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Tuesday
Feb032015

Theaster Gates: Migration Rickshaws, 2012

Theaster Gates. Migration Rickshaw for Sleeping, Building and Playing, 2013. White Cube

Relatively speaking, not a lot out there on Theaster Gates, given how multivalent and ubiquitous his practice is. Urban design and community-building play a large part, as does a fairly conventional art practice such as the Civil Tapestry series.  He is described on his website as a Chicago-based artist who has 'developed an expanded practice that includes space development, object making, performance and critical engagement with many publics.' And wikipedia states he is 'an American Social Practice Installation artist' [wikipedia's caps].

Gates is perhaps someone who has done a lot of things: urban planning, construction, ceramics, installations and performances not unconnected to church performance.  He bought half a street in south Chicago and turned it into a community arts corridor: he has a project, he points this project to many processes and ways of making his project visible.  

The rickshaws are, like a shoe shine series, objects made from found materials: the social reference to the shoe shine stand is perhaps clearer than the rickshaw in terms of American black history, but the rickshaws are wheeled vehicles that carry the tools and materials for new lives.  The materials are embedded with old lives and old wrongs.  The form is generally two stair stringers with things stacked on top, a wagon wheel at the far end.  Similar carts figure in fleeing refugee images the world over.  In isolating the cart from all context, i.e. it has become a sculpture in a gallery, the form assumes a universality in the way that Joseph Beuys' sleds and stacks of felt, so personal and autobiographical, become a synecdoche for all cases of individual survival – if not felt and fat, then leaves, or snow, or hay, or cardboard.  Gates' Migration Rickshaws are both literally and figuratively vehicles that carry a load: it is the load that becomes didactic. Migration Rickshaw for Sleeping and Building, Migration Rickshaw for German Living, Soul Food Rickshaw for Collard Greens and Whiskey, Rickshaw for Hardware.  What is it that makes a life?  

I realise that the current term for found stuff you make art out of is re-purposed materials – discarded things whose new purpose seems to be art.  I'm not sure this is effective re-purposing, again it seems didactic: nothing is waste, nothing is too humble to be re-used.  There is a vintage, early-twentieth century look to these rickshaws that makes them so much more romantic than a steel shopping cart full of plastic bags and bottles, the more usual urban migration rickshaw these days. One could actually build something with Gates' rickshaw loads; bottles and plastic are simply articles whose only destination is molecular reorganisation at an industrial scale. There is perhaps a recovery project here, a pre-civil rights movement recovery when 'freedom' implied an individual sense of destiny and dignity, not the freedom to be shot by a neighbourhood watch idiot because you are wearing a hoodie.  

Theaster Gates. Soul Food Rickshaw for Collard Greens and Whiskey, 2012 55 1/2 x 96 7/8 x 29 1/8 in. Desk drawers, wood and wheels

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