Markús Pór Andrésson: So, Theaster Gates, born in Chicago, studied urban planning before turning to pottery and developing his artistic career. He merges this background in everything he does today, creating objects and installations of found material and transforming the raw material of urban neighborhoods into active and relevant cultural hubs within the community.
Ragnar Kjartansson was born here in Reykjavik, where he studied art and household management. Kjartansson draws on the entire “act of art” in his performative practice. The history of film, music, theater, visual culture, and literature find their way into his video installations, durational performances, drawing, and painting. So, welcome to “Painting and Pottery”!
A wonderful evening on these old beautiful crafts. Humble acts, but yet, rich artistic mediums. But I thought it would be great to start with this. Where have we come from painting and pottery in your cases? Theaster, it would be lovely to hear, you started in this craftsmanship, you still work with it and think a lot about the day. But in this period, since you started working with this simple material, to what you are doing now, these huge megalomaniac projects, which are such a vast way from this origin, is pottery still relevant? How do the two connect? And was this something you saw already, when you started making pots, that this was a material you could expand into this new domain?
Theaster Gates: In some ways. Whatever I’m making today … I don’t know what I’m making today. But whatever it’s evolved into, it feels like there was something in the philosophy of “craft” that got me here. So in a way, when you spend a long time with a material, you either fall in love with the material, or you fall in love with what the material teaches you. I think I fell in love with what clay was teaching me. So I don’t mind saying I’m a potter. I like it. In a way, because I feel like all the things that happened as a result of clay, they feel so rich and so beautiful.
Ragnar Kjartansson: Yeah, I think I more wanted to do painting because I just liked the idea of painting. Somehow, it was more like I liked the idea of being an artist, just the mood of it. And that was what drew me in, and also just the idea of the smell of paint and the material of paint. And also, yeah, kind of how hopeless it was.
MA: How so?
RK: I really felt like painting was a hopeless thing. After, you know, after Modernism.
TG: Was painting hopeless or were you hopeless?
RK: Well yeah, I think I was just hopeless … You know, I was just young. But that actually gave me this idea to kind of, like, pretend to paint. Then I felt free. Then I just pretended to be this painter and I just continued to pretend to be an artist. I also think I don’t come from material, really. I kind of come from pretense.
TG: Yeah. No, that’s great. The other day some people were at my studio videotaping me. And they were like, “Well, we need you to make a pot. Because nobody really believes you know how to make a pot, you just talk about making pots all the time.” So these people came to my studio and they had some big cameras. It was like, lighting and there was like, 17 of them and they had these huge cameras. And I was wedging [the clay] and they were saying things in these little like, [quietly mumbles] “Yeah, you gotta come over there so we can…[trails off] Yeah, we gotta, it’s good…[trails off] Yeah, go wide then come in closer. Yeah, that’s right, stay there.” And I was wedging. And they were like, “Uh, yeah, Theaster, stay there! [hushed] Okay, now if you could just elevate…[trails off] He’s just like, wedging …” And then somebody said, “That looks good.” And then I kind of put a little extra into it! [laughter]
TG: You know what I mean?! I was like, “Sheeit!” [groans]
TG: Yeah! Performing.
MA: Performance, that’s it.
TG: I was really wedging.
MA: Yeah, yeah, performance in sculpture instead of pretense in…
TG: [interrupts] But then it was time to actually make the pot. And I made a better pot because the camera was on.
MA: So this is right up your alley, pretending. Both of you are impersonating the artist in your work and then maybe making your best work. You know, Ragnar is pretending to be a painter in Venice for six months.
TG: It looked really convincing!
RK: It looked convincing?
MA: Yes, and you do the same, [Theaster]. So the pressure of, what, the audience, somebody witnessing you as an artist, somebody maybe possibly revealing you for the fake that you are? The stress factor there, or what?
RK: I think it’s just the fun of people and community around you. I always loved these stories of when Fellini was doing his movies, he would never have the sound recorded when he was filming, because he just wanted the party when he was filming … It was like the camera was in one corner and they were doing the film, and in all the other places in the space, there was just a good party. And maybe that is something we have in common.
