Visual Art

Church of Wax

The Listening Room Introduces a New Kind of Meditation to SAM

Church of Wax

photo by robert wade / courtesy of the artist and seattle art museum

THEASTER GATES Those are records along the back wall.

The Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Gallery already stands apart from its surroundings at Seattle Art Museum: It's the only gallery named after artists. Temporarily, it has been transformed into something more: The Listening Room, by Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates. It's an installation, a place where the lights are low and music is playing. The artist wanted it to feel like a lounge, or a living room after the kids have gone to bed—a space that draws on the special power of being in a museum but not of it. What is the point of going to a museum in order to get someplace else? Well, why go to a museum unless it transports you beyond it? The question is: where to? What is that third place? Or, what do you want it to be?

At The Listening Room, visitors have been seen breaking into dance upon entering. But it's meditative, too. At its core is an archive of black music: a collection of more than a thousand soul, blues, R&B, and disco records, mostly from the 1970s, which Gates rescued from being sold off piecemeal when a store called Dr Wax was closing down a couple years back in Chicago.

Most of the records are lined up in a long built-in shelf across the gallery's back wall. Remember—this is all in low light, with floods cast only to highlight certain objects, like the records and, in front of them, a DJ station. The station is a sculpture, an altar where DJ becomes minister. Its front side is a church pew made of fine, dark wood; the back is made of variously colored patches of reclaimed wood, perhaps siding from houses that came down in a neighborhood development, just like Dr Wax, which was not owned by an African American but by a Jewish man named Sam Greenberg. The original Dr Wax signboard is built into a Japanese-style folding screen set in the gallery. Chairs on each end of the DJ station refer to church and school; one has red velvet upholstery and is carved to point to God, the other is a one-piece desk-chair combo. An old-fashioned hymnal box on the wall does not list page numbers of hymns but rather reads, "SUP BBY GURL."

On first Thursdays and Sundays, a DJ will spin. When there's no DJ, you are invited—by the presence of low, spotlit stools made of scrap wood in a design that echoes the church chair's pointy shape, gathered around a record player and bins of albums—to play records yourself. There are headphones so you can hear. (It would be better if the sound were to bleed out of the room, into the rest of the museum, the way it does when a DJ is spinning.)

Decorating the walls are framed tapestries of strips of flattened decommissioned fire hoses the artist acquired from a fire station that was closing down. The hoses could no longer take the pressure of the water. Here, their vertical lines echo the spines of the records. They're useless and beautiful. They also bring to mind the avant-garde abstract painting of the 20th century. But they bear chill-inducing associations. Titled Civil Tapestries, they're from an ongoing series about the brutal 1963 police hosing of hundreds of demonstrators in the KKK stronghold of Birmingham, Alabama. The word "civil" in the title doubly refers to the potential political potency of "civil rights" and the aestheticized impotence of "civilized company." These hoses could match the sofa. They draw an uncomfortable connection between the failures of revolutionary art and the failures of revolution, period.

They also provide the best hint of what we're listening for in this Listening Room—an answer to "where to?" Maybe there are secret new ways forward embedded in these voices from the past. The politics of geography, abandonment, race, and space lurk just below the rhythms of this seductive, dimly lit surface.

The occasion for The Listening Room is that Gates is the second winner of the Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Fellowship, given to an outstanding African American artist every two years. Since SAM awarded Gates the fellowship earlier this year, he has become the "It" artist of the moment: He's on this month's Art in America cover, he's the 2012 featured artist of the Armory Show, he's had three solo museum exhibitions in two years across the country, he's sold big, et cetera.

If anything can be drawn from Gates's surge in popularity, it's that he helps the rarefied art world feel less insulated—and whether the art world deserves the reassurance, Gates has come by his standing honestly. One of nine children (the only male), he's studied religion, art, and urban planning, and they come together in what he makes. He's bought buildings or partnered with developers in Chicago, Detroit, and Omaha to transform buildings into cultural spaces, hangout joints with libraries containing records from Dr Wax or a whole collection of lantern slides that the University of Chicago was going to get rid of. He's taken money from museums and given it to neighborhoods.

