Review: Temple Exercises

Whitehot Magazine, February 2009

Theaster Gates at the Museum of Contemporary Art

What happens when an endurance piece fails to endure?  When minimalist music halts itself and bargains with the audience?  When race politics steals from other cultures?  Theaster Gates and his friends, the Black Monks of Mississippi, bravely stepped up to these questions in their MCA installation/performance, Temple Exercises, and just as bravely backed away.  Gates is not afraid to leave questions unanswered, but this is not the same thing as presenting the viewer with engaging, entangling conundrums.

Instead, Gates et al. erect a house of opaque mirrors, and that in itself has a certain resonance with the piece’s overtly zen-magical-religious aspects.  A koan: what is the sound of scores of art geeks refusing to murmur?  We nearly had an answer.  The performance itself featured Gates, seated at a microphone in his wood-palette temple, joined by an uncredited (in the program, anyway) Leroy Bach on guitar and Jayve Montgomery on saxophone.  Gates played the part of guru-MC, gamely cajoling the audience to join him in his meditative Oms.  The response was meek and timid.  Another question introduced and then abandoned by this piece: when the line between witness and participant disappears, what replaces it?  The performance ended before seriously trying to find out, with Gates acceding to his audience’s request to be more or less left alone beyond the fourth wall of the minimally but intensely decorated space.

Underlying the discomfort were some sucesses: the shuffling together of Black American history and Zen religion produced some smart steps and rich harmonies.  Particularly sharp, and deserving of its own series or gallery space, was the arrangement of two black iron shoeshine steps back-to-back, forming a striking totem that conjured for itself a dual identity as some symmetrical character of Eastern language.  Adding warmth to the vibrations of the performance were wood tiles that covered every inch of wall and surrounded a tower of architecturally stacked palettes, creating the temple space for the performance.

All of this was waiting to resonate, and it fell to Gates to stir up a sound that would suffuse the space and draw together its disparate entities.  As Bach and Montgomery wove noodling mantras with their instruments, Gates played gospel preacher to his chorus of reluctant disciples.  “Real big breath, y’all!”  A few self-conscious voices rose from the floor, and Gates, sitting above us on his chair, saw comedy.  Perhaps a performance is a happening not coming into being.  Gates himself merged a churchy vocal tenor with shades of throat-singing; the interplay of his vocals with the other instruments generated a truly satisfying resonance with the wood facades.  Yet, even Gates admitted to his audience, a bit wryly, that at this show, he didn’t “convert nobody”.

None of this can be fairly considered without acknowledging that Temple Exercises is part of a larger, longer, ongoing collaboration between Gates and the Black Monks.  But why bring this series from the dance club and the shoeshine store into the museum?  Surely, this performance was evidence of an art gallery’s tendency to suck the life out of music, and thanks to the wood application on the walls, we can say that this is not purely an acoustic phenomenon.  If it was Gates’ intention to turn this phenomenon on its head, he let his audience get the better of him.

Visually, the spare installation merged well with the various pieces of audio gear, gongs, and sadly under-represented spontaneous ink-paintings that were part of the performance.  As a visual-sonic installation that could be explored by wandering patrons, the space may have had more power.  As it was, the personality of Gates competed a bit too much for attention.  This posed and left unanswered yet another question: can identity art work as diffused individualism?  Would this piece have been shown if not for the growing renown of its practioners?

And yet, the empty ethos of zen saves Gates, in a way.  If he is leaning on it as a crutch, he is leaning on an absence.  If he is wielding it to dab extra colors onto his cultural tapestry, he is using invisible ink.  This is a powerful yet inscrutable wall to hide behind.  Simply contemplating the blues howl verging into the effacing zen pedal-tone chant could lead one into a deep historical, cultural, and artistic meditation.  But Gates wants to shake your hand while you’re meditating.

As a musical performance, “Temple Exercises” looks better than it sounds.  As a piece of gallery art, it sounds better than it looks.  As a multicultural monk who deals in questions and meets investigation with mere smiles, Gates is the perfect part.

Published in Whitehot Magazine.