There is a display in SAM Downtown’s Wright & Runstad Gallery for African Art holding two pairs of sculptures that provide a transcendent view of “togetherness” and what it means for the spiritual to be connected with the earth. The first is a pair of “Male and Female figures” made by the Baule of central Cote d’Ivoire. The painted wood sculptures represent spirit spouses that inhabit another world parallel to this one, and are prescribed by diviners to promote a healthy living situation between spouses. Imbued with power by the diviner each sculpture is given individual attention by its client in order for the power to be activated. Beside this pair resides a set of Congolese harps carved with faces at the end of their long curving necks to keep their players company and watch their every move. Atop flexed, carved legs their bellies would be filled with sound as the harp couple was played by two musicians travelling as a pair. During their travels the performers recited history as their livelihood and sang legendary epics.
Taken together these objects bring to mind the exhibit Theaster Gates: The Listening Room where objects form a collective history and repurposed materials find new meaning as art. The collection of records taken from Chicago’s now defunct Dr. Wax record store reminds me of the spirit spouses who are deserving of more attention. Giving attention to the records in SAM’s twice monthly DJ sets in the Listening Room (come listen next week May 3 & 6!) has allowed people in our community to come together at SAM through music. Although the spirit spouses must be decommissioned of their power by the diviner before they enter the museum the enduring coolness in their expressions continues to give meaning to their remedial function. Similarly the decommissioned fire hoses lining the walls of the Listening Room evoke memories of the civil rights movement in the 1960s where protestors were sprayed with these high pressure hoses during race riots. Our collective memory is jarred by Theaster Gates who saw value in an art object where others saw scrap material.
Considering this communal environment brings up another project Theaster Gates is involved with – the upcoming performance of “red, black & GREEN: a blues” coming to the Intiman Theater for Seattle Center’s Next 50 festival 30 May – 2 June. The performance is collaborative and interactive, written for the stage by performer, activist, and educator Marc Bamuthi Joseph. Bamuthi is working with a host of talented artists including set design by Gates. Click here to learn more about Marc Bamuthi Joseph and the Living Word Project and watch videos on the performance “red, black & GREEN: a blues.”
The central question addressed by Bamuthi is, “what sustains life in your city?” This is something he asked many people through the Life is Living festivals he has curated since 2008 in various U.S. cities and forms the inspiration that went into writing “red, black & GREEN: a blues.” By incorporating “the voices of people often left out of discussions about living green,” this conversation on the environment succeeds where others have fallen short, and actively seeks a reimagining of where we place value in our community.[i] This forms a collective experience that, through the stories Bamuthi has engaged and the recycled materials of Theaster’s set inspired by row houses, express our social ecology with power, grace, and rhythm. The success of this performance comes from the belief that “ultimately we are interdependent and stronger through collaboration,” which, like the Congolese harps and Ivorian spirit spouses, helps us maintain good relations and feel connected with the earth.
-Ryan R. Peterson, Curatorial + Community Engagement Intern
[i] Source: Mapp international productions website. Artist proframs, artists and projets, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, red, black & GREEN: a blues. Last accessed 24, April, 2012. http://mappinternational.org/programs/view/214
Top photo: “Male and Female Figures,” wood, paint, Ivorian, Baule & “Pair of Harps,” wood, skin, fabric, Congolese, Ngbaka. Photograph by the Author. Taken 4/24/12. JPEG file.
Theaster Gates’ Listening Stools, one of the sculptural forms in the exhibit The Listening Room, have helped transform SAM’s Knight-Lawrence Gallery into an open space for music and ideas. Their design may be simple and made from recycled wood, coming from the floorboards of a Chicago police station, but the stools invite visitors to sit, relax, and engage with the art, music and each other. They often lead guests to converse about a record they’re currently holding, and I can’t say how many people have learned to play their first 33 1/3” vinyl record on a turn table while sitting in one of these modest wooden chairs.
Although his artistic training is in ceramics Gates’ sculpted pieces for The Listening Room draw from his seemingly endless resources using recycled lumber as a medium that allows him to transcend artistic traditions and place focus on social engagement through discarded materials-come-art. The Listening Stools are one of these unlikely art objects carrying a history in their structure. Other lumber materials present in the exhibit are the ware board record crates (see below), the original sandwich board from Dr. Wax’s record store made to look like a Japanese Shoji screen, and the entirely recycled wood deejay table faced with a carved wooden altar screen sourced from a defunct Chicago church.
Another example of Gates’ material repurposing is his Temple Exercises (2009) at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, which constructed a temple-like structure from modular ware boards from the abandoned Wrigley Gum factory in the heart of Chicago. This became a site for spiritual exercises and performance by groups such as Gates’ own ensemble, the Black Monks of Mississippi. The same Wrigley ware boards are used in the Listening Room for the record crates that accompany the turntable in the middle of the gallery in which visitors are invited to peruse records and listen in on headphones at any time during museum hours.
“I’m one person,” says Gates, “one whole person who thinks about friendship and neighborliness and God as much as I think about object making.” His chairs achieve the sense of transformation that Gates’ work self-consciously seeks to convey. Inherent in this transformation is the vinyl vertebrae lining the back wall of the gallery: Dr. Wax’s Record Archive. Entering the gallery for the first time viewers are perhaps not expecting to see a long shelf of records and deejay table. Set into the back wall Dr. Wax’s records are joined with the musical sounds that can be heard emanating from the gallery before visitors even enter the space. They are immediately faced with the aural and visual qualities of this kinesthetic installation and find themselves asking the question “How do I engage with this art?” By the time visitors reach the Listening Stools, they have intoned through osmosis the intertwining themes of music, history, politics, and space that are addressed by the exhibit. It is the music’s audio ability to communicate cultural, political, and artistic history to a public willing and able to engage that brings meaning to the lumber-made objects present in the gallery and comes full circle to connect the archive of cultural knowledge to its listeners.
-Ryan R. Peterson, Curatorial + Community Engagement Intern
 Art In America, December 2011, p. 126
Last photo: SAM patrons Faye Peterson and Mike O’Brien browsing records in the Listening Room. Photograph by author. JPEG file.
Time is running out to bring your collection of lids in to the Olympic Sculpture Park!
In Trenton Doyle Hancock’s wildly fictitious narrative, color is the source of salvation to a race of creatures who are seeking spiritual nourishment. For his installation, A Better Promise, Hancock playfully encourages you to pour color into his work by bringing plastic tops in all colors. The plastic caps add a whole spectrum of light into the installation and, for Hancock they “are in a way the surrogates for the color salvation.” As the artist has said, this installation “has to do with hope, color, connecting with people, connecting with community.” And you all have shown that he’s definitely connected with this community. Continue Reading…
If you haven’t been to the Olympic Sculpture Park lately, you should go. Not only is it summer in the park but Trenton Doyle Hancock’s, A Better Promise—an art installation in the PACCAR Pavilion—is especially mesmerizing and animated when the bright sunshine manages to peek out of the clouds and shine into the pavilion. Ironically, this is partly because of its numerous colorful raindrops but partly it’s because of the giant vitrines full of plastic lids that sit below the installation.
As part of the work, Hancock issues a “call to color” by encouraging visitors to bring their own morsels of color—in the form of plastic bottle caps—to the park and drop them into the work of art. Nine large-scale “earthbound” vitrines have been placed on the floor in front of the hand sculpture. On the face of each of these nine containers, there is a teardrop cut-out where plastic bottle caps can be deposited by color. Visitors are encouraged to bring plastic bottle caps ranging in all shapes and sizes from detergent bottles, to clear water bottles to the black and white caps from drink bottles.