My Labor is My Protest

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Bring me home, please

Some artists comment on real estate, some real estate developers are interested in art but i doubt that many people can be both artists and real estate developers. Actually i only know of one: Theaster Gates. He is an urban planner, a visual artist, a musician, a curator and an activist.

Gates is as interested in urban regeneration as much as he is passionate about creating communities in deprived areas of Chicago. He renovated a two-storey house and turned it into an archive and library, used a former candy store as an event and performance space, has recently persuaded the city of Chicago not to demolish an abandoned bank and is now planning to convert the building into a cultural hub and library. If you're intrigued by his work, and find yourself in London right now, you're in luck because Gates has a spectacular solo show at White Cube Bermondsey right now.

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Theaster Gates, My Labor is My Protest, 2012. Photo: Ben Westoby, Courtesy White Cube

And by spectacular i mean fire trucks hanging on the ceiling and an entire library of books about black American culture.

The books are part of the collection of John H. Johnson, the founder of Ebony and Jet, two magazines for the African-American market. You can pick up books ("Black Mathematicians and their Works", "Negroes and Jobs", "14 Africans vs. one American", etc.), browse, read, flip through them but you can not take any picture. Not even of the book shelves. No one could tell me why. Anyway, i spent more time than i intended inside the temporary library. I missed the first weeks of the show when gallery visitors were also offered make-up sessions.

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Theaster Gates, Installation photograph (South Gallery I, White Cube Bermondsey), 2012. Photo: Ben Westoby, Courtesy White Cube

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On Black Foundations (detail), 2012

Now back to the fire trucks. The first one is outside, in front of the gallery. It is beautiful and incongruous like a giant American toy and is soiled by big spots of tar on its otherwise bright yellow bodywork.

A video inside the space documents the almost ritualistic performance when the artist, accompanied by the music of his band 'The Black Monks of Mississippi', used a mop to dab hot tar and mark the fire truck. Apparently, the gesture was inspired by Gates' father who tarred roofs for a living as an alternative form of protest during the 1968 Chicago riots.

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Theaster Gates, Raising Goliath, 2012. Photo: Ben Westoby, Courtesy White Cube

Another truck is part of the show: Raising Goliath. The red 1967 Ford 850 is suspended with theatrical pulleys from the ceiling of the gallery. Gates counterbalanced the vehicle with a stack of fire department hoses and leather bound issues of African American magazines, all neatly housed inside a metal frame. Gates describes the work as a way to 'hoist the history of the Civil Rights out of view, making it both weightless and invisible...' and to highlight 'the way things change and remain the same'.

There are many symbols and metaphors in the exhibitions. Some are a bit superficial (the paintings covered in tar and matted roofing paper to represent black skin and afro hair are not very subtle), others run deep into the Civil Rights Movement and black culture. The decommissioned fire hoses, for example, allude to the use of fire hoses to disperse people campaigning for African-American Civil Rights in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

The gallery is also screening the 15 minute commercial The Secret of Selling the Negro Market. Made in 1954 by Johnson Publishing Company, the film attempted to encourage advertisers to promote their products and services in the African American media.

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Well, that's a show i'd recommend you to see if you're in town for a few after Frieze day. Tomorrow i'm going to try the Multiplied art fair. I'm hoping that one will be almost affordable.

Theaster Gates, My Labor Is My Protest is open through 11 November 2012 at White Cube Bermondsey in London.

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