What he represents is that idea of the extension of art into life that's been an ambition of artists since Dada and the constructivists. When he lived in Seattle for four years at the end of the 1990s, his main project was not a painting or a sculpture or a pot (he is a trained ceramicist), it was an occupation: He and a couple of friends, including the artist Eddie Hill, took over an abandoned hardware store called Welch, formerly owned by an Irish family at 23rd and Jackson in the Central District. For about two years, they turned it into an art studio and center, a hub in the middle of history. "You start to think," Gates said, "that you really have the capacity to transform anything." recommended


Comments (8) RSS

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DJ's? Ebonics hymnals?, vinyl revival?,
Come on!
This smacks of such tragically obvious references all that comes to mind is "hipster", "too kool", and unbelievably trendy. Whats next? He's the new Robin Hood? (pun intended)
Posted by northwest mystic on December 14, 2011 at 9:18 AM · Report this
What does Ebonics have to do with anything, you racist jackass? Does it follow that just because this exhibit is centered on African American culture that Ebonics is spoken? And even if it were, should those African Americans who speak Ebonics feel shame for speaking a dialect? Should Cajuns? Should Appalachian hillbillies? You're just another punka$$, racist coward hiding behind the keyboard. Bring your a$$ down to The Listening Room and say what you said.
Posted by Don'tEven on December 16, 2011 at 11:57 PM · Report this
alpha unicorn 3
"Stand, you've been sitting much too long, there's a permanent crease in your right or wrong." ~Sly Stone
Posted by alpha unicorn on December 17, 2011 at 12:42 PM · Report this
Except for those who loathe this species of art, Gates has clearly been embraced by those who matter in giving him exposure. SAM, once again, grabs an exhibit that is carefully calculated to attract popular attention like, the Kurt Cobain and King Tut shows perhaps to the loss of more esoteric or quiet art. I still can’t get over the feeling that there’s something racially wrong with having a room dedicated to blacks as is having a whole building dedicated to Asian. What about a room or a building for women artists? That, I think, is the root of my objection. Gates should be welcome but a room for blacks? An affirmative action room or program for blacks or even Eskimos or whatever? Why not open up all spaces to everyone? As to the $10K GK & JL endowment requirements and politics aren’t Caucasians colored? I heard a black man call his girlfriend pink the other day. Skin color discrimination seems to be a problem that can’t go away. I do respect the complexities and impossibilities of putting forth a winning prescription on racism. Will Disney ever release Song of the South again as history? Life seems full of T_r Babies, a term that seems treated like the ‘n’ word in the US. Our experience of the black artist in America seems fraught with sticky issues. Many of Gates ideas seem didactic like the fire hose thing, maybe just a little too literal.
Posted by GFinholt on December 20, 2011 at 2:10 PM · Report this
@1: it's like David Stoesz and Golem had a baby.

laying it on a bit thick GF
Posted by DJus interruptus on December 21, 2011 at 9:27 PM · Report this
@5 DJ person,

It appears you are an ally of nwmystic and are reinforcing his pov. You seem more sober than nwm. Your post is interesting, critical but not abusive. Yeah, there may be something thick about my text. Exageration can help us understand things like comedy or humor can. Take political cartoons for example. I only mean to raise unusual thoughts or connections often maybe out of the box but enlightening. I appreciate your ideas here.
Posted by GFinholt on December 22, 2011 at 4:13 PM · Report this
@6 GFinholt

In reference to @1, you have got to be shitting me. I do appreciate your food for thought regardless of whether or not I agree with you.

I just saw the show the SAM exhibit and I didn't find it didactic. I think the firehose tapestries are also strangely, functional acoustic panels designed to muffle sound.
I can only assume everything was done for very specific reasons. The sound and objects were a little participatory but also locked into a capsule like a natural history museum.
Posted by DJus Interruptus on December 30, 2011 at 3:59 PM · Report this
I find it hard to understand the level of negativity in the comments here. I went to see Theaster Gates projects in South Chicago and really saw what he was doing. I was blown away by what he and so many of the community in that neighbourhood had done. Are were continuing to do. Far from being a cynical exercise in marketing as was implied by one of the posters here, he is building something powerful here. And not at all didactic (as in the comment 4) - why because i am not from your culture, as is quite a number of his international audience. How subtle was the abuse by police in 1963? Germany artists and writers have been actively reminding their citizens (and globally) that Nazism and hatred are always a possibility. Perhaps Theaster is doing the same. Giving what happened a voice and in a positive form.
Posted by Gianni on November 10, 2012 at 2:07 PM · Report this

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