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."