“Theaster begins to sing. His deep, rich voice elongates almost every word, filled with its own singular meaning as he slowly lets the sentences build.”
Through the doorway of the ancient Temple Church, embellished by what looks like a ruff of reclaimed wood, I continue along a crude and wobbling path made of unrendered red brick and up to the internal doors of a triangular structure captivating in its strangeness.
I enter and sit cross-legged like a child in assembly. As the dark of the autumn evening sets in, visible through the repurposed windows which bridge wall and roof of the temporary structure, one can glimpse the original stone of the historic window arches.
The musician Nino Crudo is sat delicately bowing a long and languid saw accompanied by a often cracking backing track. Tunes from classic films such as An Affair to Remember and Cinema Paradiso tinkle along as the warbling soprano high notes emanating from the saw, slur and slide, reaching points of ethereal resonance.
In spite of Sanctums’ temporary nature, there is a notable robustness to the structure; visible clusters of heavy-duty bolts punctuate each beam of the reclaimed wood used in the epic roof. I think about the skill and craft put in to its construction and the group of unnamed individuals, who make such a project a reality. Major public art projects such as this often seem to speak to the same logic of a blockbuster film, with the directors name inextricably linked to the work as if he did it all alone.
However, there is a generosity at the core of projects such as this, which creates the conditions for others to inhabit the space and take ownership. As no line up has been released, the audience does not know what they will see on any given visit. For many visitors Sanctum will become about the particularities of their encounters which fuse together to shape their experience.
I set off through the unfamiliar streets of Bristol towards the Hall of St Georges where Theaster Gates performance lecture is due to take place as part of the opening celebrations of the Bristol and Bath Art Weekender. At this point I have no idea what to expect as little has been given away as to the nature of the performance. Regardless, I feel open to whatever’s in store, as I get the impression that a large part of how Theaster Gates has reached such favour in the art world is due to his capacity to captivate an audience and articulate the social and conceptual underpinning of his activity.
I arrive and the packed hall of St Georges is waiting nosily in anticipation as a quarter of an hour passes after being seated. There is a pleasurable abruptness to the speed people drop their conversation when someone finally emerges on stage. An introduction is made by Director of Situations, Claire Doherty, in which she briefly frames the project and makes the link between the two sites, Temple Church and St Georges, originally both places of worship, now repurposed and currently functioning to put soul into the city.
Theaster Gates enters in a modest black kaftan, to great applause. Then, after a slight static moment, he begins to sing. Deep, rich voice elongates almost every word, filled with its own singular meaning as he slowly lets the sentences build. I write the words down as they come, trying not to miss the meaning I anticipate. The first combinations emerge on my page, ‘I am a child of God although I move so slow. I am going to wait until the spirit comes, move with God’s command.’
The solo voice, in it’s soulful gospel form, creates such intensity as words ring around and fill the whole room. He goes on to sing a number of hymns in such a way, continuing to experiment, extending the notes and pushing his body further into song. The words often disappear with deliberate inarticulacy. He has so much to say, so much to express, but in some way the words are not important.
I hear a number of people walk out in between each hymn, and I imagine this is due to the performance not being quite what they expected. It’s fair to say that the largely white, secular audience probably felt somewhat uncomfortable in the confrontation with a social diction that doesn’t include them. I feel a provocative tension between the established art community’s desire to bring ‘outsiders’ into their, often touted, inclusive space.
Would they, and I to some extent, have been happier if we are witnessing him in the flesh, repeating concise articulations about community projects which we had probably already read or watched online? Instead, we hear him express something seemingly personal, visceral and only really audible in its liveness. Something, which has that direct relationship to Sanctum , the experience of listening and hearing something you might not have heard before.
For me, his performative assemblage speaks to a history of articulating the African American experience through improvised jazz and religious gospel. He is harnessing the strength that is possible in religious language and allowing us to hear it.
The intense dynamic in the room is broken when, to my surprise, singular audience members take up his invitation to themselves sing, repeating his last lines.‘ I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free. For his eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.’ The crowd breaks into laughter and applause and Gates settles himself on the tall chair to follow with the little bits of explanation that many so clearly craved.
“Sanctum is not about religion, it’s about Bristol’s capacity to be amazing. When the collective voice decides to become a collective voice.” He echoe’s my previous thoughts about Sanctum as a platform as he refers to it as am “amplifier” of the sounds of Bristol, talking about these catalysing projects as being “bigger than art”.
He goes on to acknowledges the absurdity of his starring role saying ‘I’m just the dude who put his name on the thing, and that’s just a weird part of the art world, It should just say Sanctum Bristol.” And when questioned about his decision to sing this evening he says “These hymns, these sounds, these words, are the indoctrination that made me” and that “the more opportunity I have, the more it is necessary to come back to these hymns.”
When I return to Temple Church and to Sanctum, there are a lot of questions in my mind but a simultaneous desire to let them linger. The orange under lighting makes the wooden structure glow in its intimacy. Twenty-five or so, largely strangers, huddle together to listen attentively to the meditative sounds emanating from the two hang drums being sensitively struck. At times, the tranquillity of the space is a humorous contrast to the Halloween revellers intermittently audible outside.
For me this project has obvious parallels with the affectionately named Bombed Out Church in the centre of Liverpool, my home city. For the last seven years it’s been under the custodianship of local community group who truly brought it back into the public consciousness and turned it into a site for a spectrum of activity, including music, poetry, community campaigns and much more. Its open roof lets sound emanate throughout the city and it’s hard not to be conscious of its presence.
In recent years the Bombed Out Church (otherwise known as St Luke’s) has had a challenge on its hands to prevent it its sale as a prime real estate for luxury flats, and have experimented with structures to bring it into community ownership. Sanctum in some ways shows what’s possible when institutions are in support and finances are made available. However I certainly have questions as to whether Sanctum lacks the ongoing, developing nature of some of Gates’ other projects. What seems to be so successful about Dorchester Projects and other sites in Chicago is the time given for them to grow.
How will Sanctum truly impact of the people of Bristol? What might grow from it is hard to know. 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.
A Report by Grace Harrison on Theaster Gates’ Performance Lecture at St Georges Bristol, Saturday 31st October 2015.
This event formed part of the Art Weekender Bristol & Bath