Ulysse Ponders “Illimitable” Possibility in Theaster Gates’ Work

Theaster Gates has been dubbed “the real-estate artist,” “the opportunity artist,” “an anthropologist, urbanist, activist — the 21st-century artist,” “the poster boy for socially engaged art,” #40 in Art Review’s “2013 Power 100, A ranked list of the contemporary art world’s most powerful figures,” and even “the Mick Jagger of social practice.” Associate Professor of Anthropology Gina Athena Ulysse writes in the Huffington Post that she “believed the hype, but still wasn’t sure what to expect” when she went to the “activation” of See, Sit, Sup, Sing: Holding Court (2012) at the Studio Museum of Harlem.

This event was billed as a performance: “designed as an experience for learning created by the people assembled in and around it, the installation will be a site for engaged conversation and dynamic interaction.”

“While, the potential was there for this moment to be more communal and interactive, ” Ulysse writes, ” in the end, it was about Theaster’s way; a Whitmanesque “song of myself” from a man who unquestionably contains multitudes (conceptual artist, urban planner, performer, etc. etc.) and is currently negotiating, or “leveraging” as he says, the value of his capital with keen awareness of the temporality of this moment.”

She ponders the “illimitable want” of the artist.

“Indeed, for those among us who have inherited sacrifice, the tools and stakes of the trade have never been quite the same. Thus, illimitability even as a prospect is not only seductive and worthy of exploration, but also potentially transcendental. I dare to wonder just what would this Gates do without the burden or constraints of being what the late poet June Jordan so aptly called a “representative other.”

The exhibit is on at the Studio Museum through March 9.