TG: Part of this feels like there are people who are real painters who are holding down, who have stakes that matter deeply inside for them and they matter deeply for the field. Let’s say painting, in that sense, becomes a kind of orthodoxy. A way, you know? Even so much so that painters, when they look at impostors, they’re like, “The fuck is he doing?” You know what I mean? Right? So you need, I’m saying like, if there was a spectrum, if this was about queerness, you would have a kind of painter’s painter who really paints. And then there’s room for people who have questions about painting, who have done painting and were really good at it early in their life and then doubted painting and then became atheistic toward the religion. And then there are those who, in some way, find a kind of agnosticism or a neutrality, or they find laughter, humor. Or there are those who understand that, if I act like a painter, that might also come with some benefits. So I just think that, in a way, what’s beautiful about this moment is that there’s not one declaration of how to be in it. You know? And the thing that might be more important to me than clay itself or the thing itself is one’s ability to get to a place as a result of being engaged deeply with the thing.
So the things that you produce are kind of by-products of your ability to get somewhere else. So for Fellini it was the party. For some it’s the Holy Ghost. For me, I don’t know. Whatever. But I have some stakes that are not necessarily rooted in the thing that I make. Maybe they’re rooted in what happens when I’m making or what happens after I’ve made and I’m like, “Oh yeah! Christmas presents!” You know? Like, “Oh, I got 80 Christmas presents!”
MA: Ragnar, does this ring a bell? Christmas presents?
RK: Yeah, Christmas presents. No, this definitely rings a bell. And also just like, this freedom. This freedom of being an artist nowadays is so gorgeous. It makes me think about performance and sculpture. I started thinking about that song, that Elton John song, “Your Song.” There’s a line in it, which I always really like, “If I was a sculptor, but then again, no!”
TG: Yeah. Yeah!
RK: It’s so interesting!
RK: It somehow, kind of, yeah.
MA: But there’s another way to think about these things in this “pretending game.” Or going around some curve to get to the point. You have a goal, or an aim, which is maybe so far off that going straight there would be impossible…
TG: Or uninteresting.
MA: Or uninteresting. So you go the way of pretending and then you can maybe approach it more quickly or in a more interesting way? Is that some way to describe this process? That you’re pretending to, you have the goal clear? Or is the goal the pretending?
TG: Let’s imagine that might be one mode in the studio. Where when you’re trying to get to a new idea—I’ll give an example of “making up” something. So I had been spending this time in Japan learning how to make a Japanese pot. Then I would come back home to the hood, making Japanese pots. And I didn’t know anything about, like, wasn’t no hood pots, so I was making Japanese pots in the hood. So people would come over and would be like, “That’s a really interesting sake bottle. Why are you making sake bottles?” And I wasn’t wearing like, a kimono, or no hair wrap. It was just like, I was just making.
So I was just like, “Oh, people don’t have a way of seeing my true relationship with this material in relationship to my time in Japan.” I gotta make up a dude, Mr. Yamaguchi, and then I’ma tell people, “Hey, there’s this dude Yamaguchi who lives in Mississippi, he’s Japanese, but he’s using this clay in Mississippi.” And when I would go visit my family, which is true, in Mississippi, this dude Yamaguchi, which was false, would teach me how to make things. And it was easier for people to believe the falsehood than it was for them to believe that I would go to Japan and study Japanese ceramics and come back and be proficient. So actually, people need fiction. Fiction has truth. So let’s just posit that pretending is only one mode.
TG: It’s useful.
RK: It is a really useful mode. It’s useful and it’s super multilayered. I come from a family of actors whose day job is pretending. But they are all very, very true. You know you have to read that literature through and through to get it. To be able to kind of put that into the real world again, through you. And it’s like you say, it’s a tool. And it’s also maybe a tool of, what do you call it, superficial defense. “I’m just a pretender.” Because it is all about, like, the bleeding heart of Jesus Christ. In the end. It’s like, [long flatulent noise], “I want to say something to the world and it matters and I don’t know what it is!”
MA: Both of you have used the term beauty in describing what you’re aspiring to reaching for. Is that something we can talk about, or is that off-limits? Beauty? How do you use that term in describing your work?
TG: Yeah, I mean, beauty is so good, you know? So let’s say that if pretending and pretense and pretentiousness is one aspect of the studio, there might be other times, like, if I didn’t use the word beauty, there might be other times when I’m actually being quite sincere.
