The Martin Luther King Day of Service at the Fabric Workshop and Museum featured a talk by uber-international hot-ticket-artist Theaster Gates (pronounced with “aster” at the end). Gates, whose work includes making utopian spaces in cities, where people can meet and work, also does performance, clay and so much more. He is a guy who is hoping his art can rebuild how the world works, one brick at a time.
He is installing a workspace at the FWM that goes by the stop-you-in-your-tracks moniker Soul Manufacturing Corporation–To Make the Thing that Makes the Things. By time he was done speaking, the word Soul began to resonate in any number of ways, from clay vessels to social empathy to black identity.
The crowd of about 85 listeners, most of whom stood while chairs were provided to a select few, included maybe five dark faces amid a sea of white, even though the Art Sanctuary is a partnering organization involved in the project along with the FWM. Gates himself is dark-skinned, 40ish and political.
As artists go, he’s more of a conceptualist, and what he’s making is spaces for people. But he talks mostly about the value of the handmade object and how to bring respect (and fair pay) for honest hand labor back into an economy that privileges a few hands-off captains of industry.
He’s given to gnomic utterances, like the title of his exhibit. Here’s some of what he had to say:
“We don’t make things the way we used to,” was his opening sally. Manufacturing no longer involves humans and handmade is no longer celebrated.
He observed that he himself was not the hand-maker in Soul Manufacturing, which involves potters wheels, pallets, shelves, clay objects, bricks, even fabric. He noted the irony: “How do I also [share]–instead of just being a capitalist schmuck?” Then he remembered who he was talking to, and added, “Which is OK, all you capitalist schmucks.” He glanced at the seated crowd.
Then the artist, with an excess of space in which to exhibit, talked about sharing with workers and community–partially by bringing in interns from the community to work. “I’m feeling utopic. …Somebody’s doing that work and I want my homies to have a part of that action.”
So the studio assistants–artist Matthew Dercole from Chicago, Taiwan/Chicago artist Pei-Hsuan Wang, and Philadelphia sculptor Andre Ponticello–will make bricks, molds, and the boxes to hold what gets made. The interns from the Art Sanctuary and perhaps other organizations will learn skills from Matt, Pei and Andre. The youth will learn to make the things that make the things. Should I be reluctant to mention Gates called “our 13-year olds little nothings?” He redeemed himself by saying that the learning and the making would be transformative, making nothing into something.
At that point, Gates pointed out the empty shelves lining the installation space. “Even the act of having empty shelves…requires so much something.”
He segued into the technology for creating bratwurst casings before returning to bricks. “Any preservationists here? Because I want to sell you some brick.” In Chicago, when an old building goes down, he said you see black men on the rubble with a pick-hammer, rescuing the old bricks. They are paid a relatively small sum, maybe $25 or $50 per each filled pallet of bricks. The pallets get resold for thousands in places like China.
“Making just a little bit of cash ain’t enough. We expect more of the cherry tree than is natural to the tree.” We expect products that are “better, bigger, brighter.”
Then Gates invited people to stop by the installation and make some bricks.
Still in an empathetic mode, he worried about what making bricks all day would do to Matt’s and Pei’s bodies. In Miami, he provided them with music, yoga and intellectual stimulation. “Here,” he said, “Diego will cook.” If people want to talk to the potters, they should talk to Diego and bring along some food. “There’s still room in the business for the business to be generous,” he mused.
The audience started offering sources for potential interns–a class from a building-trades charter, Mari Shaw suggested ex-prisoners, Rick Snyderman suggested the Clay Mobile crowd. He also asked where the Arts Sanctuary is.
“I want the brothers to get paid–to have some stake in the root. But the system has to want to be generous” and averse to corruption.
The artist is an idealist, a dreamer. He noted that it was inauguration day. “Barack has to think about unemployment and healthcare,” he said. “Soul Manufacturing Corporation is attempting to democratize opportunity.” Then he went off into overweight Americans, diabetes, and health. “I don’t need a diet. I should just make a couple of bricks.” Gates dropped to the floor and began doing pushups–a Jack Palance kind of moment.
He mused: “The show is about making, just the value of having things in your hand. I have more time to administer than be engaged with the thing.”