Chicago-born contemporary visual artist and arts scholar Theaster Gates has been commissioned to design the 2022 Serpentine Pavilion in Kensington Gardens, London. Since its inception in 2000, the majority of prior pavilion commissions have been awarded to architects. So, Gates makes history as the first artist to receive a solo commission, following only two other contemporary artists to have worked on former designs in partnership with an architect or team of architects (specifically, Ai Wei Wei in partnership with Herzog & de Meuron (2012), and Olafur Eliasson, who worked with Kjetil Thorsen from the architecture practice Snøhetta (2007)).
Described as a ‘social practice’ installationist, Theaster Gates’s oeuvre is characterised by a strong interest in spatial theory, urban planning, regeneration and the preservation of the built environment, whilst also signifying his active responsiveness to broader social, economic and environmental justice agendas.
Within his artist’s statement Theaster Gates articulates his own creative practice as taking an interest in the possibility of the “life within things,” “redeem[ing] spaces that have been left behind,” and “contend[ing] with the notion of Black space as a formal exercise.”
During 2019/20 Tate Liverpool became the first major UK gallery to present a solo exhibition of Theaster Gates’s work. Titled ‘Amalgam’ (13 December 2019 – 3 May 2020), the exhibition presented a series of large-scale sculptural installations through which complex, intersected issues of race, territory, and inequality were examined. Using the 19th century history of the small, ethnically diverse island community of Malaga (established off the coast of Maine, USA), as the exhibition’s departure point, the artist’s installations considered what the forcible eviction in 1912 of Malaga’s residents – which included biracial families – signified at a time when mainland USA remained a highly segregated nation, whilst also posing additional questions about the legacies of that historic moment considered in relation to present-day race relations in America.
“Amalgam” not only referenced the sculptural assemblages on display, and the racial and ethnic diversity that once existed within Malaga’s community, but also alluded to more wide-ranging social histories of migration and multiculturalism. The mixed-media exhibits at Tate Liverpool were accompanied by a 20-minute film and soundscape, titled ‘Dance of Malaga,’ which included a combination of dance performances choreographed by the Pittsburgh-born African American artist Kyle Abraham, archival documentary footage and snippets of jazz and gospel compositions performed by Gates’s musical collective, The Black Monks.
Beyond these aforementioned achievements in the UK, Theaster Gates is recognised in the USA and acclaimed internationally as one of the most important socially engaged contemporary artists of his generation, whose award-winning installations have been exhibited at a some of the highest-profile museums, galleries and biennials in the world – including the Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2018); Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland (2018); National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., USA (2017) Punta della Dogana, Venice, Italy (2013) and Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany (2012).
Additionally, one of the artist’s most notable social practice interventions that has had a direct, long-term positive impact on the Chicago cityscape and the lives of fellow Chicagoans is the Dorchester Art and Housing Collaborative (DAHC) – also known as the Dorchester Projects (est. 2009). This initiative – developed in partnership with Brinshore Developers, architects Landon, Bone, Baker, Rebuild Foundation and the Chicago Housing Authority – involved the purchase and renovation of a number of formerly derelict buildings in Gates’s local neighbourhood in the South Side of Chicago, which he helped to transform into 32 affordable homes for emerging artists of colour, an art gallery and a performance space.
For further information about the 2022 Serpentine Pavilion commission, please see Artnet News (Dafoe, 2021). Additional details about Theaster Gates’s biography and creative portfolio are available via the artist’s personal web space at https://www.theastergates.com/.
References and Web Links
Taylor Dafoe (2021) “Artist Theaster Gates Will Design the 2022 Serpentine Pavilion, Becoming the First Non-Architect Solely Awarded the Commission,” Artnet News [Online], 19 May 2021 – https://news.artnet.com/
Theaster Gates’s website – https://www.theastergates.com/
Serpentine Gallery – https://www.serpentinegalleries.org/
The 20th Serpentine Pavilion (2021) – The Johannesburg-based architectural studio Counterspace, led by South African architect Sumayya Vally, were commissioned to design the 2021 Serpentine Pavilion, which opens to the public from 11 June to 17 October 2021.
William Whitney (2019) “Theaster Gates: Amalgam,” Gagosian Quarterly, Winter 2019 Issue – https://gagosian.com/quarterly/2019/12/12/essay-theaster-gates-amalgam/