0:11 SPEAKER 1: [SPEAKING SPANISH]
0:12 THELMA GOLDEN: Thank you. Good evening. It is a great pleasure to be here with Glenn
0:16 Ligon and Theaster Gates and to have the opportunity to talk to them about their work. As was said,
0:20 I’m Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, which is a
0:24 museum devoted to presenting the work of black artists from around the world.
0:27 We were founded in 1968, and our mission and mandate has always been to look at the ways
0:29 in which the history of art has been impacted by the work of artists of African descent.
0:35 The museum, which is on 125th Street, just a block away from the Apollo Theater, is devoted
0:42 to the collecting of work, but also the presentation. And it’s been my great pleasure as a curator
0:50 to work with both of these artists in many different forms and a thrill today to get
0:55 to talk to them. So what we thought we would do first is each of them are going to introduce
1:03 a bit about their work, their practice, some thoughts about what inspires the work.
1:09 And then we are going to have a conversation which really looks at some of the shared themes
1:15 between these two artists, as well as some of the many ideas that their important and
1:25 powerful work provokes. So we’re going to begin with Theaster Gates.
1:30 THEASTER GATES: Thank you all for coming. As [INAUDIBLE] said, with my work is rooted
1:38 in Chicago. Over the last 10 or 15 years, I found myself thinking about art in maybe
1:46 what used to be three buckets.
1:48 One bucket was about object making. How could an artist say what he or she wanted to by
1:53 presenting the world in a kind of smaller form? That I could respond to the world with
2:01 objects and it would be a symbolic interpretation of how the world worked. I often would use
2:06 object making and especially ceramics in my youth to try to convey things, but also just
2:12 to get better at making forms. The second way of working was not only thinking
2:19 about objects but how performance might have an impact in the world. If there were things
2:28 that I wanted to say, and I felt I couldn’t say them through object making, could a speech
2:34 act or a song or a theatrical moment in a public space be the right response? A letter
2:41 to the mayor? A letter to the president?
2:43 So they were more symbolic and performative gestures. And then there are moments when
2:46 I’m thinking about a problem in the world, and the best way to think about that problem
2:54 is to try to address the problem in the world. And that sometimes, even if I fail in resolving
3:02 the problem, the artistic intervention is that one would fight against the world best
3:04 they can and see what happens.
3:05 And so the work that you see behind us is this combination of thinking about objects
3:11 and labor, thinking about the relationship between objects and the real world and sometimes
3:14 the way that objects allow for me to perform those objects and leave traces of those things.
3:18 This, in one way, constitutes for me what I think of as an artistic practice.
3:23 And the more that I play around with these varying forms, the more complicated my interest
3:27 in object making becomes interventions in the real world and performance, so that they
3:31 become hard, maybe, to even distinguish sometimes as works of art.
3:34 THELMA GOLDEN: Thank you, Theaster. Glenn.
3:36 GLENN LIGON: Just start rolling. I would say that I started out as a painter who’s very
3:41 interested in the generations of painters in the ’50s, called themselves abstract expressionists.
3:44 Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline. And so that was my basis.
3:46 But then found, as a young artist, that the vocabulary of abstraction that I was trying
3:52 to work in couldn’t contain all the things that I was interested in, couldn’t contain,
3:59 as Theaster said, the world. And so the practice changed to incorporate language.
4:02 And that was because there were these amazing texts I was reading by Jean Genet, Zora Neale
4:07 Hurston, James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, but no way to get those ideas from those texts
4:12 into the paintings that I was making. Except at a certain moment, I had realized that if
4:20 I just put the text into the paintings and made the text the paintings, that was a way
4:23 of channeling the power of those texts but also being committed to painting as an act.
4:28 So the first works were dealing very much with language, dealing with questions of visibility
4:36 and invisibility, dealing with formal issues around repetition and surface. And then the
4:41 practice expanded out from that, thinking about literature or text as a source, more
4:45 So some of the work you see, like behind me, The Death of Tom is a film that I made that’s
4:49 based on the novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but is a very abstract film. It’s based in literature,
4:52 but it takes another form beyond painting. The images here are from a march in Washington
4:54 maybe 20 years ago called the Million Man March. Again, about issues of representation
4:56 and visibility, which has always been part of the painting practice, but expanded out
4:59 to start to use images.
5:00 And then expanding into neon, more recently, and really thinking of neon as sculpture.
5:03 So moving somewhat beyond the painting practice to objects that hang in space. Using Gertrude
5:08 Stein as The Negro Sunshine here, using the word “America” as a thing to play with in
5:12 these various forms.
5:13 And then the more recent text work is moving towards music and thinking about music as
5:17 a source material. And so this body of work that you see behind me was based on Steve
5:21 Reich, a composition called “Come Out,” which was from 1966.
5:25 And the composition was made in response to a call that Reich got to make a piece for
5:30 benefit for a group of kids that were arrested falsely of murder in Harlem 1964. And Steve
5:34 Reich takes their testimony and makes this tape loop piece, using one of the kids’ words.
5:40 And I got very inspired by that piece because so much of my work has been about speech repetition.
5:49 And so the Reich made sense to me, but also that the Steve Reich was in response to a
5:59 very specific social movement, police brutality in Harlem at a particular moment. And those
6:06 issues, given American history are still quite relevant. And so a lot of, I think, my work
6:12 also dives into the archive of American history and brings forward moments from the past to
6:15 the present and tries to think about how those moments from the past echo in the present.
6:21 THELMA GOLDEN: Thank you, Glenn. What’s amazing to me is that there are so many places where
6:25 both of your work converges together. And I wanted to start and talk about the fact
6:31 that both of you are deeply invested in this idea of history. Glenn, you’ve taken on history
6:36 in the sort of broadest way, looked at these historic moments and documented, but also,
6:42 in many cases, commented on them in your work.
6:46 And you have actually also done that, but at the same time, you’ve looked at history
6:50 sometimes through a personal lens, right? Through autobiography. So my first question
6:56 to you, Glenn, in talking about this idea of history, how the moments that you have
7:02 chosen to look at in your work– moments like the Million Man March or the Central Park
7:05 jogger case– how do you pick a moment and consider it as something that you want to
7:10 make art about?
