Performance and inertia: Theaster Gates at the New Museum

A recent trip to New York afforded me the opportunity to see a number of exhibitions that in some way address performance. Anecdotally, it seems that, as performances become an increasingly standard part of museums’ repertoires, it is not only the case that performance plays a greater role in exhibitions, but also that art objects previously considered inert are being exhibited in ways that emphasize or at least nod to performative aspects that are embedded in their histories or suggested by their forms. Among these shows was a large retrospective of the work of Theaster Gates at the New Museum, called “Young Lords and Their Traces.” The show, which opened on November 11, is on view until February 5, 2023.

In what follows, I will gather some of my thoughts and responses to the way that performance is presented, insinuated, exploited, and furthered – or not – in this exhibitions. I will also include an account of “Vivian Caccuri and Miles Greenberg: The Shadow of Spring,” which is currently on view in the New Museum’s lobby gallery, also until February 5.

Installation view of Theaster Gates’s A Heavenly Chord (2022). “Theaster Gates: Young Lords and Their Traces,” 2022. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Photo: Dario Lasagni. Courtesy New Museum.

Theaster Gates, whose work includes many spiritual elements, believes that objects retain a kind of power and memory through their histories. In practice, this means that the New Museum’s galleries include many objects that are essentially unassisted Readymades, brought by Gates into the museum setting so that, presumably, their stories might resonate with art viewers. Some of these stories are moving or fascinating, but I failed to see how their histories unfold (aside from a brief wall label) or their meanings are augmented in a gallery setting. It’s as if Gates expects the objects to perform their meaning unassisted, but I found that their unaltered presentation tended to give them a distinct air of inertness. This was especially the case with objects that hold a clear relationship to performance, such as a large bronze bell taken from a church demolished in Chicago. The bell resounds neither through being tolled – and how large and intense such a sound might be in the museum gallery! – nor through its story being told.

Detail of a Hammond B3 electronic organ.

I found the most interesting of these Readymade-type works to be A Heavenly Chord (2022), a Hammond B3 electronic organ placed in the center of the top-floor gallery and connected to a group of “Leslie” speakers, which were mounted high on the walls so that their cables trailed down to the floor. (These speakers were originally designed to simulate the spatial complexity of the sound produced by a traditional pipe organ. Their placement high on the gallery walls was thus probably not a purely visual decision.) As I learned in the exhibition, the Hammond B3 is an electric organ, first released in the 1930s, that was designed to replace traditional church organs. It was most readily adopted by Black churches in the United States; eventually, experimental musicians and artists started using it, too, valuing its unusual sonic possibilities. It is a fascinating object, but I was frustrated by its seemingly sculptural presentation. What it was doing there in the gallery – and what is Gates’s post-Duchampian authorship meant to contribute to its history and meaning? In fact, several “activations” by musicians are planned during the exhibition’s run (though not, in my opinion, very many). Is the work this instrument, or these few performances? What is the piece when it is not being performed?

Cross in Section, 2022. “Theaster Gates: Young Lords and Their Traces,” 2022. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Photo: Dario Lasagni. Courtesy New Museum.
Wings, 2022. “Theaster Gates: Young Lords and Their Traces,” 2022. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Photo: Dario Lasagni. Courtesy New Museum.

Like so many contemporary artists, Gates is very aware of art history, and the exhibition also includes a number of references to other artists’ work. The logic of the Readymade is also at work in a series that pays homage to the early paintings of Frank Stella. The exhibition includes a number of works – we might call them wall sculptures, or simply wooden paintings – that reproduce Stella’s famously rigid compositions not through stripes of paint, as in the originals, but rather by replacing Stella’s straight lines with wooden planks. Gates acquired these weathered planks when the Park Avenue Armory renovated part of its facilities, and their visible marks of age and use hint at, if they do not speak of, the many feet that once walked upon them. According to the wall labels, these planks of “old-growth pine” were first installed as flooring 138 years ago. As art historical commentary, these works strike me as rather thin: what is their relationship to Stella, beyond the rather straightforward geometry? For that matter, why not Sol Lewitt or Agnes Martin? Nonetheless, they did start me thinking about performance in an unexpected way. One might call such a work a copy of a Stella painting, or an homage or reference to him. But isn’t it really a reperformance – a new, creatively-interpreted instantiation of a past artwork in the present? When one spends a lot of time thinking about performance, it leaks into other media as well. After all, performance is not only an art medium, but – as some scholars argue – may be seen as a way of approaching the world. And if I understand Gates’s remade wooden Stellas as reperformances, then I begin also to seriously consider the “bodies” performing them – the wood that was once the floor of an armory, before it was the floor of a performance space (and was once, of course, a tree).

Detail of Cross in Section, 2022. “Theaster Gates: Young Lords and Their Traces,” 2022. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Photo: Dario Lasagni. Courtesy New Museum.

At the New Museum, I also saw another small exhibition in their lobby gallery, a collaborative installation by Vivian Caccuri and Miles Greenberg called “The Shadow of Spring.” Their sound installation, a shifting landscape of deep vibrations, is, according to the wall text, “inspired by how different rhythms and frequencies can affect group dynamics (as in temples, dance floors, and urban spaces).”

“Vivian Caccuri and Miles Greenberg: The Shadow of Spring,” 2022. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Photo: Dario Lasagni. Courtesy New Museum.

I wasn’t sure exactly how it was meant to affect my own dynamics – especially as I was the only visitor in the gallery when I saw the piece – but it did make me reflect on how seemingly immaterial sound waves create resonances in matter, including my own body. How can the feeling of my body vibrating be conserved? Greenberg’s contribution includes a set of three sculptures that were made by combining 3D scans of his own body made while performing live.

“Vivian Caccuri and Miles Greenberg: The Shadow of Spring,” 2022. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Photo: Dario Lasagni. Courtesy New Museum.

That is presumably why they look sort of like what happens when 3D-rendered figures cross into each other’s space, as in a glitchy videogame. Each of these multi-limbed, multi-headed sculptures also serves as a fountain, spouting water up and back into a small stone-lined pool surrounding it. I was struck by how the fountains restore the variety, movement, and sound of the absent performances – without, however, especially giving me a sense of what those performances were actually like. While the idea of performance seems very prevalent in the contemporary museum landscape, it often remains just that – an idea. The notion of performance is presented or maintained, rather than specific qualities of a particular performance. Knowing that there was movement – knowing that an object you encounter has a rich history – is very different than gaining some access to or whiff of that motion or story.

One of Miles Greenberg’s fountains in action.

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