I’m reading all these studies of Diderot pieces from back in the day. I’m reading how he would chronicle his studio time and then would kind of chronicle relationships that he had. He would take a Polaroid of the process in the studio. And there was just all of this intimacy that was happening. As if he was preoccupied with death way before he died. Or as if there was a value, or he was so arrogant in his practice that he felt people needed to know all his thoughts. Or he was so Germanic in his activity that he couldn’t help but write those things down. But, whatever that was, those moments felt like acts of sincerity; there was nothing ironic in the writing. It was just the truth of a moment in the studio.
And that those moments of sincerity, for me, are also like these very special times where I’m really grappling with my point, my position in America. Or my point in the world. And that sometimes, that thing, it may not even produce something that goes into a place like this, but there are moments where, sincerity … I can’t get no more sincere! I would say in those moments where there is something unconscious that is happening and it would be like, “Oh, this ain’t for nobody but the Lord.” Let’s say. It might be those moments that are supposed to never be seen that the galleries want the most. That when collectors come, they kind of get a little twinkle in the middle of their bodies. And shame on me for revealing the most beautiful parts because, in fact, the value of being pretentious and pretending is that you can actually protect those most sincere parts, and that the body, or that some things, are not to be shared. So you might not know that there’s a sincere bone in my body because I ain’t gonna fuckin’ tell you.
MA: We’ll get to it. [laughter] Ragnar, beauty, sincerity, irony, we’ve been down this lane.
RK: One interesting story I always like about beauty. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote The Marriage of Figaro, this great opera, and announced it with the most beautiful part ever written, at that time, in music. It’s just beauty beyond everything. When you listen to it, you just start to cry. By that time in the opera, everybody is lying to each other. Nobody is being sincere. I really love it that Mozart realizes that in order to make a great composition, he just needs total sincerity over that insincerity. And that becomes like a [boom] crazy artwork. Yeah, we are all made out of these two things and …
TG: Pretense and sincerity?
RK: It’s just who we are! This, because it just has to be, art has to be, you know, through this beauty and beauty is truth. That is just always what it is. It’s always the core of every artwork. And those kind of precious things, I’m always searching for them myself. I feel I’m like a very hollow, egocentric person, and when I actually find this stuff, I just go and show it to people!
TG: So I’d be singing and then I’d get to this point and I could sing, let’s say, better. Or what that meant was like, more sincerely, but also the notes might get more intensified. Not louder but more like it could tap something that I couldn’t tap otherwise. So I think that that pursuit, the pursuit of a kind of sincerity or the pursuit of the ghost, requires energy. But then, the by-product of that energy is that other people might also feel the ghost! That you might be in a room and then everybody’s … not everybody. Some people will be like, “This some bullshit,” but there might be some people who are with you with the ghost. And that’s cool. A kind of corporate ghost!
MA: Coming back to your artistic practice, [Theaster]—so in part, it’s therapeutic. But both of you are also very much involved with bringing everybody with you. And even philanthropy, or being of use for more people than yourselves.
RK: You are of use in this world.
MA: I mean, yeah.
TG: I want to be useful. Yeah. No. I mean. Well. In order to get to the Holy Ghost, you need a congregation. And you need an organ. And you need a pew. You know, there are accoutrements around the expression sometimes. And that accoutrement, whether you call it a cast or a congregation, whether you call it a prop or a work of art, whether you call it a trace, those things are also helping to aid the meaning-making. So you might find, okay, Paramount Pictures [sic]1 has this huge set. They used it once for Lawrence of Arabia and then they left it there in the middle of the desert. And it was like, you needed to build this huge apparatus, to have this one moment that maybe wasn’t even that special. But to create that one moment requires so much apparatus it’s like an exhibition. There’s a whole lot of apparatus to create such a temporary moment. And so then some of the questions I would ask myself, this is back to usefulness, is that, well, if we’re gonna spend 100,000 euros on walls that will come down in a month, why not just build permanent walls somewhere? So, the way I wanted to use my time was like, “Oh! To make this exhibition cost a million dollars.” And then I started thinking, “You know what can be done with a million dollars?!” And it was just the way my brain worked. Well, why would I do it over there for two months, when I could do it over here for 30 years? Maybe sometimes there should be moments where we take that temporary set and fix it.