7:11 GLENN LIGON: I would say that the moments are picked in a strange way, in a very personal
7:17 THELMA GOLDEN: Do they pick you? Do the moments–
7:20 GLENN LIGON: In some ways. In some ways. Even though they may have happened before I was
7:29 born, there’s the sense that these things are quite tangible for me. And so the way
7:34 the work starts is, say I did an installation based on the history of slavery, a particular
7:41 slave narrative. And really that’s sort of from me going to
7:45 the library and doing research on images from slavery and finding one image and saying,
7:55 that’s just a strange image. What does this image mean? And doing more research about
8:03 it, and then developing a body of work out of it.
8:08 Or, in terms of the images with the hand you saw from the Million Man March, just thinking
8:17 about the images of
8:29 in the newspaper that surrounded that march. A march in Washington, DC, organized by the
8:38 Nation of Islam about the visibility of black people in the United States. And I’m just
8:46 thinking about those images and realizing we’ve had those marches before.
8:51 It’s very ironic that for people that have been in the United States from the beginning,
9:03 we still have this need to gather and show that we’re visible here. And so the poignancy
9:09 of that moment really struck me.
9:12 And I think that’s it, too. They’re poignant for me. They resonate that way, emotionally.
9:17 And so that prompts a kind of further investigation.
9:20 THELMA GOLDEN: And for you, Theaster, it seems that this engagement in history really is
9:24 what takes you to thinking about the archive. And I think, for example, about the work that
9:30 you’ve been making for many years using the material of the archive of the Johnson publishing
9:36 company, which was a publishing company established in the United States by an African-American
9:41 family which published magazines, significantly Ebony and Jet magazine, which documented the
9:46 history and the culture of African Americans.
9:49 And can you talk a bit about the history that comes from the archive and the way in which
9:56 you’ve reclaimed an archive through art?
10:01 THEASTER GATES: Sure. So maybe I can say first, the more that I think about my history as
10:13 a ceramic artist and the vessel as a kind of necessary point of departure for sculpture,
10:20 I often feel empty. I feel like my art practice is like emptiness. And in some ways, the archive
10:36 became a way of filling myself up and then saying, well, for the next 20 years, I could
10:43 dig into this thing and where I’m an empty vessel, let’s say, my big work will be to
10:51 care for these things that are now in my house, right? So now inside me.
11:00 And so, in some ways, by identifying the Johnson collection and understanding that it’s an
11:09 important moment– again, it found me, but in finding me, also, it needed care. So a
11:24 big part of archival work is about caring for things. So that felt really good, that
11:32 I would have a set of objects that could allow me to care for them almost like a garden.
11:44 And that in that, it would produce or yield all these possibilities that were way too
11:50 many possibilities for me, myself.
11:52 And so, in addition to me caring for it, I could also have other artists thinking with
11:59 me about the Johnson collection or thinking with me about Frankie Knuckles’s albums collection–
12:06 this house music DJ in Chicago– because if I’m excited about a certain pact with history,
12:13 then other people might be, too.
12:16 And so in some cases, like these images of Ebony and Jet, and the same with the literature
12:21 that Glenn thinks about, these things are right below our noses. But they’re just below
12:27 enough that we would never open the book again. We would never read the poem out loud. We
12:34 would never go back to that issue of Ebony.
12:38 And so one part of the work is simply lifting it up, cleaning it off, making it tangible
12:46 again, or maybe inserting yourself as an artist, just a little bit, so that people see it in
12:54 a new way.
12:55 THELMA GOLDEN: Fantastic. Materials. What you make your art from. Profoundly interesting
12:59 for both of you, but in particular, Glenn, you’ve worked with coal dust, and Theaster,
13:06 you work with tar. Two materials that come out of our sense of industry and labor. And
13:10 so could you both talk about both the origin, right, of coming to these materials from each
13:16 of you and their meaning in your work and in the world.
13:21 GLENN LIGON: Yeah. Well, I came to coal dust sort of by accident or a roundabout way. I
13:28 was making paintings that were using a text by James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village.”
13:35 Or I was thinking of making paintings using “Stranger in the Village.” And Baldwin’s essay
13:43 is written in the ’50s. At the time, he’s living in Switzerland. He’s working on a novel,
13:53 and he finds himself in this small Swiss village at the chalet that his lover’s parents own
13:59 and finds himself the only black person in this village.
14:04 And the essay is about this encounter. What does it mean to be a stranger in the village,
14:13 literally? But more generally, what does it mean to be a stranger in terms of having a
14:19 different culture, being a black American in Europe, being estranged from America, because
14:23 he’s left America to write, gone to Paris and now is in Switzerland.
14:26 So that’s what the essay is about. And when I was reading the essay, I realized that Baldwin,
14:32 partially because he was trained as a preacher, his writing is very preacherly. It’s very
14:37 beautifully wrought, dense, inspiring. It has these kind of rhetorical things that are
14:41 in good preaching.
14:42 And so I wanted to make paintings that have the kind of density and weight of his words.
14:48 And so it was a matter of finding that material. It wasn’t just oil paint. It had to be something
14:58 else. And I was working with a printer at the time, and he said, well, Warhol, diamond
15:03 dust paintings. I thought, yes, yes, yes. But Warhol’s done
15:07 that. It’s not the right material. And he said, well, there’s this other stuff, magnum.
15:11 What is it? Coal dust. Even before I saw it, I knew that was it, because coal dust is literally
15:21 a waste product from coal processing.
15:24 And Baldwin, in a very famous interview, talks about how the margins of the society, being
15:32 placed on the margins of society, give you a unique perspective to see the society. So
15:40 Baldwin was very interested in the margins. He saw it as a privileged place. He sort of
15:46 lifted the margins up. And so I thought, materially, coal dust was
15:50 the same thing. If I could lift it into the space of art. So that’s where it came from.
15:56 THELMA GOLDEN: And you’ve been using it now for 20–
15:59 GLENN LIGON: Many, many years.
16:01 THELMA GOLDEN: 20-something years. Key to your painting practice.
16:04 THEASTER GATES: That’s so good.
16:05 THELMA GOLDEN: The coal dust? You’ve never heard that before?
16:06 THEASTER GATES: That’s really good. I don’t really have anything to say.
16:09 THELMA GOLDEN: You have to tell us a little bit about tar and your father.
16:12 THEASTER GATES: Yeah. So I think that Glenn, when you started out talking about kind of
16:15 the ’60s guys, I think a lot about painting. And I think a lot about glazes, as a potter.
