‘Fire hoses are something you don’t really think of until they’re necessary… but they’re filled with a real potency: the potential of this tremendous amount of water and water pressure’ (T. Gates, quoted in D. Colman, ‘Finding the Poetry in the Industrial Past’, in New York Times, 7 October 2011).
‘It’s a beautiful object, almost totally abstract. Then you read the title and you get a little shiver’ (D. Scholl, quoted in M. J. Jackson ‘The Emperor of the Post-Medium Condition’, in Theaster Gates, 12 Ballads for Huguenot House, Kassel 2012, p. 21).
Executed in 2011, For Race Riots and Salon Gatherings is an iconic example of Theaster Gates’ groundbreaking, politically-engaged practice. In a series of wooden frames, made from old moldings, mantle pieces and floor boards, various lengths of decommissioned fire hoses are coiled, folded and stacked behind panes of glass. Haunting vestiges of America’s past, they reference the hoses used to violently disband peaceful Civil Rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. Enshrined within their box-like atriums as tactile, sensuous objects, they recall the material fetishisms explored by artists from Marcel Duchamp to Jeff Koons. Though Gates’ wooden frames initially appear to isolate the hoses from their social and historical context, they also act as device for memorialization, casting them as museum-like exhibits that prompt us to recall the ongoing struggle for Civil Rights. Discussing Gates’ use of the hose as a means of evoking this history, Dennis Scholl has commented, ‘It’s a beautiful object, almost totally abstract. Then you read the title and you get a little shiver’ (D. Scholl, quoted in M. J. Jackson, ‘The Emperor of the Post-Medium Condition’, in Theaster Gates, 12 Ballads for Huguenot House, Kassel 2012, p. 21). Related to Gates’ ongoing series In the Event of a Race Riot, one example of which is held in the Brooklyn Museum, New York, the present work takes its place within the artist’s wider fascination with the Civil Rights movement, extending the legacy of race riot depictions by Andy Warhol and Kelley Walker. Over the last five years Gates has risen to wide international acclaim, with major solo exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 2010, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2013. His exhibition at the 2010 Whitney Biennial, under the direction of Francesco Bonami, was followed by an invitation to documenta (13) in Kassel, Germany, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. Gates’ response to the events of the 1960s were celebrated in the solo exhibition An Epitaph for Civil Rights at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, where the present work was shown in the year of its creation.
With an eclectic background in urban planning, ceramics and theology, Gates has forged a unique practice that combines sculpture, installation and performance in a bid to enact social change. Collaborating with architects, researchers, musicians and urban communities, his works challenge the traditional parameters ascribed to the visual arts. His materials generally consist of found objects, often gleaned from the neighbourhoods he engages, and are frequently imbued with social and historical significance. He has been widely celebrated for his ongoing real-estate development on the South Side of Chicago, known as The Dorchester Project. Working with a team of designers and architects, Gates has set about refurbishing a series of abandoned buildings using a variety of found materials, creating a book and record library as well as a venue for dinners, concerts and performances. Conceiving art as a powerful means of social rehabilitation, Gates has embraced the Civil Rights movement as one of his primary themes. The hose recurs throughout his meditations on the subject, whilst Raising Goliath, 2012, features a red fire truck suspended from the ceiling. Counterbalanced by a huge metal case containing hundreds of leather-bound copies of African-American magazines Jet and Ebony, Gates described the work as ‘a way to hoist the history of the Civil Rights out of view, making it both weightless and invisible’ (T. Gates, quoted at http://whitecube.com/ exhibitions/theaster_gates_my_labor_is_my_protest_bermondsey_2012/ [accessed 22 December 2014]). For Race Riots and Salon Gatherings is characterised by the same desire to highlight the political agency of ready-made objects. ‘Fire hoses are something you don’t really think of until they’re necessary’, the artist has claimed, ‘but they’re filled with a real potency: the potential of this tremendous amount of water and water pressure’ (T. Gates, quoted in D. Colman, ‘Finding the Poetry in the Industrial Past’, New York Times, 7 October 2011). Gates’ hoses stand as both poignant relics and cautionary tales: warning symbols for a world of unresolved conflict.