Is This Art? Plate Convergences by Theaster Gates

(from a piece published in the Oxford University independent newspaper ‘Cherwell’)

Theaster Gates is an American artist whose popularity is rapidly growing. His first major work, Plate Convergences (2007) at first sight may look like the greatest hoax in the history art.

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Theaster Gates, ‘Smashing exercise’ (2007) from ‘Plate Convergences’ exhibition

Gates was born and raised in Chicago, the South Side, that is to say the dodgy side. His hobby was to make ceramics. He always tried to sell his works at country fairs, but wasn’t as successful as he thought he could have been. He therefore came up with an idea that might allow his ceramics to receive the deserved attention. He gathered several of his pieces and put on an exhibition at Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center, Plate Convergences. There, he presented his own ceramic plates claiming they had been fabricated by a legendary Japanese master, Shoji Yamaguci, for whom Gates devised an elaborate backstory. In his story, Yamaguci was a Japanese ceramist who fled Hiroshima and settled in Mississippi in the 1960s. Under the influence of his wife May, a black civil right activist, Yamaguci began to make ceramics devised especially for the food of black people. The couple died in a car accident in 1991, but their legacy was continued by their son John Person Yamaguci. John organised dinners in cities with extreme racial and social tension, with the goal of generating discussions of such tensions.

Gates feigned a ‘spiritual dialogue’ with the non-existent Japanese artist. Ignoring the real provenance of the ceramics, people were taken in by Gates’ story and went crazy for his works. They sold extremely well, and made him a local celebrity, soon to become an international one. Now an acclaimed artist, Gates has been given among other prizes the £40,000 Artes Mundi award in Cardiff, and received an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from San Francisco Arts Institute in May 2015.

This is not the first time a hoax raises issues about the status of art. In 1998 the UK had already witnessed Going Places, the first and best-known work by a group of arts students, The Leeds 13. The students staged a trip to Malaga, ostensibly paid for by a grant, and presented it as their end-of-year show. The idea of using money originally intended to make art for a leisure trip was shocking enough, and all the more so was the fact that such a trip was feigned. It turned out that The Leeds 13 had not been to Malaga at all, but had used the money for things like getting themselves a fake tan and buying souvenirs that may look vaguely Spanish. All this was done in order to draw people’s attention on what they were ready to call ‘art’: had the students really gone to Malaga with the grant, how would have the general public reacted? Were they ready to stretch the concept of ‘art’ to include experiences taking place outside an art gallery?

In the case of Theaster Gates, people started appreciating his ceramics only when they were embellished with a captivating (and fake) story. Does this mean that they were not art before, but only became so once they were made ‘interesting enough’? As Gates claims, ‘I realized that if I had the courage to make work outside the institution, then institutions might actually be interested in the work’. I think the key aspect of the whole thing is this idea of courage. In my view, making an exhibition out of a completely invented idea is daring and innovative. And I think that over the centuries, courage and creativity have always been defining features of artists. If Picasso and Braque hadn’t dared to go beyond mere appearances, we wouldn’t have had cubism and the avant-gardes. Nowadays, artists are increasingly being valued for their ability to innovate and thinking creatively. In a world where creativity is endangered by technology, we need to be reminded that, as humans, we have the invaluable ability to think outside the box, and yes, even to make ‘art’ in completely unprecedented ways.

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