And so, I think that the thing we might be calling “useful” right now is really just shifting materials from one context to another where they might be more useful. So I love exhibition-making, but I’m also interested in what would the by-product be. They call it “legacy projects” in the Olympics. ‘Cause they know, “We’re gonna spend $2 billion on a ski slope, what are we gonna do after the Olympics is over?” All these moments, all of this intellectual rigor, all of this engineering expertise, all of this hoopla and cameras, and then nobody goes to Canada anymore. And it’s like, “No, y’all gotta go back to Canada, we gotta use these things! You know, it’s still cold in Canada. You know, the toboggan, it still works!” So I’m really interested in those moments where the museum world, art world, participates with me in the durational set-building.
MA: [Ragnar], you claim that you’re not doing anything useful.
RK: I’m not. Because it’s always probably the difference of, you know. I’m from a very privileged, decadent society … and also I’m raised in theater, so I really like just the idea of the temporary. And just doing stuff. And then maybe also it has something to do with coming back to the idea of clay or pretend-ness. Because this country, our history, is not a history of buildings or objects, it’s just stories. It’s like, things come up and go down and it’s always the story that lives on. And that’s why I kind of fell in love with performance art. You just do this “ta-da” stuff and then it will just go away.
MA: But still exists …
RK: Still exists in somebody’s memory and maybe as a story that will be told later. It’s also just like this … you feel this in your heart. When you [Theaster] do your protests in Chicago, it’s like, “I’m living in this society and nobody’s doing nothing to help people get out of ridiculous conditions.” So you can actually do something, but I’m in this society where it’s like, “It’s just, the government takes care of it.”
TG: But you know, to you both, whatever I’ve been up to in Chicago, I’m not doing that because I’m a good person. There’s no, I’m not a good person. Like, I’m not a good person. I’m really mean and I’m not nice. You know what I mean? I’m a jerk. You know?
MA: Yes, yes, yes.
TG: But there’s a way in which, when I’m in the studio or when I’m walking down the street, in the same way that I might look at, it’s like, “Oh, there’s water down there.” I come out of my hotel and it’s like, “Oh, there’s water down there, let me go look at the water.” I walk out of my house and I’m like, “Oh, there is poverty across the street.” It’s the thing in front of you, you know what I’m saying? It’s not, it ain’t even raw material, it’s a condition. And so, unless I move away from poverty, there’s no way I cannot be affected by that condition that I look at every day. So I’m forced to absorb that condition into the practice.
Now it happened that that meant there was some abandoned buildings that we rehabbed ‘em and then we do things in them. But I don’t think that was about me caring so much for black people. Or it was more like, how do you make poetry? Period. How do you make poetry anywhere? Period. And that poetry should absorb conditions and take materials and then offer a question. Or offer a sound. Or a gesture. You know what I mean? And that’s when these words together start to make sense for me. Because it’s like, you can make a thing that then turns into a song that then turns into an orchestral work that turns back into a play, turns back into an object. And that this “Doo doo doo bom bom bom,” that’s exciting to me. When I felt like there was nothing I could do about the condition, I wrote about it. I made stories about it. And then I was like, “I don’t want to just sing about poverty.” You know what I mean? That got boring! You know what I mean? And it’s like, if I was a better singer, maybe I’d stay there because somebody was interested. Nobody was interested in my songs and it felt like I wasn’t doing nothing. So it was like, alright, maybe I can sing this song and rehab a building. Then I could sing about rehabbing a building. And so on and so on. So, you know, sometimes the work of trying to do something with sincerity and pretentiousness, but demonstrating this act could then … so let’s say that one part of the practice, we’ll fix a house for a good purpose. But that’s not the practice, but I will fix a house for a good purpose. Because other people would want to lock their lives into fixing houses for a good purpose, they just needed demonstrated how it looks. And so that feels like a fun part, where it feels like the service giveback is that, somewhere in there, people keep saying that this problem can’t be solved. I think artists might be able to throw their hat in the ring on hard problems, sometimes. And I think that the challenge I have is that these historians have put so many labels on things too quickly.
