Theaster Gates' 'Black Chapel' at Haus der Kunst, Munich - Exhibition Review
With an in-situ work part of Der Öffentlichkeit program (the museum invites the public to interact with a commissioned artists interpretation of middle hall, cost free), Gates transforms the atrium of Haus der Kunst. The storied museum located at the tip of Munich’s famed ‘Englischer Garten’ park hosts Theaster Gates’ latest work touching on the configuration of a Black identity in the US, representation to a white audience and more. The Chicago Artist produces more than an installation; he provides the viewer an entertainment and critical environment with an immense emotional potency. A transition - from marble to neon, from columns to ‘Housebergs’, vacancy to vibrancy, austerity to animation. Gates is incredibly thoughtful in so many elements of Black Chapel, none more so that the use of this poignant location.
Cognisant of the historical significance, Gates takes careful consideration of the museum’s past. It propels his already intense work onto another level. An institution founded on racist principles of the National Socialism, Haus der Kunst’s initial iteration during the Third Reich was ‘Haus der Deutschen Kunst’ – a temple dedicated to displaying portraits of ‘Great German’ Aryan families, muscular neoclassical bronzes and pastoral landscapes. Removed from this awful history, the institution now serves as a example of Germany acknowledging and dealing with their troubled history head on, refusing to pretend and ignore these issues. This, contrasted with the lack of acknowledgement and unresolved racial issues pervasive in the US due to an unwillingness to address the history of Slavery and Jim Crow era prejudice, produces a fecund environment for Gates’ work. Today, HDK (House der Kunst) is a space for truly diverse global voices and narratives, though rarely can a work such as Black Chapel not acknowledge the importance of presenting iconography and voices of those exiled and persecuted under the beliefs the museum was founded upon.
It’s a sunny August afternoon outside yet one would be forgiven for thinking they are at a Chicago house nightclub at 2am. The hall is dark. Though this is not the type of darkness experienced in a medieval and White ‘chapel’ found in Europe. This is a darkness that compliments light, one which through a juxtaposition gives light a stage, a pedestal. The rotating, gleaming ‘Housebergs’ are a steadfast fixture of Gates’ environments like that of his 2016 ‘How to Build a House Museum’ at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Sculpturally speaking they are fascinating, projecting light beams across the room evoking a space of rejoice and freedom like that of a club night listening to house music.
The alter of this Black Chapel is a matt black raised platform in the centre of the hall, surmounted by a dominant Houseberg and two magnificent and equally legendary neon fixtures of notorious Chicago businesses, Rothschild Liquors and Harold’s Chicken. The Rothschild sign has a rather tongue in cheek addition from Gates, Mother’s Milk, a possible reference to the role liquor stores play in the poverty cycle and deprivation of communities like those of Chicago’s Southside Gates often refers to. Harold’s Chicken’s infamy in Chicago stretches across the entire US collective conscious of the inner city Black experience, making its way into rap lyrics from artists such as Common and Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, along with locations for music video shoots and TV shows. Gates elevates the vernacular to a literal reverent stage.
Dynamic advertising billboards occupy much of the floor space, flickering between imagery of Black icons from magazines such as Jet and Ebony. The ubiquity of Black iconography is particularly salient to a German audience the show is serving. The visual and print culture of the nation is unmistakably White, from the gossip magazines to the street billboards. Explicitly addressing the whitewashing of beauty standards, Gates propels Black women in an industry dominated by White ideals. This environment Gates creates strides between celebration and purposeful re-inscription. The notion that a room full of Black faces and cultural symbols invoke a completely alternate chapel is perhaps telling, though this is no portal to the other side. Gates so carefully retains the critical underlying edge and constantly makes nods to HDK’s largely White audience.
The German term gesamtkunstwerk for ‘total work of art’ seems almost too on the nose here. A term coined by noted fascist Richard Wagner in the 19th Century and used constantly by Art Historians describing settings where the artist has carefully ensured each individual element (from the music to the furniture to the lighting to the sculptures) are as crucial as each other. The space is incomplete when one single part is removed within the total, gestalt art experience.
Towards the rear of the altarpiece are several vitrines chaotically filled with objects reminiscent of the displays in ethnographic and universal museums, a phenomenon propagated in early 20th Century Germany. The obsessively grotesque, colonialist and imperialist collecting practice of African, South American, Asian and Pacific ‘relics’ remains an insidious element of Modernism, an era championed for its avant-gardes. European artists’ infatuation with ‘primitivism’ is now widely critiqued under the lens of anti-colonial practice, though many museums in Europe still retain thousands of these incredibly problematic and questionably sourced objects. The anonymity of the ‘primitive’ remains while ‘avant-gardes’ are championed.
Gates stacks the wooden masks, an explicit curatorial tactic that demands a reassessment of White viewers in how these objects are consumed and received. In what capacity do these objects exist within a ‘Black Chapel’? The piling and ostensibly careless presentation of these objects serves as a powerful metaphor for the gross oversight and laziness concerning what is regarded as ‘Black art’. Greek columns and Roman marbles are meticulously labelled, dated and ascribed with care and consideration in the most attended museums in Europe, they are not cast aside as ‘White art’ and haphazardly treated. Yet this is exactly how anything produced outside of the parochial Eurocentric lens is dealt with. Unauthored with wide ranging production dates while taking up far less space in the museum - far too often the story of art from colonised regions. Gates draws attention to the fact that objects which fall under ‘Black’ terminology are consistently underestimated, under-researched and underappreciated.
Black Chapel’s complexity justly serves the oversimplification, generalisation and stereotyping of Black culture in the US and beyond. Gates presents these critical notes carefully without sacrificing aesthetics; I could spend hours in this visually and intellectually stimulating space.
Black Chapel is curated by Anna Schneider and Dimona Stöckle. See Gates' work admission free at Haus der Kunst, Munich until 16/08.