Artful pews, Theaster Gates’ 13th Ballad @ MCA Chicago

Theaster Gates: 13th Ballad

Theaster Gates: 13th Ballad at Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Credit: Menachem Wecker

On her blog From Under the Fig Tree, Jenna Weissman Joselit, director of the Program in Judaic Studies at George Washington University, writes on “how fascinating wood can be as a medium of artistic expression,” and on an exhibit in New York which included seats inspired by “the backless prayer benches built by the Shakers and other American religious communitarian groups of the 19th century.”

Her post reminded me of an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, “Theaster Gates: 13th Ballad” (May 18 – Oct. 6, 2013), an installation which features “repurposed pews from the University of Chicago’s Bond Chapel.”

The benches were removed from the chapel to afford Muslim students a place to pray, “a symbolic gesture,” according to the MCA Chicago site, “of religious tolerance. Gates thought broadly about spaces of worship while researching the religious persecution of the Huguenots, members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France, who were forced to flee discrimination by the Catholic Church and relocate in Protestant nations such as Prussia (modern-day Germany) between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.”

The site continues:

This anchoring work, in combination with the carved wooden pews, creates an ecclesiastical ambiance within the museum, alluding to how art museums, not unlike churches, are sites of pilgrimage and contemplation.

There are certainly many ways that art museums are similar to churches, particularly given the long history of church sponsorship of art and paintings and sculptures commissioned for churches. But the installation at MCA Chicago doesn’t feel ecclesiastical and meditative, despite the enormous cross and the church pews. Churches — at least the well designed ones — are built around a singular focal point, and part of the contemplative atmosphere comes from the logic of the organization of the space.

The pews at MCA Chicago, however, feel like they are haphazardly located in a hallway in between the gallery spaces and en route to the cafeteria. One can, with a good deal of effort, find a quite frame of mind to meditate in the installation, but one must do so in spite of the space, rather than with its help.

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