It’s like, you don’t have to call that anything. Just stop calling things … because it makes people who would do interesting things stay away from the light of a social practice. It’s like, what is that? So I think that it’s like, can we just have within our practice the ability to do different kinds of things? Move in different modes. And let those things be ambiguous longer. But there is just not enough generosity in the criticism for ambiguity.
MA: Yeah, a very interesting part of the reception of the work is that it is very quickly tunneled into something specific. Have you had this experience with your work, Ragnar?
RK: Yeah, but I’ve actually never sort of worried about it. Because I remember when I was in music and in bands and we were doing something that we thought nobody had ever heard before, but then again a music critic said it was like “post-rock.” Or …
TG: “It’s eighties goth!”
RK: It’s eighties goth, and I would be like, no, that’s so wrong! But also a few years later I realized that they were right. It was just post-rock.
TG: I hate that.
RK: I always just believe in the critic. And I like people trying to put terms into things to be able to express themselves. Because I think it is important. But I think it’s important for the artist to be lighthearted about it.
TG: Oh no, I’m not letting them off that easy. No, no, no. I wanna wrestle with this. Part of the wrestling is, I think you were describing it upstairs, Ragnar, where you were saying, “Hey, me and Markus went to school together.” Which meant you were drinking together, you were hanging out, you were in a band together. Right? Is this true?
MA: This is true.
TG: Right. So that is a lot of time for someone who writes to understand the nuanced parts of someone who does lots of things. And then because of that intimacy, potentially good writing might happen. Right? But in the absence, if it’s just, like, you jump in, you go to the gallery and you jump in for five minutes and are like, “It’s post-goth.” You know what I mean? “I like the shiny one.” You know? Sometimes maybe what I’m arguing for is more intimacy and a kind of closeness. And when you think about the criticism that has been very successful to me, it’s been people who started out as friends and had no ambition of necessarily writing about each other, doing an exhibition together. They just hung out in the Hamptons together. They meet every year in Berlin together. And then ten years later over lots of conversations it’s like, “Oh, I’ve been asked to do this thing, would you like to participate? I’ll write about it.” And there’s all this other rich information. So I think that it’s in that richness where language forms might emerge. You know? Because I actually think that writers sometimes innovate and they’re sometimes looking for an artistic ride.
MA: Yeah, or illustration to the innovation.
TG: And there are other times when the artist innovates and the artist needs someone to kind of push that thing into the world and so, we need each other more. But more intimately.
MA: But you’re probably doing it, both of you, through your works in different ways or maybe in a similar way. You’re changing ideas about space and temporality and proximity or how you’re really luring the audience or the viewer to the work and having him or her engage with the work in a very different way from, let’s say, many other artists or previous generations of artists. This is through your performative practice, your spatial installations, or sculptural installations, et cetera. Am I right in maybe thinking that both of your practices in those terms are trying to reach out in a different way?
RK: Yeah, it’s probably a lot about reaching out. And finding new forms to do it. And also we have the, you know, it’s the music. The Muuuuuusic. Everything else is just an illustration to music … But, but, but, I think there is a big point about Mr. Theaster. I just really like all this stuff we talk about. Like the core of what I love about your work is that it’s just really kick- ass sculptures. It’s just great objects. And what I’ve seen is like, it’s always that they’re just so loaded with all these ideas and song and music and history and they’re just tense and full, but they’re objects.
TG: Come on, Ragnar, come on.
RK: It reminds me …
MA: Keep it coming.
RK: It reminds me … so the show Civilisation with Kenneth Clark, where he’s explaining civilization. It’s a really funny show from the sixties. And there he’s talking about Abbot Suger who was this French abbot who kind of made works that were material, made to reach God. Just like, a stone with some gold on it. Really, really crazy shit. And I wrote it down, his comment, because I remember I saw the show, and I was thinking about this comment, and I was thinking about Theaster when I read it, when I saw it on the show. “The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material.” This shit is written in the 12th century by a very tiny man; [laughter]
TG: When I first started making these roofing paintings using tar, initially, when I talked about it, I talked about how the material had been in my family and my dad was a roofer and people kind of really gravitated toward the biography, the narrative part of the origin story of my use of the material versus the action of making the painting itself. So I was very interested in how art history is interested in biography and sometimes biography trumps the intervention. And maybe because there is so much to write about in biography and it’s so hard to write about sculpture.
