by Hannah Ellis-Peterson, The Guardian, July 14, 2016
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The US artist has transplanted his South Side Chicago hardware shop to Milan’s Fondazione Prada to highlight the disappearing store of human knowledge
Theaster Gates was already thinking about hardware stores before he walked into Ken’s shop on the corner of 93rd and Halsted in the South Side of Chicago. It was the kind of place saturated with years of expertise, dozens of small wooden drawers filled with screws, bolts and bits of pipe.
Ken had bought the shop in 1970 from Italian immigrants who had built up the business in the 1930s, but after four decades running this dusty institution, the kind that is being wiped off the map of Chicago, he wanted to retire. And so Gates bought the shop from him – hosepipes, hooks, hammers and all.
For Gates, it was not such a strange move. He may have begun his art career as a potter, but his work is as much preoccupied with regenerating Chicago’s South Side where he lives – an area entrenched in poverty and gang violence – as it is creating pieces that sit prettily in a white gallery space. This week, however, Gates has taken his project one step further – and part way round the world. True Value, as his new show is titled, sees the artist transplant Ken’s entire hardware store, including all 30,000 objects that lined its displays, to the affluent setting of the Fondazione Prada in Milan.
As Gates sees it, hardware stores are more than the sum of their stock. They are the gatekeepers of expertise, containing the objects that keep our crumbling world together that little bit longer. They represent the valuable knowledge of plumbers, electricians and builders, the “shamans” of this world, as Gates reverently refers to them. “I found myself preoccupied not with the painting but with the paint and the manufacturing of paint and the alchemy of pigments,” he says in Milan. “Nowhere represents the ‘before’, the raw materials, more than a hardware store.”
Yet, all across the world, these shops are closing down, swallowed whole by superstores where you can buy a screw with your groceries, do some yoga on site and get a flat white for the way home. We fix less and less, preferring to buy a new sink than mend a tap, and our furniture comes ready-made or constructed from characterless flatpacks. What happens to the legacy of those hardware stores when the last one finally disappears? What do we lose when craft no longer infuses our material lives?
Despite toying briefly with keeping Ken’s shop running in Chicago, particularly as faithful customers kept stopping by to pick up mousetraps or hosepipes, Gates began to think of other ways he could honour Ken and the objects he had lived among for 40 years.
“Sadly I just didn’t have the capacity to keep the store going,” says Gates. “But I started to think about what the truth of this hardware store going away means, not only for Chicago but for small, family-owned businesses that are being squeezed out around the world. Could the hardware store be a stand-in for the failure of local economy globally?”
It was Ken who helped Gates move the shop to his Chicago studio, and the conversations it sparked between the pair were recorded and now play in the store’s latest incarnation in Milan. By moving it wholesale, Gates wants people to take a moment to consider – and appreciate – the knowledge implicit in all 30,000 objects hanging on those hooks. That, even when this shop is ripped from its local neighbourhood, rebuilt 4,526 miles away and redefined as art, we can see both what is lost and what remains. The more modern society devalues the skills of craftsmen, says Gates, the more removed it becomes from the elements that make and hold together our material world, the more that society – or the immaterial world – “is very quickly falling apart”.
True Value also throws light on Gates’s complex attitude to gender. He nods at the suggestion that hardware is the bastion of a certain kind of masculinity, that American can-do ethos, but shrugs off the suggestion that gender is ever a black and white issue. “Hinduism has already told us that at best humans are gender fluid … look, I would never talk directly about gender in the work that I do, but I understand there’s always a grappling with the parts of my life that are extremely gender biased – whether that’s male or female.”
Pointing behind him, where the shop’s objects are carefully colour-co-ordinated, Gates smiles bashfully. “It takes a particular kind of shopkeeper to organise the screws in such a way right? But,” he pauses to pick up a book at his feet and crinkles his face in concentration, “it takes another type of person who knows that if I wanted to screw this book, which is about 1.12in, into 5in plywood, I would need a 2.25in screw.”
The youngest child in a family of eight older sisters, Gates moves from being softly spoken to adopting the booming cadence of a preacher, his voice and body filling an auditorium with an undeniably masculine power (his mother hoped he would become a priest and he still sings in a gospel choir). He speaks detachedly of a recent love affair that came to a fractious end, but then admits to recently crying uncontrollably when confronted with the art of Pol Bury.
Gates’s relationship with his father, a former tar roofer, is referenced frequently in his work – his father’s old mop and bucket and a canvas painted with tar feature in the Milan exhibition – but it was his mother, a schoolteacher, to whom Gates was devoted. Only after her death in 2011, and on her instruction, did he finally reach out to his father, and the pair slowly rebuilt a bond through tarring roofs together. “It takes a certain kind of muscly body to push a 40ft tar mop around,” he says with a flicker of a smile, “but when you do it, you do it like you’re dancing.”
Nothing he does is about nostalgia, insists Gates – it’s about power. The disappearance of local hardware stores speaks to the disappearance of local community, local government and therefore local power in the face of large conglomerates, creating a world where “profit will trump humanity”. “Every day people become less employed because there are fewer businesses that do more,” Gates laments. “So I think if there’s anything nostalgic, it’s that desire to see everyday people having control over their lives, a direct engagement.”
The restoration of local power is how Gates differentiates his ongoing “ethical development” of the Greater Grand Crossing neighbourhood in Chicago from gentrification by another name. Rather than pricing people out, he says, it is about creating spaces of beauty where they can come together. This outlook is gaining traction, with Gates recently engaged in a Chicago-wide project to reimagine civic buildings and also appointed to the small panel who helped Barack Obama choose the final design for his Presidential Library in the South Side.
In Milan, Gates used his staged hardware store as a platform to reach out to the ferrementas – traditional Italian hardware shops – that have existed for decades in the city but are as much of a dying breed as they are in Chicago. The exhibition flyer invites people to visit Ferrementa Vigano, which has been open since 1927, and the day before the show opened, Gates met with 80-year-old Ada Comoretto who has run a ferrementa in the now affluent Milanese neighbourhood of Corso Como, for her whole life. Comoretto was very moved by the show, says Gates, because it illustrated what she has always known yet the world has seemingly forgotten – that there is as much knowledge in a screw as in a book.
- True Value is on at Fondazione Prada, Milan, to 25 September