16:19 And I think a lot about labor. And I thought, well, there’s nothing about my practice that
16:32 would enter the genre of painting on the terms of painting. What could I mine from my life
16:46 that would allow me to, as a laborer, suggest that my capacity to labor is equal to or better
16:53 than a painter’s capacity to paint?
16:54 So in a way, I was trying to make level my history of a kind of lack of discipline in
16:58 the arts, but my huge discipline in labor, and then say that there might be a way that
17:07 the value of labor could be equal to, as beautiful, as provocative as what we understand as painting.
17:13 So I started thinking about the rules of roofing.
17:18 So my dad was a roofer, and in my youth, I had to get on top of buildings in the summer,
17:26 in between rains, because after would rain, he would get a bunch of phone calls saying,
17:31 I got a leak. And so it would be right after the rain, so it’s hot and sticky.
17:38 We’d be on top of a roof, and my dad would say there’s a very big mop. You dip the mop
17:45 in this hot tar. The mop is very heavy when you dip it. Maybe 50 pounds. And so you have
17:54 to use your whole body in order to move this mop.
17:56 If you put the mop on the roof and you leave it in one place, it starts to pool. When the
18:00 mop stick was bigger than me, I developed a sense of swordsmanship or calligraphy. Or
18:07 it felt like a dance that my dad would do with this mop because he was quickly trying
18:12 to move tar from one place to another.
18:14 He was not thinking of himself as a dancer on the roof. But there was something very
18:19 elegant that, as I got older and started to think about action painting or people who
18:23 I admired in these other worlds, I was left to also think about my dad.
18:26 So I thought, could roofing, in a way become my elevated practice? And in that way, could
18:39 I start to talk about these very personal narratives, this really obscure marginal material,
18:45 especially to more traditional kinds of arts? But could it actually do something that painting
18:50 might aspire to? And so I found myself really not only thinking about tar, but about the
18:53 vocation of roofing. Like, is there something within the language and in the vocabulary
18:56 of roofing that would offer me something special as an artist, that I might add to the canon
19:04 of the visual arts? And so I just leaned into the material, I know more about roofing than
19:09 I did when I was younger. But that’s because I’m treating roofing as kind of disciplinary
19:13 practice now, not just as a labor, a kind of means to an end.
19:18 THELMA GOLDEN: But in some ways you’re also incorporating the idea of labor–
19:23 THEASTER GATES: Absolutely.
19:24 THELMA GOLDEN: –into the practice that you’re doing, as a whole.
19:28 THEASTER GATES: Absolutely. So I think that in many ways, it’s all an attempt to reclaim
19:35 those things that the world might teach you are actually lowly and making them the kind
19:41 of elevated thing. So that idea that labor, or the labor and discipline that came from
19:49 learning to do this thing, might actually be of great consequence, not only to me and
19:55 my artistic career, but this moment in contemporary art. It’s really exciting.
20:02 THELMA GOLDEN: To position both of you within this moment, there are many ways that, in
20:08 the global contemporary art world, that we can understand different art, different artists,
20:10 the many dialogues that are happening. Do you see your work in the context of either
20:18 place, where you’re making your work, time, this time period or one before it, or just
20:28 through the ideas itself? As curators, we often write the history of
20:35 art and put artists in it in certain places. How would you write yourself and your practice
20:40 into a current history?
20:41 GLENN LIGON: Interesting. One of the things that’s been curious to me is, if you have
20:46 a career that’s long enough, work starts to change its meaning. So the image of hands,
20:51 which will come up eventually, is a piece that I made 20 years ago. And it is this moment
20:59 of testimony, visibility. But in the context of current U.S. social
21:03 history, that gesture of the raised hands has taken on a new meaning because of various
21:10 police shootings and the protests around those. And so I’m doing a show in a couple of weeks
21:17 where I’m going to bring that painting into the show to say two things.
21:23 One is that the moment that we are now, in terms of the relationship of the public to
21:31 the police, is an ongoing issue and is part of what the March on Washington 20 years ago
21:35 was about. So we need to think of these things not as things that just come up and we need
21:42 to respond to as artists, but things we’ve always responding to.
21:48 But also to think about the larger kind of issues, which I guess have always been on
21:57 my work about this question of visibility and invisibility and how, for lots of different
21:59 groups, but for me particularly, African Americans, there has always been this tension about our
22:03 place in the U.S. But that doesn’t quite answer your question.
22:06 So I think the most interesting things to think, for me, is when young artists are interested
22:10 in the work, which means that things that I have been thinking about still have a kind
22:17 of resonance for them and have a kind of utility, and they can move other places from them.
22:22 So I don’t know if that’s– not necessarily about art history. I want to work to be generous.
22:29 And if it still speaks, then I realize, oh, it has been generous in a certain kind of
22:38 THELMA GOLDEN: I think you’re speaking to the idea that the work from a particular moment
22:44 can have relevance and to artists. I mean, I think we all felt that on the occasion of
22:51 seeing your retrospective at the Whitney. And looking over your over 25 year career
23:00 and seeing the way in which works that you made very early in your career, very specifically,
23:07 in thinking of those moments– the late ’80s, early ’90s– and all of the issues and concerns
23:15 that were informing the way we understood contemporary art.
23:19 But to see that work, then, a few years ago and its relevance to not just a social dialogue,
23:25 but in our historical dialogue. Just to see the trajectory of, truly, your very particular
23:29 but very important and significant shift in the way we talk about painting. That was traced
23:33 through that exhibition.
23:34 So I think that’s what maybe, in saying how you think of your relevance, that that might
23:39 be a way to consider it. How do you think– particularly because, Theaster, your practice,
23:44 as you said, exists in these three buckets. But there’s one aspect of your practice that,
23:48 for some people, they might not understand as art. And that is the work that you do with
23:52 physical spaces, with buildings. And in some ways, I would love for you to answer this
23:55 question of where you see the work situated within an art history, particularly given
23:58 the fact that some of your work, what will live in the world, are these buildings in
24:05 Chicago and if you might describe a little bit about the Dorchester project and what
24:08 that means to your work.
