Does this spark joy? The earnest question-turned-meme flourished earlier this year thanks to the success of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. The show, and by extension the question, guides viewers to cleanse their lives of the excess stuff that fills our spaces. It purges the things we no longer use. It clears the items that we cling to, collecting dust, but refuse to remove. Kondo’s question is the guiding principle that decides what stays and what goes. If an object generates feelings of joy and a general sense of uplift, then it can stay. Anything less must go. It allows us to make tough decisions with our stuff, and while I’m by no means a minimalist, it is a tactic that even I begrudgingly use to decide what to toss.
There is, of course, another side to this act. For every item that stays, an item leaves. It is left behind while we, and our joy-sparking stuff, move forward. These kinds of decisions long predate the Kondo method. The very concept of a museum is centered on the keeping and maintaining of some things—and the not-keeping of others. Yet in the new exhibition Theaster Gates: Assembly Hall, Gates presents us with paradoxical objects. These items range from excerpts of the glass slide collection once part of the University of Chicago to parts of the Ana J. and Edward J. Williams Collection of Negrobilia, as well as components of the Johnson Publishing Company Collections. Neither trashed nor desired, these objects contain within them the stories we might not normally think to tell. What unites all of these collections, however, is a simple principle: the point at which these objects are no longer wanted is precisely the point at which they are most important. There is one collection in particular that I think best illustrates this idea. In fact, we might as well begin with the very first room you enter when walking into the exhibition, the glass slides from the University of Chicago.
Gates first acquired the slides in 2009. As a professor at the University of Chicago, the artist overheard a conversation about getting rid of the slides and, acting quickly, asked for them all on the condition he would find a suitable space to contain them. Art history faculty were given the opportunity to request certain slides be digitized, and only a few of them chose to do so. Most of those who chose to digitize slides were architecture historians who would have some use for a dated slide when accounting for the change a cathedral might undergo over its lifetime or for buildings that have since been torn down. Through taking possession of these objects, Gates had the opportunity to learn formalized art history for himself. Trained in urban planning, ceramics, and religion studies, Gates did not have a traditional art historical education. Quickly, however, as he mastered the straightforward visual history found in the slides, Gates noticed sizable lapses in art historical pedagogy, especially of artists and makers of color, who were distinctly absent from the narrative the slides presented. This observation shifted his focus toward art historiography, the history of art history, and subsequently the critique leveled by the exhibition.
Walking out of the curtains—which mediate our entry to the exhibition space—we see first a single axis centered on pews. These wooden benches come from Gates’s St. Laurence Church collection, the same source for the statue found in Black Vessel for a Saint, his commissioned work in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. While we are given small glimpses into the other rooms, our eyes are pulled in many directions as his six-channel video work, titled Art History, plays across the walls. Images of glass slides, ranging from images of wall painting in South Africa to modernist sketches of a hand, cycle across each surface.
All of the images are digitized slides from the University of Chicago collection, the exception being a handful of photographs from the Johnson Publishing Company which are mixed into the slides. The video is accompanied by an overlapping mix of audio tracks which begins with classic (and thus western-centric) lectures about modernity by art historians, a poem read by Gertrude Stein, as well as a sudden switch to lectures by Black intellectuals such as the Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop and feminist scholar bell hooks. The resulting juxtaposition, along with the gesture of adding Johnson Publishing Company images, create what Gates termed “reading blackness into the collection.” On the wall are a set of 130 glass sides from the collection, many of which overlap with what is shown on the video work, and, finally, in the corner of the room adjacent the wall text, is one of the slide cupboards used to house these objects. At first, this collection of objects might feel distant and disconnected compared to the powerful and problematic objects of the Negrobilia Room, and they do not immediately seem to participate in an important counter-narrative to that history, like the Johnson Publishing Company collections. Yet Gates’s gesture of reading blackness into this old and outdated collection of slides is just as critical and important as unmasking the problematic histories of objects and archiving Black self-fashioning. The importance of Gates’s gesture lies predominately in what these objects are, how they were used, and ultimately what it means for them to have been left behind.
So then what is a glass lantern slide? The earliest projection slides were sheets of glass containing painted or printed images designed for projection. The specific examples seen in the galleries are actually a more modern innovation—a translucent image is printed on a thin clear sheet and pressed between two pieces of glass. These pieces are then wrapped around the edges in a colored adhesive tape designed to keep them as one single unit. These slides would be placed, like an old video game cartridge, in a machine which gives these slides their name: a magic lantern. The magic lantern is very much what its name dictates it is. It is a box which produces a light source. The light is then is funneled into a scope on one side of this box, throwing the projection onto a screen or wall. When displayed in the 19th century, the device seemed to work as if by magic. In time these projecting methods would be replaced by the 35 mm slide projectors, and eventually the Powerpoint we use with them today. Perhaps even less well known, however, is the role these glass lantern slides played in the history of art itself.
