and with an impeccable voice and enviable confidence one woman sang the next few lines. The smile that spread across Theaster’s face was shared by the many hundreds in the room, and like a puppet master he probed the audience for any more forthcoming individuals. Sure enough, more hands sprung up and people craned their necks to identify the voices that rang out from the dim corners of the church. Then, from the upper balcony came the first line of Amazing Grace, and in a moment of astonishing spontaneity and collective unison the audience became a congregation, the individual became the collective and the entire church broke into a single voice. It all seemed to make sense; Theaster, the catalyst of it all, the passive conductor, sat motionless in the middle of the stage, his smile broader than ever, as he immersed himself in the sound he had initiated, a small beginning that had induced a feeling of unity and collective action.

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Photo: Max McClure

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Photo: Max McClure

This was something that Theaster feels is represented by Sanctum, his twenty-four day twenty-four hour community performance project at Temple Church and his first public commission in the UK. Born in Chicago 1973, Theaster is an artist who understands the importance of community, especially given the extent of urban blight and dilapidation that has crippled his own neighbourhood in Chicago in recent decades. A man of many talents, Theaster’s skill and enthusiasm spans pottery and music as well as urban planning and art, his work is therefore multifaceted and embodies his interests in a way that is fluid and merges his interests into one.

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Faith Bekoe performs inside Sanctum. Photo: Max McClure

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Sanctum audience. Photo: Max McClure

In a brief window for questions, Theaster claimed Sanctum to be much bigger than art, much bigger than him the individual. In his eyes Sanctum is a platform he has given to Bristol, for Bristol, its success however, is entirely dependent on the city’s participation. At this moment I am reminded of something Theaster said during a TED talk earlier this year, in which he discussed the notion of a ‘cultural amplifier’ in the context of his urban renewal project in south-side Chicago. Sanctum is in this sense merely an amplifier of a city’s collective expression, a means of cultivating Bristol’s capacity for sound. But more than that it is a form of self-administered therapy, an attempt to reach something innately positive that remains hidden in the dark, something that is dormant but within us all.

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Dorchester Projects, Archive House (Past and Present). Photo: Sara Pooley

It is only through an experience of the collective, with Theaster acting as mediator, that it is brought to the surface and enjoyed. Sanctum represents the regenerative power of community; it is a power that fuels Theaster’s work in all of his urban renewal projects and one that, in the context of Sanctum, resides in the sounds of Bristol and an appreciation of a common voice. The performance demonstrated Theaster’s analogous claim that “we are all potters”, we all have the capacity to express our individual agency in order to create something from nothing. Sanctum is the realisation of this idea. Formed from ramshackle domestic remains, the structure takes on the appearance of a stunning oversized tree house, it is a space that has become activated by our choice to participate in it. In doing so we have unearthed the city’s cultural identity for us all to savour. As Theaster said himself, “if platforms are created, powerful things happen”.

A Report by Finnian Schlieker Blythe on Theaster Gates’ Performance Lecture at St Georges Bristol, Saturday 31st October 2015.

This event formed part of the Art Weekender Bristol & Bath

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