24:09 THEASTER GATES: Right on. So Glenn has also mapped out that there might be a relationship
24:13 between relevance to younger people, to different generations, relevance and generosity, that
24:17 I think that artists may all have that burden. But I think especially in the States, black
24:22 artists carry this burden of the work has to not only mean what it means, it has to
24:27 mean all these other things.
24:29 There are definitely moments when I’m making a work of art when I think, I’m making this
24:35 for myself, I’m making this for my history with my family, and I’m making it as a demonstration
24:45 of a kind of work that might be made. That, in fact, there might be works that I actually
24:50 don’t want to make, but I will make it because it feels like the demonstration of a kind
24:56 of work is important for other people.
24:58 I feel like, in some ways, I don’t even think that I’m always engaged. You’ll say from time
25:03 to time, Thelma, somebody needs to curate that shell. There are times that I’ll make
25:06 that work because I just think that kind of work, that moment, needs to be accounted for
25:10 in this moment. So I have that burden, maybe more than some,
25:13 to not only imagine the internal work of the gift of being an artist and the burden of
25:19 being an artist, but there’s also a kind of gross external work that I feel like is related
25:29 to why a person is put on Earth. It’s like I know that part of my job on Earth is to
25:35 make art, but another part of it has to do with the transformation of neighborhoods.
25:40 And that transformation, we see it happening all the time by large multinational corporations
25:44 that can acquire large tracts of real estate. I’m not actually talking about that. I’m talking
25:53 about the kind of reinvestment that happens in poor neighborhoods by the neighbors who
25:57 decide, we’re going to take care of our neighborhood ourselves and the governmental intervention
26:02 that we’ve been waiting for that may or may not come. We don’t want to wait.
26:07 And so that work, also, of mowing the lawn, sweeping the steps, helping your neighbors
26:13 paint a porch. That kind of everyday, normal work, it feels both like a political gesture,
26:19 like this is the highest work I can do, and just a personal commitment to a place. So
26:25 I think that Dorchester, where I live, it’s become a kind of testament to what happens
26:31 when normal, everyday people put their little cash together and try to do things.
26:38 And I feel like that’s especially poignant here in Madrid, where Madrid, not unlike other
26:45 cities around the world, struggles with an amazingly talented, creative group of people
26:51 who don’t have jobs. And I think about unemployment in my hood, and I think, wow. There are things
26:59 that we can do when we’re unemployed to make money.
27:03 Those things aren’t always legal. They don’t always make sense within a particular kind
27:10 of framework. So what are the alternatives to those things, when you’re trying to be
27:16 a good and just and creative people, when you can’t buy paints and you can buy paintbrushes?
27:24 And so I think that constantly asking that question of, so then what are the alternatives,
27:36 creatively, that would allow me to feel like I’m contributing to the world in a good way?
27:46 And so I think that the work is born out of that. It’s born out of really humble materials.
27:53 And I think that it’s both the creation of work, but then also the demonstration of what’s
28:02 possible that drives me. Why that seems relevant is that I think we’re not in a moment where
28:09 one can just think about art and not think about the rest of the world.
28:14 And so it’s that tension between the possibilities within art but also the possibility that art
28:23 could be one of the solutions, as weird as that might sound– and it’s not everybody’s
28:29 deal– that art might actually offer a way, different from other ways, that could be quite
28:37 productive in culture.
28:38 THELMA GOLDEN: And do you think, as we are in the 21st century, that this is a definition
28:46 of an artist in the 21st first century, that acknowledgement of the place of art, not just
28:56 in the world of art, but in the world itself? That you, in some ways, are marking a path
29:04 of how an artist might work and live differently, but in response to the needs and conditions
29:09 of the moment?
29:10 THEASTER GATES: Yes, but I also think that the conversation isn’t just about what artists
29:19 can do. It happens that artists might lead the conversation about how the world could
29:27 be more engaged with itself. But this is also for the banker and the accountant and the
29:35 civil engineer, that wherever we are in our vocations, there’s the possibility that the
29:38 world needs more of us than just what our 9:00 to 5:00 needs from us.
29:41 And that if there’s not a willingness to at least distribute our capacity, if not our
29:45 resources, our capacity, then we’ll find that there’s greater and greater chasms between
29:51 those that have a lot and those that don’t have so much.
29:57 THELMA GOLDEN: Glenn, what’s the role of beauty in your work?
30:02 GLENN LIGON: I guess beauty is always a way to draw people into the issues the work is
30:10 about. I often say this, and I kind of mean it seriously, that it’s very easy to make
30:17 a beautiful thing. Or it’s easy for me.
30:21 But I mean that coal dust, in and of itself, is a very beautiful material. And that’s what’s
30:27 interesting to me because it is this waste product. So looking at the surface of these
30:28 paintings– and let me apologize. I was saying, oh you’ll see images coming up [INAUDIBLE]
30:30 but on our screens here, the slide show is still going.
30:32 THELMA GOLDEN: Ignore that.
30:33 GLENN LIGON: So I’m going to ignore that. But in terms of the materials or the formal
30:38 issues in the work, beauty is a huge, important part, because often, I find that it’s a way
30:44 to get people engaged with things they wouldn’t be engaged in.
30:48 So I remember I did a very big installation using Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of
30:54 black men. And this installation had many, many texts that had to be read in order to
31:01 understand the piece. And one critic said that I was a closet formalist when he looked
31:07 at the piece, which is ironic, given Mapplethorpe’s images of homoerotic images of black men.
31:12 Closet formalist.
31:14 But I think what he meant was, or what I choose to think he meant was that he was surprised
31:20 that I could do something that had a kind of social content but also was formally rigorous.
31:24 And somehow those things were separated for him. But they aren’t separated from it. They’re
31:27 a way to engage people.
31:29 THELMA GOLDEN: And Theaster, what is the role of truth in your work?
31:33 THEASTER GATES: Truth. Well, the beauty one is actually in some ways related to truth,
31:37 that when I think about public housing in Europe– in London, they call it council housing–
31:42 folk who have housing needs and then the government tries to respond to that. Often, when we think
31:48 about poverty, we think about it in terms of there’s this basic need, and we should
31:51 solve it for as many people as possible.
31:53 But the possibility of that built within that basic need, that truth, that people should
32:00 care for the needs of the poor, that we would exempt beauty from truth, abhors me. That
32:06 we would imagine that a building, no matter what price it’s built at, couldn’t have inherent
32:08 beauty in it or a kind of inherent truth and that truth be related to the thoughtfulness
32:16 around how people live or the dignity around how people live.