In many ways, art history as a discipline solidified via the use of glass slides during the early 20th century. Originally borrowing from popular lectures and medical displays which served as entertainment for late 19th-century Europe, art historians achieved a unique development in the form of side-by-side comparison.1 In the early 1910s the German art historian Heinrich Wölfflin had the idea of placing two slides next to each other for comparison. In many ways, this display is the fundamental visual move that makes art history what it is today. Comparing two different slides of artworks allowed for more rigorous arguments and explanatory strategies, and created what scholar Robert S. Nelson called “the performative triangle” of art history: speaker, audience, and image.2 This format exists to this very day.
Most writing or public lecturing on art will inevitably resort to a side-by side-comparison at some point, and as this method of public lecture grew among academics, so did the reliance on projected images to do some of the heavy lifting. Another famed early art historian and contemporary of Wölfflin, Aby Warburg, was deemed particularly enjoyable to listen to in lecture because his use of slides permitted him to speak intimately and candidly about the image, as if the audience was present before the actual art itself. In time, a slippage occurred between a slide and its depicted object. Art historians treat their slides like the real thing (at least during lectures).3 If art historians treated the images projected by these slides as if they were artworks unto themselves, then for Gates to acquire the entire collection of slides is a way to acquire art history itself. These slides, through both their use and their abandonment, have become what we might call “quasi-objects” which dance in between both nature and science, art and its history, half alive, half dead.4 We might also call them revenant objects, brought back to life through Gates’s act of resurrection. They serve as reminders of the things we are not meant to take notice of, and when their function is no longer explicit, they become eyesores, reminding us of the uncomfortable logistics of their existence.
The revival of these slides introduces a powerful and new take on a now-common criticism of art history: its prevailing whiteness. In a clever appropriation of art history’s unique contribution to the humanities, it is through the act of side-by-side visual comparison of slides that the problem of omission and appropriation goes from an abstract debate amongst scholars to a simple visual problem for viewers to solve. One slide in particular is given privilege in its ability to demonstrate this. In Gates’s six-channel projection, there is only one slide which does not change over the course of the video.
Also found in the selection of slides mounted on the opposite wall, this image contains a single side by side comparison. On the right is a sculpture by Henry Moore of a woman holding a child, while on the left is a sculpture of Gudea, an ancient Mesopotamian king. Thousands of years of art separate these two images, yet the professor chose to display them together.
Gates gives us this image ceaselessly, letting us contemplate its many layers at length. First there is the appropriation of form. They certainly look similar in shape and texture. Moore has seemingly borrowed the linear simplicity, which in his hands is meant to feel pleasantly “modern” while making the sculpture of Gudea feel almost sublimely old. We are to credit Moore for this “discovery” and be impressed. The second layer, however, is the modern fascination with the origins of art. The very same art historians who pioneered the slide lecture also had strong opinions on art’s origins. Historians like Gottfried Semper, Aby Warburg, and Johann Winckelmann all pioneered and persisted in an idea still often held today by the average gallery viewer that, while non-western ancient cultures like Egypt and Mesopotamia are sources of some of the earliest examples of art, it was the Greeks who ultimately came to “perfect” its form. The persistence of this notion is felt in the Moore/Gudea slide, the purpose of which is to demonstrate to the audience that Moore was innovating when appropriating non-western sculpture for his forms. The next layer latent in that image then is the collapsing of the historically distant into the contemporary Other through the notion of primitivism. It is telling that Picasso, who is featured often in Gates’s video, took from African sculpture with the same ease that Moore took from the ancient near East. Their deemed equivalency was also an idea born of Winckelmann and company. Their conflation of the old, culturally low, and foreign into a single category allowed Picasso to skirt questions of appropriating from Africa in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by suggesting he took the forms instead from ancient Iberians, a claim which even Picasso’s biggest fan is forced to disagree with.5
While this comparison originally aimed to show a distinctly “modern” invention, it in fact demonstrates how art history from the 18th and 19th centuries not only drove philosophies of race, but further became so prevalent that their originators were forgotten. While art historians today might easily recognize Winckelmann, Warburg, Semper, and Wölfflin from their “methods” course in grad school, the vast majority of us don’t remember them. And it is precisely when we forget them that they become most powerful and unseen, so much so that we no longer recognize their ideas where they are also very influential—in depictions of race.
The stakes for forgetting the art history of the first room is intimately linked to the kinds of representation found in the Negrobilia room. What do racist tchotchkes have to do with the University of Chicago’s art history methods from the early 20th century? In one of the flat cases against the wall in the Negrobilia room, is an image of a black man and an asian man both frontally and in profile.
It’s taken from a text that I don’t recognize, but its pseudo-scientific presentation coupled with stereotypical characterizations point to a history linked intimately with that of the glass slides through the very same art historians, specifically Johann Winckelmann. Writing in the late 18th century, Winckelmann again argued famously that it was the ancient Mediterraneans who first perfected art, particularly that of sculpture. His evidence for this mastery was the Apollo Belvedere, which he called the “highest ideal of art.”6
As his influence grew as a writer and thinker on art, its origins, and aesthetics, his ideal quite literally placed both the form and whiteness of the sculpture on a pedestal to be revered. This reverence was not limited to art. Writing only a few decades later, Peter Camper, the Dutch physiologist and naturalist, adopted the statue for the pinnacle of human form.7 His work attempted to show degrees of degeneracy from this ideal form through a terrifyingly simple process. He would take facial angles beginning at the top of the forehead, down to the top of the lips. This angle was then measured against others until he developed a spectrum.8
The choice of presentation in this figure fits a display pattern that stems from a purely art historical claim about what is the most ideal human form. The ideal was set at Greek sculpture, the pinnacle of “human” form was from the outset unattainable, yet notably the only group of people even remotely close were white, tall men.
