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A new AGO exhibit explores space and race

“Is there a way we can turn up the volume?” Theaster Gates is standing next to Shrine, part of his new installation at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto; a house track by the late Frankie Knuckles pulses out of the speakers. But not loudly enough.

“This is my way of paying tribute to Frankie,” Gates explains, “but in a slightly transgressive way, without buttoning it up too much.” The Chicagoan is speaking quietly today, adopting the cadence of the professor that he is. But – as the energetic artist and provocateur he also is – he’s determined to make this modified DJ booth, built with wood panelling from a demolished church and stocked with vintage audio equipment, fill this quiet gallery with sound.

“House music is about the body,” he explains, raising his lean frame up on his toes. “If you’re going to achieve ecstasy, you’ve got to do the work.”

Striving for ecstasy, working toward freedom, and the question of whose life experience gets preserved and represented: These are central currents of the sprawling, complex show, How to Build a House Museum, which opened this week. Among other things it’s a tribute to specific black lives – including Knuckles and the blues icon Muddy Waters – that riffs on the convention of the historic house museum, it’s also a critique of that convention and it’s a representation of the complex work of building and community development that Gates is doing in Chicago.

As I sit down with Gates in the exhibition’s first room, “The House of House,” there’s evidence of that work by our feet: a wire model of a former power station that he is redeveloping. “Art starts in the real world for me,” he says, crossing a cuffed black jean-leg and sockless foot over his knee. “Every art idea for me starts with some kind of compassion or curiosity or care.”

“House of Muddy Waters” pays tribute to the Chicago blues icon, whose home, Gates says, “is on both the historic list and the demolition list.” (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)

Gates has risen to international prominence through sculpture and performance work; his broad range is mirrored by an equally changeable persona. In conversation he can be verbally acute, obliquely political theoretician, a stern preacher, a singer – he has a rich, often plangent singing voice, trained in the church choirs of his childhood – or a consensus-building administrator.

While many observers apply the label of “social practice” to Gates, “I don’t really think about my practice in that way,” he says. “I’m in the world, and things are happening in the world, and I’m dealing with them. I bring those issues, challenges, problems back to the studio … there’s a wonderful dialogue.”

Those “challenges” increasingly involve brick, concrete and construction budgets. Gates studied urban planning, and he has evolved into an unlikely real-estate entrepreneur and agent of urban change. A decade ago, while working as an arts programmer at the University of Chicago, he chose to settle on Dorchester Avenue on the city’s South Side. With his art career still nascent, he moved into a former candy factory that he’d bought for $130,000 and dubbed it “Listening House”; a couple of years later he bought the building next door for $16,000 and established it as Archive House.

At first his presence here was symbolic, a sort of “flag-waving,” as he puts it, for the neighbourhood and its people. The South Side’s working-class neighbourhoods have been gutted by the departure of the steel and meatpacking industries, and remain riven by gang violence.

By now, Gates has established a presence in the neighbourhood not just as an artist and academic, but also a landlord, cultural programmer and entrepreneur who has the ear of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Artist Theaster Gates poses for a photo during a tour of his latest exhibition, How to Build a House at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)

Gates’s non-profit, the Rebuild Foundation, now controls six sites; the latest, the Stony Island Arts Bank, celebrated its opening last fall as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Like the others, it houses archives to be preserved and mined by Gates in his art practice and by researchers and neighbours.

“I didn’t feel compelled to make an artwork about the bank; the restoration of the bank was the artwork,” Gates says. “And now it’s a plinth, and new works of art can sit on top of the plinth.”

He draws a comparison between himself and other artists who have worked with buildings and space – from the contemporary New York artist/architect Mabel O. Wilson to Donald Judd, and his work in the Texas town of Marfa, and Robert Smithson. His work in Chicago “is land art!” he says emphatically. “This is about space! And people are a part of that.

“The larger agenda is: What does it mean for an artist to insert him or herself in the politics of space and stay there?”

All this forms a necessary and nuanced backdrop to How to Build a House Museum. The AGO’s curator of modern and contemporary art, Kitty Scott, who oversaw the show, suggests we view the exhibition “through the lens of transformation.” Toronto “is a city undergoing rapid transformation,” she says, “and Theaster offers us a compelling blueprint for how bottom-up development can work and how culture can benefit and be inclusive to all.”

“George Black House” includes bricks made by a North Carolina artisan whose legacy Gates is working to protect. (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)

The AGO exhibition “plays between this symbolic work and this real work,” Gates explains. The show itself includes bricks made by George Black, a mason and brickmaker in North Carolina; Gates has been consulting with Black’s estate, among other institutions and cities.

It also includes, within the “House of Negro Progress,” reproduced drawings that W.E.B. Du Bois presented at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, depicting the economic and social state of black America. Gates is also showing a series of paintings derived from those diagrams – along with an abstract painting that he made using tar and roofing substrate. His father, Theaster Gates Sr., was a roofer by trade. This engagement with history, his own autobiography, and the economic and social forces that shape the contemporary city, ground Gates’s work. “I hope that means I am making a painting that is not conjured from my imagination; it is conjured from a deep engagement with the real world.”

During this fraught moment in American history, Gates says, it’s important to understand “the ways in which progress is thwarted by power.” Gates is employing a theme that has been integral to African-American art since its beginnings: the drive toward liberation – corporeal, material, political and metaphysical. And the work in the AGO show speaks in several of these registers at the same time. The highlight, for me, is the room that Gates and Scott have dubbed Progress Palace: It is a club, with two sculptural installations and a video installation. In that show, quasi-spiritual singing (“There is a house...”) by his musical group the Black Monks of Mississippi fades into film of ordinary people learning to “jack,” a dance technique associated with house music. And the beat comes in.

Gates, playing the role of producer, would like you to dance. “There’s still this need for consistent insurrection – like, the need for DJ to save your life, the need for a club to act as an emancipatory place,” he says. “Because if you can’t get free on that plantation you can, at least temporarily, experience a bit of freedom.”

How to Build a House Museum continues at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario through Oct. 30 (

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