32:19 It means that someone hasn’t done all the math or that there were people left from the
32:23 table that should’ve been at the table. And so I think that, in some ways, my projects
32:33 have tried to keep those things well connected, that one can’t have truth, fully, without
32:40 observing how important the quality of life is, the possibility of something poetic happening
32:49 in truth.
32:50 And I think that it’s that poetry– which could be the poetry of limestone or the poetry
32:57 of marble or the poetry of a very rare wood, but it could also be the poetry of pine or
33:03 the poetry of twigs– that it’s not relegated to a kind of material. It’s just– and I’m
33:07 looking at Michael around this– it’s really like how one uses whatever one has to make
33:12 the most beautiful and poetic moments possible.
33:15 And so I think that there is a kind of truth in that, in that there is a problem of housing.
33:23 There’s a problem of violence. But the difference between me and another kind of public official
33:26 might be I want to solve that problem beautifully, as well as truthfully, not just pragmatically.
33:30 That there’s a lot of room in there for more.
33:35 THELMA GOLDEN: And the room and the space for that narrative is created with art.
33:39 THEASTER GATES: That’s right. I think that’s how artists are different from other kinds
33:42 of people who have to solve very, very hard problems. You’re looking at deficits that
33:47 are in the trillions of dollars, and you’re thinking about hundreds of thousands, if not
33:51 millions of people that need to be housed. You think, how can we do that?
33:55 And then you watch squatters do it beautifully, do it elegantly. It’s like, wow, there are
33:59 ways in which the world wants for itself, dignity. All people want a kind of dignity.
34:03 And it’s just like, how do you get to it? And I think that that’s kind of artistic question.
34:11 THELMA GOLDEN: Thank you. I’m going to ask if there are any questions for these two gentlemen
34:17 here. Is there a microphone, or should we just– because I think there’s one here and
34:21 then one over there.
34:22 SPEAKER 1: Yeah We’re waiting for the microphone.
34:24 THEASTER GATES: Please.
34:25 THELMA GOLDEN: Yeah, we can hear her.
34:27 AUDIENCE: About the beauty, I was thinking– I’m from Colombia– and for Africa, the legacy
34:35 that lives in the Pacific coast and in some places in the Caribbean coast. The culture
34:39 moves towards day life, the food, the music. And coming back to the beauty, when I see
34:42 these cultural expressions, it’s like their history has so many painful chapters that
34:49 they try to become all that, all the pain into beauty. Into joy.
34:53 So from these painful events, like discrimination or all this, they transform it into a dance
34:58 or a theater or a play for them. So that changes the meaning of this event, of this historical
35:08 moment. So what I wanted to ask if it’s beauty, not in the aesthetic way, as part of your
35:16 work, but as a way to transform that event or that character that can have this historical
35:20 GLENN LIGON: Great question. There’s an essay by Ralph Ellison on the blues, that music.
35:25 And he says that the blues is personal catastrophe expressed lyrically. So the idea of trauma,
35:29 loss, but expressed in this form, that’s fantastic to hear. That’s beautiful music.
35:33 And so those things are always together. It’s a very perceptive kind of framing of using
35:39 beauty to change and transcend.
35:40 THEASTER GATES: It also felt like, in your question, there’s this word, “beauty,” but
35:45 then under that is like, “to suffer.” That in the same way that we think of other kinds
35:51 of sufferings that end up having poetic consequence, I think that we’re all, that I’m thinking
35:56 of– say, Anselm Kiefer’s work or parts of the history of Kara Walker’s work– that there
36:01 are these moments where the catastrophe is evident.
36:04 But then there are other kinds of work that refuse to evidence the catastrophe, itself.
36:06 They say, I’m not going to show a lynch scene. I’m going to show the tree and the people
36:14 in the absence of the lynched person. And that there’s something also in the resistance
36:25 to over acknowledging the catastrophe that starts to create resistance and resilience.
36:31 That it’s in there, but inside, you’re already doing the work of converting.
36:32 And so I think that in that converting work, you’re acknowledging. You’re acknowledging
36:35 suffering. You’re acknowledging the catastrophe. But it’s also like you’re overcoming. And
36:41 I think that that tension between the catastrophe and overcoming is really important.
36:45 THELMA GOLDEN: Fantastic. There’s another question over here. Can we get the microphones
36:49 coming to you, across?
36:50 AUDIENCE: Well, first of all, thank you so much for being here. This is so exciting,
36:54 to see your faces and to hear you talk about your work. I actually have two questions I’ll
37:01 try to make them brief. But the first one has to do with this idea of visibility and
37:07 invisibility that we seem to be talking about or you seem to be struggling with or finding
37:16 a way to overcome in your art.
37:18 So I guess my question– and I ask this myself, so to be fair– is this idea of what is it
37:29 about racism that renders us invisible as black people? What is the impetus of that?
37:37 Is that the idea to cover up the catastrophe and the trauma that created the community
37:50 of African-American people in the United States?
37:52 It’s just a question asking myself. And I feel like, in the work that you do, maybe
37:58 you don’t have a specific answer. But something about the way that you express your work or
38:05 the way that you work is an answer to that. Does that make sense?
38:12 THELMA GOLDEN: That’s it. I would say, as a curator, who has been committed to the presentation
38:20 of artworks that explore these issues, that actually, the invisibility and visibility
38:29 stand side by side. That there is, on the one hand, sometimes a lack of acknowledgment
38:37 of the broad and deep history which creates an invisibility.
38:42 But then there’s also a hyper-visibility that’s created through the way in which our histories
38:44 play out, so that they’re actually– this isn’t an opposition, as much as it’s two experiences
38:51 happening at the very same time. And for me, as a curator, what has made art
39:00 always so important to me personally, but also really important to me professionally,
39:04 in the space of making exhibitions, is the fact that artists– these two artists and
39:09 many more– actually are able to allow us to understand the complexity of those two
39:17 conditions through the work itself. So it asks as many questions about, that, that provide
39:24 us with the possibility to understand it as the work’s answer.
39:29 And that’s what I think makes, for me, the way in which art can be our way into the complex
39:36 questions that history and life and identity and culture ask, how we can answer them.
