How is Theaster Gates’s IHME Project taking shape?

07/02/2017
Theaster Gates & The Black Monks of MississippiTheaster Gates & The Black Monks of Mississippi Photo: Veikko Somerpuro

In recent years, international contemporary-art spaces and forums, such as Documenta and the Venice Biennial, have put the spotlight on artists’ interest in making art that crystallizes into a unique, short-lived experiences shared by performer and public. The starting points for the work by 2017 IHME Project artist, Theaster Gates, lie in intense, collective presence, and in the material that arises out of it: music and audiovisual recordings. The whole work is emerging out of the collaboration between Gates and The Black Monks of Mississippi ensemble.

The Power of Live Performance

“The Black Monks of Mississippi started as a very simple pre-occupation that I had for the need to interrogate American music by going back to varying musical root structures in order to see if, by going to the beginning of those roots, if new music might be found. The project was first initiated by a project at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. It suggested that there might be a way that Black musics had not only survived migrations from the Mississippi, but had influenced the world of music making. The name was a proposition which suggested that chant, and the questions of the eternal and the invisible, which were evident in spiritual musics, could be an entry point to accessing a more complicated emotional order. The Black Monks would meditate on black musics, chant, religious musics, etc. to bring forward a new work. It also allowed me to engage my interest in the Black pulpit, speech making and public dialogue, as a way of extending my artistic practice,” is how Theaster Gates describes the origins of the ensemble.

Theaster Gates visited Helsinki in October 2016 to produce material for the forthcoming IHME Project. The group that he called together consisted of drummer Mikel Patrick Avery, cornetist and player of a variety of electronic instruments Ben LaMar Gay, pianists Dwayne Patrick and Michael Drayton, plus singer Yaw Agyeman. Gates himself conducts, and also sings in the ensemble’s performances, which are based on improvisation.

Improvisation Meets Architecture

“It’s interesting to consider improvisation because, in some ways, what we do is so dependent upon a deep knowledge of multiple forms. The only way that we can sing Take Me To The Water unrehearsed is that we each have clear sense of this song. Melody, pitch and direction become more important, and the improvised aspect starts to just feel like an extension of talking,” Gates says.

In October, all the members of The Black Monks of Mississippi played together for several hours each day for five days in various historic spaces: the Andreas Church built at the end of the 19th century in Helsinki; the 18th-century Myllysali hall on the island of Suomenlinna; Otaniemi Chapel in Espoo, built in the 1950s; and in the vaulted lobby at the National Museum of Finland, built at the start of the 20th century. The material that emerged out of this dialogue between music and architecture was recorded, resulting in a body of work, The Black Charismatic: three LP discs, a film and a video installation. In addition, the ensemble will appear in a live concert in Helsinki’s Rock Church on Thursday, April 6, 2017.

Read more about the IHME Project >