“Whether people are believers in the sacred or not, can architecture, design, the arts create a moment where you feel like you’re touching something that is bigger than my humanity or your humanity?” In anticipation of the opening of Theaster Gates: Assembly Hall, we share a 2017 conversation between Gates and curator Victoria Sung on Black Vessel for a Saint (2017), the sculptural installation commissioned by the Walker for the recent reopening of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, in which Gates discusses the secular-sacred, black entrepreneurship, and how a traveling statue of St. Laurence finally found a permanent home.
VICTORIA SUNG (VS)
I’ve been thinking about the sanctuary-like aspect of Black Vessel for a Saint. Some of the other works in the sculpture garden are also places for meditation and contemplation. There’s James Turrell’s Sky Pesher (2005). And Kris Martin’s For Whom… (2012) similarly pulls on notions of the sacred and the secular. With St. Mark’s Cathedral and the Basilica of Saint Mary nearby, the addition of your structure creates an interesting triangulation of sacred spaces. Can you talk about how you came to think about building a sanctuary of sorts for your first permanent outdoor commission?
THEASTER GATES (TG)
A big part of my practice has always been concerned with the idea of the sacred. Both the kind of formal sacred, like organized religion or tribal participation, and the idea of sacred literature and language around the eternal or the invisible. While studying religion in college and having a life that was concerned with the world you couldn’t see, I learned how religious music and sacred texts inform people’s everyday. I’m always looking for messages about how the world works through those things.
For my first large commission, it felt like the right step to consider the idea of the sanctum or the sanctuary. I had done a contemporary project in Bristol in 2015, kind of thinking about this inner space of an inner space, like the “holy of holies.” But it was temporary. And so the Walker project was the first moment when I could consider a meditative zone that would be a permanent architecture.
The second part that felt really exciting was that I had the burden of this martyr, St. Laurence, in my life. Because the St. Laurence Church in Chicago was being demolished, I had been buying and gathering materials from it. The last two objects to come from the church were the bell and St. Laurence himself—a six-foot-tall concrete statue.
So I had to give St. Laurence a home because he was homeless. Since he was the guardian of the church’s treasures, I thought it would be super cool to have him present in other sacred sites. So I took him to the Venice Biennale and gave him a temporary home in the Arsenale. Then I took him to Kuntshaus Bregenz and gave him a home in the Peter Zumthor–designed space, which is as close as you can get to the secular-sacred as possible.
And then there was no home for St. Laurence, and I thought, “Wow, the timing feels really right to think about this space that I’m creating at the Walker.” I thought a permanent home for St. Laurence was important. At this time when I’m building a lot, and the Walker is building a lot, there is St. Laurence, the religious caretaker, participating in the action of making new things sacred. That felt good among the other makers in the space.
Can you share a little more about St. Laurence’s story?
It’s as much myth and lore as it is about this real figure who lived. But what I’ve gleaned is that St. Laurence was entrusted with taking care of the riches of the church. There was a moment when the government asked him to hand over the church’s riches. And I believe that St. Laurence assembled some 5,000 poor people at the city capital and said, “Here are our riches.”
This move where he was kind of intentionally creating a public protest, a temporary assembly, and upending the government didn’t make the emperor very happy. And so he was sentenced to be roasted on a spit on top of a bed of hot coals. And some lore says that in the middle of this tortured state, when his flesh was starting to burn, he yelled out, “People, my flesh is fully cooked, come eat of me.” He had that same kind of religious zeal as many prophets or sacred holy men and women before him, and the story really speaks to the notion of how belief, in some cases, can build things that seem impossible.
Can you talk about your decision to coat St. Laurence with a roofing product? I know your father was a builder and you’ve used tar in other works before.
In addition to the idea of the sacred, I’m really interested in critical preservation. Critical preservation is a term that I learned when I was a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. What I love about the notion of critical preservation is that it’s not just about the ability to return a thing to its original state. Rather, it is the ability to understand what’s left of a thing that has been in ruin in relationship to the needs of a later time. How do you move that thing forward based on a new need?
In some ways, St. Laurence, like the South Side of Chicago, was starting to decay from 100 years of being outside in the elements. In the vessel, St. Laurence is partially uncovered, so I thought, “St. Laurence needs a roof.” Tarring St. Laurence was both a creative act, in that I love using the material tar, but it was also an act of preservation. A way of having St. Laurence live with us longer. It was trying to get at such questions as: How do we deal with abandonment, ruin, decay? How do we start to imagine ourselves as deeper caretakers of the things that exist in the world?
Maybe instead of the invention of new things, there are already so many things in the world that simply need a new meaning made, new qualifiers that demonstrate their value.