39:41 GLENN LIGON: Also, Theaster was talking about value. And it really struck me that so much
39:46 of his practice, roofing, the value of labor, the value of archives that need to be dusted
39:56 off and re-presented. And then people offering you archives because they suddenly realize
40:01 there’s this artist who knows how to do this, how to make these things visible, how to raise
40:08 their value.
40:08 But also working in the neighborhood, too. Dorchester, if people don’t know Chicago,
40:14 is a very disenfranchised neighborhood. So to be there and do that gesture of, city garbage
40:19 truck isn’t coming today? I’m going to sweep, because this neighborhood has value. Tied
40:24 in with questions of visibility and invisibility, but really it just struck me when he was talking
40:29 about this question of value comes into these questions of visibility.
40:32 AUDIENCE: My second question’s actually related to the Dorchester project. I was hoping, Glenn,
40:36 maybe you could speak a little bit more specifically. I was just really struck by what you said
40:41 about creating alternatives to disenfranchisement or the way that art can be a way out.
40:47 And thinking about the situation in Spain, in terms of so many people being disenfranchised
40:49 from work and from maybe a way of life that they had once had. I don’t know. I just wanted
40:56 to hear some more specific examples about what you’re doing in the community and how
41:04 that plays out.
41:04 THEASTER GATES: So I’ll kind of relate this to also racism and kind of learning from others.
41:09 When I got to a certain point in my ceramics learning, my instructor said that I needed
41:13 to go to Japan. So I went to Japan, to this small town, Tokoname.
41:17 And Tokoname is just a small industrial town, and just outside the town are very poor Japanese
41:23 people who manage to grow their own vegetables. And they manage these rice paddies. When I
41:27 was biking through this countryside, I was really struck at how beautiful the architecture
41:34 was– traditional Japanese vernacular architecture, wooden structures, shacks.
41:38 And I thought that I was in the middle of a kind of middle class provincial Japan, when
42:02 in fact, I was in dirt bucket poor folk who were growing food because they needed to eat
42:25 it. And if there any excess, they could sell it a little bit.
42:32 When I started to get to know people in this area, what I realized was that the way that
42:42 they viewed their lives was not in terms of fiscal aspiration, but rather a kind of deep
42:51 understanding of the power of spirit inside of materials, inside the world, a kind of
42:59 animist culture. And that, as a result of a deep reverence for that, the way that they
43:13 touched things, the way that they handled materials was very different.
43:20 It was a very different mindset from, say, my mindset, which was like if the wood wasn’t
43:29 new or if it wasn’t a particular type of wood, I wouldn’t use it. But they’d were like, no,
43:37 this wood has an airy quality, too. We should exploit that.
43:44 And so I mention that because I think that when I got back to the States, I started to
43:54 think about my own history with poverty differently, my relationship to Mississippi differently.
44:03 I was like, wow, their fish shack looks like my fish shack, but because it’s in Japan,
44:12 maybe I think this fish shack is a little cuter, when in fact, it’s just two poor fish
44:20 As I started to kind of mine local things, I started thinking about all of the amazing
44:33 people in my neighborhood who were doing things but I’d never get the same reverence and awe
44:38 as I did when I saw this other thing. So could I start to employ this idea of a kind of animism,
44:44 this deep respect for things and maybe the god inside of things?
44:51 That I would have more reverence than the thing itself might warrant, and that could
44:58 that be a way of approaching art in a more sophisticated way? Or could it be a way of
45:03 approaching community redevelopment in that there’s a two-flat on the block. It’s an abandoned
45:07 building. It has inherent value.
45:08 It has inherent value. It doesn’t have market value. It has inherent value. If I could exploit
45:14 the inherent value in the object, this house, and then use it for the highest purposes possible–
45:22 to keep an archive, to show some films, to feed some folk, to have a house that’s a house
45:28 for poetry, and all we do is read in it– that there might be something worth mining.
45:34 And that if I could concentrate on its inherent value, that maybe eventually, its market value
45:39 might shift. But even if it doesn’t, could we all value things inherently, rather than
45:45 things market-based? And so that became a kind of way of working through beauty, truth,
45:53 aesthetics, community engagement, without it having to be those things, but just by
46:05 saying things have value. Let’s find it.
46:14 And sometimes you find it by like ripping off the dusty, ugly paneling, tearing up the
46:20 nasty, pissy carpet, sweeping, sweeping, sweeping– but doing everything you can to get to an
46:22 inherent value. And what I found is that the more you strip back, the more you find a beauty
46:30 and a truth.
46:31 THELMA GOLDEN: Thank you. Behind you.
46:33 AUDIENCE: Hi. So I have a question that actually refers to something that has been mentioned
46:44 during your conversation, which is the role of the 21st century artist and how he or she
46:51 cannot ignore some of the current affairs that are affecting the world in general. I
46:57 guess we would be talking about some type of artistic individual’s social responsibility.
47:02 But in a way, this kind of responsibility’s always kind of forced into minority groups.
47:08 Like, I’m a black man. I was born and raised in Spain. I always get this question– how
47:13 is that you were born here?
47:14 It’s already in my introduction. I have to explain myself all the time. And then if you
47:18 think of anybody who goes to see a show, as soon as they see that the artist is black,
47:26 there’s all these projections in there.
47:28 And it’s already [INAUDIBLE], because by the time an artist is producing, there is already
47:34 a conversation. How am I going to justify my work? How am I going to pretend that I
47:41 know what I’m talking about or let them believe that I know what I’m talking about?
47:46 So my question is it seems being black or being a woman or being of a minority, you’re
47:52 already kind of forced into becoming a militant. Are we missing the most intimate kind of black
47:59 artists or artists who just happen to belong to a minority that happens to be a current
48:09 affair? Are we missing that internal world?
48:13 And my question to both artists here would be have you found yourself censoring your
48:20 most intimate artist and the benefit of participating in the conversation and letting those external
48:26 conversations dictate your art and your choices?
48:29 GLENN LIGON: Well, I think, in the end, that’s sort of what I had talked about when I was
48:40 talking about putting a piece from 20 years ago in a show now, is to say that the concerns
48:50 that I have as an artist precede certain kinds of debates. Or they are formed out of larger
48:56 questions than the individual things that people think I need to respond to, IE, Ferguson.
49:02 But I understand there is this pressure to respond And it does become stultifying. It
49:08 becomes hard in the studio. But I think there’s so many different levels of responding, too.
