Oh, the wind, oh, the wind


Oh, the Wind, Oh, the Wind Theaster Gates 17 September – 30 October 2021

Theaster Gates

Oh, The Wind

2021
Single channel film HD 16:9

© Theaster Gates. Courtesy White Cube

It is a grey, gloomy, misery-making morning as I walk through the whistling wind past tourists and Londoners to White Cube’s Mason Yard site to see Theaster Gates’s recent work. I enter the gallery and pay little attention to the works on the ground floor, hand-thrown ceramics that are a synthesis of ancient African influences, as I am there mainly to see the performance recorded on film: Oh, the Wind.

In the basement, in a darkened room I sit on one of two benches provided for the audience to view the 12-minute film. The opening shot shows the redundant brick factory in Montana where Gates did the performance. Then it cuts to the artist standing in a grey greatcoat with his back to the camera. He starts off crooning in a low voice his improvised gospel song that refers to the wind and the fire spreading through his soul. His volume rises and he grows more energetic, ripping off his beanie and waving it around as he sings as if he’s a praise leader whose soul has been taken over by the Holy Spirit. At times he stands with his arms outstretched, looking up the heavens while bathed in shafts of sunlight sliding through the slats of the factory. He’s like an ecstatic saint, the light his halo. He shuffles the length of the factory floor, while at times the camera cuts to other bits of the factory and the snow-capped environment it was filmed in.

Theaster Gates

Oh, The Wind

2021
Single channel film HD 16:9

© Theaster Gates. Courtesy White Cube

I am transfixed throughout and as I leave the gallery, I spot Jay Jopling, the urbane ex-public school founder of White Cube and a leading light in the UK contemporary art firmament. I collar him and ask about where the performance had taken place (I rarely read press releases till after I’ve seen an exhibition). He’s very enthusiastic about Gates and points out the factory had been taken over by the Archie Bray foundation, and the artist had spent art of the pandemic there doing a residency. Jopling sees the film as a celebration of the earth, and I have to agree that with the emphasis on the elements of wind and fire in the song and the depiction of frozen water (snow), that seems a plausible interpretation.

So what draws me to Gates’ work? I admire his project to reinterpret aspects of African American culture, from black magazines to the church. Praise and worship is paramount in the black church and was the most fun part of attending when I was growing up in Lagos. Singing, whether you had a great voice or not, was a way to get the Spirit to descend, to bless you and to send you into rapture. By sinking his own money into social practice to help the poor in his native Chicago, and elevating the everyday by placing it in art contexts, he is someone that proposes a relationship between the secular and spiritual. Religious rhetoric and cerebral commentary intermingle in his practice in an easy equivalence. The sonic soundscapes conjured with his booming baritone and harmonies historically associated with gospel enchant for this genre has often encapsulated suffering, sorrow, resilience, hope and the thrill of transcendence. For his art to touch people across the social divide all around the world – from upper class Brits to working class Americans – there must be something significant going on there. Long may that continue.

Theaster Gates

Oh, The Wind

2021
Single channel film HD 16:9

© Theaster Gates. Courtesy White Cube