With training in religious studies, urban planning, and fine arts, Theaster Gates is known for the high level of social engagement that distinguishes his installation and performance practice, characterized by themes surrounding community, gathering, and relational politics. As a child, Gates sang in the choir of his family’s Baptist church, through which he developed a fascination with spirituality and ritual, earning degrees in religious studies from Iowa State University and the University of Cape Town, South Africa. His work continues to reflect his interest in collective spaces and events, including meals, sermons, and classrooms.
While many of Gates’s projects are rooted in the history and culture of Chicago—where he was born and still lives and works—his practice is also distinctly cross-cultural. The artist’s first solo exhibition, Plate Convergences (2007), treated the dinner table as a metaphor through which to explore conversation and intercultural exchange. As both a ritual meal and an artistic “happening,” Plate Convergences was inspired by the ceramicist Shoji Yamaguchi and his wife May, a black civil rights activist, who hosted communal dinners in rural Mississippi for guests from all walks of life in the 1960s.
For the Biennale di Venezia, Gates turns again to a fusion of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. In Martyr Construction (2015), the artist recycles material remains from St. Laurence Catholic Church, a now-demolished parish church in Chicago’s South Side, that exemplifies an ongoing disinvestment in urban holy spaces, particularly in poor and black neighborhoods. Gates’s installation incorporates original artifacts and architectural elements—a bell, building materials, the church’s organ, a fragment of a concrete statue of its patron saint—in a manner inspired by Japanese Buddhism and the philosophy of wabi-sabi, which embraces transience and imperfection. Taking his cue from the continuous reconstruction of Japanese temples or shrines as demonstrations of impermanence, Gates hopes to transform destruction into revitalization, and to offer a model in rebuilding community. The installation will be accompanied by video footage of a live spiritual and musical performance in the church’s ruins.