49:15 So I don’t want to say that I make work because I feel like I need to make something about
49:24 this issue now, because it’s in the world.
49:27 But I think those issues being in the world changes the work, in some ways. Different
49:34 level. I don’t know if I can say it clearly, but I think those issues in the world do change
49:50 the work, change the direction of the work, change where you’re looking at.
49:56 THEASTER GATES: For some reason when you first started your question, I thought about Joan
50:03 Baez choosing to join particular protest moments and offer her voice as part of a set of national
50:09 voices. I thought about Paul Robeson, who these moments– Fannie Lou Hamer.
50:13 They were inside of their artistic sphere, which was, in a way, completely separate.
50:18 There’s nothing about that form over there that made them having a political voice relevant.
50:24 And then for Muhammad Ali to say, I’m not going to play. I’m not going to go. I’m not
50:30 going to take the draft. That those moments when an artist decides–
50:34 black or otherwise– that there’s a kind of duty beyond their artistic duty to say something
50:40 to the world. Those are really important and heroic moments. And then, in this case, it’s
50:48 not always about what you make. It’s sometimes about what you choose not to make.
50:56 It’s about a withdrawal that sometimes happens in the world, a non-participation, like when
51:02 Walid Rod says, I’m not going to participate in this [INAUDIBLE]. They’re very important
51:04 moments to me.
51:05 But I think that there are also times when abstraction or at least why I feel so akin
51:13 to Glenn and why, also, I have an affinity towards certain moments is that the work also
51:16 allows me the freedom to not have to play, do battle at such a low, generic level of
51:24 racism that actually the things that are on my mind are so much more complex than the
51:30 choice to disregard some people because of some systemic injustice.
51:33 That actually, I’m thinking about all these other ways in which the work might advance
51:39 a set of things that I believe in. Sometimes those things are about my family, my people,
51:46 that. But then there are times when the move forward has to be a much more complicated
51:54 move that moves everybody forward.
51:56 So the beauty of a certain kind of gross artistic practice is that it’s trying to do this with
52:04 as wide a reach possible than like this. And the challenge is always that when you do this,
52:13 you want your people to know that you’re also doing this. But you don’t want this to make
52:16 people feel like they’re not relevant. And so I think that there is this tension.
52:21 But when I’m thinking about roofers or when I show this work or when I made this work
52:24 that used these retired, decommissioned fire hoses, that lots of different kinds of people
52:28 have seen themselves on roofs and have used fire hoses or have known these hoses or have
52:33 complicated relationships with shining shoes. It ain’t just something that’s relegated to
52:36 the black experience. And So when those people come, and they want to
52:39 give me a hug, and they would be all like, OK, fine. Great.
52:41 THELMA GOLDEN: And I think your question really speaks to something that I think about a lot,
52:48 because the Studio Museum was founded in 1968 as a museum devoted to black artists. And
52:53 this question, the struggle that you presented, was inherent to the mission of the museum
52:57 to create the widest possibility for black artists to operate in many different ways,
53:00 right, and for all of those to be relevant to art and to the culture.
53:05 And 46 years later, that continues to be our mission. But it’s one that has to be continually
53:11 thought about because there are many different ways in which an artist can exist as a creative
53:17 visionary but also as a citizen. And sometimes, the times demand both in equal measure. And
53:24 at other moments, artists can retreat, and that retreat is the most powerful thing they
53:30 can do for the advancement of the culture, itself.
53:33 I think we have time for one more question. Right here in the middle. Could you pass down
53:39 the mic to this gentlemen? Thanks.
53:42 AUDIENCE: Thank you. Thank you for coming and sharing with us. Theaster, I was thinking
53:46 about your work and particularly the work you’re curating in Dorchester. I was wondering
53:51 how you feel that a specific practice that is inherently long term and involves [INAUDIBLE]
54:00 in the place. Because as far as I understand, it’s kind of neighborhoods’ artists, specifically
54:05 the part where you are developing [INAUDIBLE] cooperative. That has to have a function in
54:11 itself, has to have an economical structure, and to be long term.
54:17 How do you feel it can still be breathing with institutional and curatorial translation
54:21 into the institution? So have you been somehow confronted with demand to be reproducing that
54:25 kind of long term action into kind of a more like a display system?
54:33 And then I was wondering, the art object. What is the role of the art object, then,
54:41 as a kind of translation of those processes? And then my second question would be, as well,
54:52 how do you get to rid of the usual questioning that often happens in this kind of engaged
54:59 processes, regarding the question of beatification, equality, gentrification, or maybe a kind
55:05 of pushing into that undesirable direction?
55:06 THEASTER GATES: Wow. So this is where the rubber meets the road, in a way. From studying
55:12 urban planning, one of the things that was always really clear to me is that neighborhoods
55:18 change. They change for lots of different reasons. The neighborhood that I lived in
55:25 that is now all black, 30 years ago was largely Jewish, 40 years ago was 90 percent Jewish.
55:30 The bank that I’m in the process of restoring, it was a German-Irish bank, then a Jewish
55:35 bank. Then it was owned by the Nation of Islam, which is a black Islamic regime or group.
55:40 And that now that the neighborhood has less to offer, it seems like it’s the neighborhood
55:46 for which everyone, if they can, they leave. They leave.
55:48 And that leaving feels like a kind of erosion, like land erosion. Like the trees are gone,
55:53 and because the trees are gone, the soil has nothing to hold onto. And so, in some ways,
55:58 I feel like this work I’m doing is it’s not about the soil. It’s about the tree planting.
56:05 That there’s a kind of, how can we create some kind of anchor moments that will be big
56:13 enough symbolically in the world, in the city, in that neighborhood? And they have to operate
56:20 at all these different levels. How can we plant these trees so that we at least start
56:27 to stabilize the soil that is there?
56:29 And then, if the soil is stable, then leaves will come. They will compost. Birds will shit.
56:37 Things will grow. And that the kind of nutrient that happens only happens when you can start
56:43 to stabilize certain things. So in one way that I think about Dorchester is it feels
57:06 like tree planting. And I can’t do everything, but I can plants and trees.
57:11 And in this case, the trees are 30 buildings in a neighborhood that has 7,500 buildings.