Let’s talk a bit about the brick itself. It’s unusual in that it’s made from recycled waste product. In the past you’ve said that this brick feels like an important shift in your practice because you’re inserting a new modular unit to the world. How do you envision the possibilities of this brick moving forward?
There is a part about the brick that is about the history of conceptual art practices. And then there’s this other part that’s about the pragmatism of black entrepreneurship. In my case, I was excited to use the brick as an opportunity to create the potential for new jobs on the South Side and West Side of Chicago. If I could make a product like black brick, it could mean that I’d have the potential to employ 200 to 500 people to help me make those bricks. The idea of the brick could then lead to the possibility of a changed neighborhood, an increased middle class. So that’s where abstract math goes rogue. There is a part of me that is super interested in the possibility of taking abstract and conceptual thought that has a home in the art world and using that thought to do super interesting things in the real world.
The sculpture is called Black Vessel for a Saint. Can you speak to the vessel part of the title?
I’m trying to contemplate two important things in the title. One is that I imagine the space as a vessel, and the vessel is made out of clay bricks that were made from this principal material that I love so much. So it’s awesome to use the term “vessel” to refer to a large pot made out of clay. I’m also looking at how this architectural structure can house this other thing that I’m deeply considering, which is the sacred, the sacrifice, the meditative, the ruin—because in some ways St. Laurence is part of a thing gone away.
I’m interested in this idea of the role that artists play in considering not only the ironic or idiosyncratic, but also the sincere, the sacred, the political, the moral. Is it possible to deal with the sacred in a way that simply lets there be space for the possibility of a sacred act or a sacred moment? Whether people are believers in the sacred or not, can architecture, design, the arts create a moment where you feel like you’re touching something that is bigger than my humanity or your humanity?
You mentioned the architect Peter Zumthor and the experiential quality of his spaces earlier. What I find special about Black Vessel for a Saint, as you alluded to just now, is how it is, in a sense, the largest pot you’ve ever made. You started off as a potter working with clay, and I understand from conversations with other potters that what’s perhaps more important than a pot’s external decoration is its internal capacity.
We’ve talked about the notion of the void and the function of a pot as creating a type of space. Can you discuss the imagined experience of Black Vessel for a Saint and how you may or may not have worked from this imagined experience outward to create the actual structure?
There’s such an interesting parallel between the idea of an architectural structure and a small clay vessel. I think my investment in the creation of bigger spaces and their philosophies is deeply rooted in my ability to create a good pot or tea bowl. What I love about the work of Zumthor is that when he uses the term atmosphere, he’s not necessarily talking about the positive work that happens as a result of his construction. I actually think he’s talking about the negative work that happens as a result of the volumes created from the walls he creates. It’s actually in the absence of architectural intervention where atmosphere is born.
In the same way, potters are constantly thinking about the function—the contents that might be held in a void—while at the same time understanding that once you create that void, there’ll be a visual experience on its outside. So as much as I want to maximize the amount of water that a jar can hold, or the amount of fermented bean sprouts that an Onggi Korean vessel could hold, I’m still having to also think about how things land on the ground, how one picks a pot up and moves it around.
The goal is to allow the user of the vessel, big or small, to have a really simple experience—whether that’s a meditative experience when moving from one place to another or the simplicity of the way they hear water fall as they’re pouring water out of a handmade vessel.
The way in which you just focused on the individual experience inside the spaces you create calls to mind Heidegger and his writings on being. In “The Thing,” for instance, he references a jug as a physical object that helps ground human beings, which, in turn, facilitates their understanding of their existence in the world. In “Building, Dwelling, Thinking,” he suggests that building is not necessarily a means or a ways to dwell but that to build is already to dwell. I wonder if you can talk about this relationship between building and dwelling as it relates to this commission but also to your larger Dorchester Projects and the Stony Island Arts Bank.
We can take Heidegger’s thinking in terms of the possibility that a thing, or a vessel, is actually the principal component allowing us to come together. That it is, in a way, about the object being a thing that could hold water, a thing that could hold a stew, a thing that could be a device that allows for tea to stay warm longer. But, ultimately, those devices are held as subject to people and the ability to allow for another occasion to happen. So you’re never thinking about the pot independent of those who might gather with the pot. A thing without people is not really a thing. A thing without people can’t exist, because it’s only with people that one is allowed to fully experience things.
In that sense thing theory is super helpful in thinking about why I would commit so much of my time and energy not to the making of objects but to the creation of space. What I’m after is creating opportunity after opportunity for more people to gather. And if they gather in front of a tar painting, inside of a museum, that’s awesome. But I also love the idea that I could create a space where people would be able to have shelter, experience performances, reflect together on the possibilities and the challenges of urban space. My investment in things is really about a deep investment in people.