The presence of this image within the body of Negrobilia on display serves as the under-appreciated linkage between the two rooms that on the surface feel least related out of all the exhibition’s rooms. In a roundabout way, we owe many of these disturbing characterizations of African Americans to the very same historical roots that gave black makers their marginal position in the canon of art history. As Camper and Winckelmann were forgotten more generally, their prevalence as public figures evaporated, we were left with a pervasive residue of their ideas at their most perversely simple and most problematic. Their theories, which were once open to debate in public forums, became simply the presumed state of affairs. As the memory of the actual people were abandoned, something darker remained, unnoticed. And I think this is the lesson Gates wishes to give us: abandoning objects, by extension, is never as easy as throwing out their trash. Somewhere, out of sight, lies our ideological trash island, which like its floating relative in the Pacific, poses daily problems and crises that we choose not to see. Bringing these objects back to life, back into circulation in a new way, allows us to reconsider them, and in doing so prompts us to turn our eyes to the unsightly things beneath them. You don’t know what has been swept under the rug until it is time to wash the rug.
Gates, in his care for these slides, presents us with a resuscitated archive rather than a body of now out-of-date objects. This quasi-archive of quasi-objects is subject to change, commentary, criticism, and amendment, rather than fading into insidious obscurity. The act of archiving and collecting for Gates is crucially not an end unto itself. Gates’s mode of archiving arises from activism and action, which, while not new in the scholarship theorizing “the archive,” is still sorely needed in a real tangible way. We can look to Gates as an excellent example of an “activist archivist,” one who polemically uses an archive to rearrange categories outside of its purview.9 Despite the fact that he notably and repeatedly does not refer to himself as an archivist, nor to his collections necessarily as archives, I think it would be helpful nevertheless to imagine him as one. To create an archive where there previously would not be one is in an act of spacing. In fact we can think of space-making, born of Gates’s ceramic process, as the fundamentally binding principle of all four rooms. Some do so literally, like in the Johnson Publishing Company Room and the Ceramics Room—where the gallery itself serves as a convening space for contemplation and dialogue. Other rooms, like the Glass Lantern Slides Room and the Ana J. and Edward J. Williams Collection of Negrobilia, are crafting spaces in our minds with objects we’ve forgotten, like making room on a cluttered table by pushing what was once in the center to its edges. Gates moves aside traditional talking points on a host of issues by centering the conversation on objects that normally wouldn’t have made the cut.
Which brings us back to Marie Kondo.
Look, I get it. We live in a world with a lot of stuff. At this point it would actually be a cliche to spend time explaining how much stuff, physically, digitally, emotionally, we all carry with us in contemporary life. As a result, the desire to cleanse, declutter, and purify makes a lot of sense. Throwing out old clothes is easier than confronting how little we wore them. Eliminating the things from our lives that don’t spark joy, while a helpful tactic toward a tidier living room, is worth a second look. We must not only ask ourselves what is it we leave behind, but why we are leaving it there? In doing so, what part of our own past are we erasing, intentionally or otherwise? I’m not suggesting we all become collectors of out-of-date objects. But rather, it’s worth the exercise of wondering what the benefits are of keeping “stuff” rather than eliminating it. At the very least, when we decide to clean out our things, we should wonder what our own 60,000 glass slides are and what it means to give them away.
1 Trevor Fawcett, “Visual Facts and the Nineteenth-Century Art Lecture,” Art History 6, no. 4 (December, 1983). 442–60, 456.
2 Robert S. Nelson, “The Slide Lecture, or the Work of Art ‘History’ in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Critical Inquiry 26, no. 3 (2000): 415.
3 Ibid. 423
4 Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993), 55.
5 John Richardson, A Life of Picasso, II: The Cubist Rebel, 1907–1916 (New York: Knopf 2012), 10–33
6 Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Winckelmann: Writings on Art, ed. David Irwin (London: Phaidon, 1972), 139.
7 I am particularly indebted to Anne-Solène Bayan for her research and notes on Camper as well as her bibliography on the overlapping of race and art history.
8 Peter Camper, A Treatise on the Natural Differences of Features in Persons of Different Countries , trans. T. Cogan (London, 1821), 9. “When in addition to the skull of a negro, I had produced one of a Calmuk, and had placed that of an ape contiguous to them both, I observed that a line, drawn along the forehead to the upper lip, indicated this difference in national physiognomy; and also pointed to the degree of similarity between a negroe and the ape.”
9 Mark Wigley, “Unleashing the Archive,” Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism 2, no. 2 (2005), 13.