The incendiary invocation of “Burn Baby Burn”, a blazing orange neon sign high up the wall greets the visitor to the fifth floor of the AGO. Disco music pounds in the background and a huge curtain shimmers to block the outside light. We enter Theaster Gates’ politically charged colonization.

Gates is a Black artist and professor at the University of Chicago who deploys strategies of rebuilding in an effort to reinstate Black value. For this exhibition he has themed rooms to express aspects of Black experience, creating shrines to people like W.E.B. Du Bois, Muddy Waters, George Black and Frankie Knuckles, who made significant contributions to Black identity. For Gates, institutions enshrine prejudice in their very architectural structure and by infiltrating the AGO he can begin laying his own bricks within that prejudice.

The root of his strategy lies in Relational Aesthetics, a socialist way of making art defined by Nicolas Bourriaud, who sees the artist as a channel through which the whole of human social relations are engaged. The art object and gallery are obsolete in this view as the subject is the entire life experience or flux of living. The goal is to create the right situation for people to identify with and partake.

Theaster Gates is an extraordinary artist. Through his Rebuild Foundation he has acquired and renovated many abandoned structures in Chicago, turning them into libraries and archival storage spaces, artists spaces and communal meeting places dedicated to preserving Black history.

The immersive installation at the AGO expands Black identity and presents art forms like music within the relational aesthetic context. House music was dance music created by DJ’s using synthesizers and sequencers. It originated in Chicago during the ‘80s and spread throughout the world, taking on various forms like deep house and techno. For Gates the act of dancing to house music is like freeing the psyche from oppression. The body is stimulated to occupy its own space.

A house is a place of refuge without which we are lost. The House of House room is the foundation. It is an austere, dark room with signage for Founders, Trustees and Patrons dominating the walls. A mission statement on the wall clarifies the overall intention. Gates wrote to other Black artists asking them to articulate their experience of Negro Progress and the art-world. A book contains their responses. A skeletal building in plaster is on the floor, a model for a future restoration.

The next room features abstract paintings with minimalist-type stripes and bars, inspired by the 19th century graphs of W.E.B. Du Bois. Gates has pictorialized these graphs.

Reel House, the shrine to DJ Frankie Knuckles, who created House music, is constructed from wood paneling derived from demolished churches. It contains audio equipment playing his music. Nearby his collection of baseball caps is displayed in a window. In cross-pollination, Gates included 2 small dancing Baroque sculptures from the AGO’s collection, while installing elements of his House installation where they were on exhibit in gallery 122.

The House of Negro Progress features facsimiles of W.E.B. Du Bois’ pie charts considering Negro progress in freedom and land ownership from emancipation to 1900. Du Bois created the display for the Paris Exposition in the Palace of Social Economy and Congresses. Gates has also hung three paintings from the AGO collection by Black 19th century painter Robert S. Duncanson, who made paintings of abolitionists. He moved from the US to Montreal and became known for his landscape paintings.

The House of Muddy Waters is a reminder that his house is in need of redemption as it has fallen into disrepair. The plaque acknowledges his contribution to Black identity and exhorts the protection of his legacy. The model stands on a pedestal reminiscent of scaffolding. Looking through the windows, the rooms are covered in soil, indicating imminent destruction.

George Black was a brick maker and builder who became famous in the 19th century. His house and brickyard are preserved as historical sites and his daughter has donated some bricks to this exhibition. He made bricks by hand.

The final room is called Progress Palace. A video by Gates called “House Heads Liberation Training” plays on two walls alternately while a mountainous-looking mirrored light reflector turns, scattering clouds of light spots around the room. An empty DJ stand acknowledges the absence of the creator. The video imagery shows people dancing or striving to learn to dance as the house music pounds out its rhythms.

This immersive environment is an incredible display by Gates and if considered within Relational Aesthetics, makes important distinctions about the use of museums. The sense that Black artists have been excluded from institutional structures is a poignant reminder that museums are supposed to be for everyone. 

Theaster Gates How to Build a House Museum
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
July 21—October 30, 2016