57:18 Five commercial spaces in a neighborhood that has about 2000 commercial spaces. But these
57:25 spaces that I’m creating, I’m trying to create them with enough poetic and symbolic potency
57:33 that it actually feels like much more than that.
57:40 Because of where we are in the city– like if this is the city center, we’re like here,
57:52 way out here– there’s no threat of a certain kind of inevitable traditional gentrification
57:57 because our city tends to gentrify in rings around really big trees that are already there,
58:05 so that there’s some rings. But at least in this place, what I’m interested
58:12 in is who might be attracted and staying. And as a result of staying, who might those
58:19 people who are staying attract? So now that Thelma comes to visit my neighborhood– this
58:23 is very nice, Glenn, come visit my neighborhood– that the neighborhood has a new– there are
58:30 artists who are interested in being around. They don’t necessarily want to live there,
58:36 but they want to be around.
58:41 And this is already a great– like the bird who flies by and shits. This is like the people.
58:53 But people do ask about gentrification a lot, and I think that what that question, what
58:58 the word implies when people ask me, often is, will you displace those who are already
59:06 here with your art project?
59:09 And that would require that you understand the amount of gross blight and available land
59:16 and abandoned buildings, the devastation that has happened from years and years of neglect.
59:20 So in some ways, my alderman or my mayor would say, bring it on. Gentrification.
59:24 But it’s not just that it’s. Not any kind of thing is OK here. It should be an actually
59:31 curated, very intentional set of things, so that there’s some things that are actually
59:38 very needed, like we need a library. So it’s like, well, let’s build a library. We need
59:44 healthy restaurants and grocery stores. So in some ways, I think the art is trying to
59:48 get at a demonstration of what a small grocery store might look like. And then maybe a grocery
59:53 store would be willing to move.
59:55 So it’s almost like if I were a grocery store maker, I would not move to this neighborhood
60:01 to build my grocery store, right? And so grocery stores don’t move there. But if I’m an artist
60:09 who’s making a political attempt at saying, how dare you, grocery store, not be here,
60:15 that then I can poetically create a grocery store that might actually turn into a real
60:24 grocery store.
60:24 So that relationship between the symbolic and the real is very necessary, I think. And
60:32 I think it’s a thing that artists and creative institutions can do better. It’s reasonable
60:38 that the Reina Sofia could say, hey, Theaster, we want to commission you to create a grocery
60:45 store on Dorchester. And then you can import your food to– [INAUDIBLE].
60:49 THELMA GOLDEN: Fantastic.
60:50 MICHAEL: I have a question.
60:52 THELMA GOLDEN: Yes.
60:53 MICHAEL: I’m not supposed to ask the questions.
60:56 THELMA GOLDEN: Please, Michael.
60:57 MICHAEL: [INAUDIBLE]. First I want to thank you three of you who are friends. And I feel
61:01 so honored that you would come to Spain and do this for us and for all these people, because
61:06 I get to share your experience and your life force all the time. And I feel so incredibly
61:11 honored to have you here. It’s a joy for all of us. And it’s extraordinary conversation
61:15 and really powerful.
61:16 My question is you all carry a lot of weight and a lot of sense of responsibility, both
61:22 social and personal. What’s next? Who’s behind you? Is Dorchester, are there– you said the
61:28 artists– are there people who are behind you, other people who are going to continue
61:32 the message that is not just of this time but of the future? And do the artists behind
61:43 you have the same feeling of responsibility and a burden, almost, to share this experience?
61:51 Or is it deluding because it’s better? Is it cathartic because it’s better? Or is it
61:57 the same? Are they just as potent and just as powerful and impactful, behind you?
62:03 GLENN LIGON: I think It’s interesting to notice how many artists work collectively now. Young
62:08 artists coming out of art schools who form these groups, which wasn’t the norm when I
62:19 was coming out of school. And they come to form these groups partially because they’re
62:32 interested in creating structures that don’t participate in the market in the ways that
62:45 they’re told they should participate. So I think that’s actually very– given the
62:56 markets in the United States– is very large and hyped up I think it’s a really good sign
63:13 that these young artists feel like they need a little space from that to create their work.
63:22 And this sort of idea of these collectives is one way to do that. I think it’s really
63:41 interesting development.
63:43 THEASTER GATES: I do think that, like I was commenting to Glenn in the car over, that
63:56 the first time that I saw Glenn talk and the first time that I met him was really inspiring,
64:08 aspiring, and that it was the first time that I had met an artist of such public renown.
64:21 And he was in this little classroom at the University of Chicago, giving this talk. And
64:33 it was like he was so much smarter than anybody else in the room. And it made me want to read
64:58 more and write more and be a better artist, in a way. And so I think that, in some ways,
65:10 one never knows the consequence of their engagement with the world.
65:15 I mean, we have a staff. I think my staff will perpetuate these ideas we have. But I
65:23 also think that there are those chance encounters. And so what I’ve tried to commit to is continuing
65:33 to make room for chance encounters and for public conversations and for mentorship and
65:43 all those things.
65:44 But also, I feel like when I talk to Glenn, I actually still feel like a student. It’s
66:01 kind of an honor to do this. So I think it’s really important that we not get so separate
66:16 from the rest of the world that the world can’t feel the presence of the power, because
66:26 I actually think that that is part of the generative work.
66:33 THELMA GOLDEN: And I think the answer is yes, there are. There are artists, there are curators,
66:49 there are institutions that are all forming themselves in new ways to think about the
66:59 way in which art, artist, object, and audience can all have a different relationship to each
67:07 other and to themselves and to the world.
67:17 And I think, for many of us, it really is not just our purpose, but it’s really the
67:33 privilege of
67:55 the possibility that this is possible. So I think the answer is yes.
68:13 And on behalf of all of us, I want to thank you all, Ambassador Costos, Mr. Smith, Virginia
68:29 Shore Art in Embassies, all of your colleagues from the embassy here and the Reina Sofia
68:50 for having us, because really, in many ways, this is the work we do.
69:14 But it’s also about
69:43 a life of living in the world now, kind of representing the possibility, right, of what
70:11 our culture, our history is, and how through art, we can be in the world. And I know for
70:38 all of us, we take that responsibility really seriously, but also really are grateful for
70:54 the opportunity to kind of live within the space of our art and our work. So thank you. Thank you to
74:17 of you. Thank you.
74:29 Thank you both. You were fantastic. Thank you.