RK: It’s easier to write about Mom and Dad than some tar.
TG: But I do remember this moment where I had made these tar works and then I was singing these songs. And there was this song [singing]:
“There’s a leak in this old building. And my soul has got to move. Soul has got to move. My soul has got to move. There’s a leak in this old building.”
And I was like, thinking about singing that song on a roof while my dad and I tried to patch somebody’s [roof] … it was just like this moment where I realized all of these black songs … where the construction met God. Or the kind of architecture in song or performance in sculpture, they started to meet.
MA: So that approach was similar, maybe, a trick, if you like. The Japanese invented pottery.
Music is also something we affiliate with your work immediately, [Ragnar].
RK: Yeah, definitely.
MA: You were a musician and you were an artist and now you’re both or what …
RK: I went to art school because I realized I wanted to be a pop star. And I thought like, to be a pop star, a European pop star. An American pop star can be, like you said, these work songs; American music often comes from the soil, from work. But European music comes from art school. [laughter]
RK: So I thought, yeah, I’m a European; I just have to do it the European way.
MA: How about you, do forms spring immediately from the subject you want to deal with? Or, you know, music, or painting?
RK: It’s always, then there comes like, the beautiful freedom of the 21st century. Then I just get a feeling. I want to do, you know, I want to do a work about how, kind of, melancholic and surrounded by Western culture I am. Then I just do this video work called Scenes from Western Culture. It’s always just what … I feel something, then I do a video work about it. Then I feel something, it’s like this total freedom that the feeling finds form.
MA: But then this freedom is also not only you being free to pick whatever form you are and you have the talent to, both of you, to use these forms to your benefit in your art-making. But it’s also appropriating everything else. Borrowing, stealing, and merging together and being the post-whatever master …
TG: Are you saying we are doing cultural appropriation?
MA: I never wanted to say that and I’m staying away from the term “postmodern” and all of those things. But still, this is something that I think there is a moral question here. Freedom and also respect and responsibility toward what we are handed down from previous generations and how we deal with it today. Is that something that you think or do you just delve into it without hesitating? You, with all the history that you are quoting in your work. And you, the different art forms that you are thinking about. How does this go through your mind?
RK: Do you ever get a bad conscience?
TG: Always. I think, sometimes, when you’re dealing with historical moments, it depends on your adjacency to that moment. Like, why are you talking about this?
Why would I talk about this? You know what I mean? And there are some things that are very close to me. Like, say, my dad’s relationship to roofing and me getting his tar kettle. It’s close to me. And then things that are far from me. Having not quite been born when the civil-rights movement started. But being a kind of a beneficiary of someone else’s struggle 40 years, or 30 years prior to my birth. Twenty years prior to my birth. But then I think, there’s also like, I can use whatever I want. The question is, can I defend its use? Right? It’s like, I’m going to use whatever I want. But there are some things that are just not mine to use. It feels like there’s a kind of natural set of boundaries that define the practice that I believe that I’m in. And I’m okay that some things fall outside of it.
So I think those are the moments when I feel like I’m not quite the fan of a certain kind of globalism and I get excited around a certain kind of ethnic or regional or a people’s stuff. So I don’t feel like I need to, like, come to Iceland and start making sweaters. Even though I like sweaters. I love sweaters! And I could probably rename myself Theaster Theastersson, you know? And make some sweaters, but it’s like, no, I would much rather come to Iceland and wear a sweater.
MA: And Ragnar, the same question here.
RK: Wow. How could I follow that sweater [comment]?
MA: Are you gonna go to Chicago and, you know … ? Do you have a few of these limits? You enter a zone that you’re just not at home in?
RK: Probably, I don’t feel so much these limits, actually. Maybe because being here in Iceland and having the experience that the artist that has come and really nailed it and dealt with our culture and nature is a lady from New York [Roni Horn]. So I was just like, that could be called cultural appropriation. But I just think it’s glorious. Because also what I learned from Roni is that, as the Vikings said, “The guest sees better.” I really like that saying, always. The guest sees better. So, if I am doing a show in Vienna, I’m, like, doubling in some Vienna rococo.