12 Ballads for Huguenot House
12 Ballads for Huguenot House Credit: Courtesy of Kavi Gupta

Theaster Gates is known as an artist, but he trained as an urban planner, and it’s hard to separate his work from the city that inspired it. So his new show at the Museum of Contemporary Art presented a bit of a challenge to both Gates and the curators.

The show has a complicated history. In 2009, Gates bought a dilapidated house on Dorchester Avenue in Woodlawn and began to strip it down. Two years later, he traveled to Kassel, Germany, to participate in the citywide art show Documenta (13) and, on a tour of potential exhibition sites, discovered Huguenot House, built in the 19th century by migrant workers from France.

“Theaster tends to think big,” says MCA curator Michael Darling. “He asked for the entire building.” Gates began to ship salvaged material from the Dorchester house to Kassel. Some of it was used to mend Huguenot House and make it habitable again. Some of it was used to construct the furnishings: wooden joists became bed frames, mattress covers became wall hangings, floorboards became a shoeshine stand. The whole process was documented in a project Gates called 12 Ballads for Huguenot House.

When Documenta ended last September, most of the furniture and decorations Gates made for Huguenot House came back to Chicago. This week some of it goes on display on MCA’s fourth floor.

Therein lies the challenge. “It’s a white cube space,” Darling explains. “We don’t have the history or patina here.” As of last week, he and Gates were still discussing the best way to display all the objects.

Over the course of its development, 12 Ballads for Huguenot House evolved in a number of ways. Gates became fascinated with the similarities between the African-Americans who came north in the Great Migration and settled on the south side and the migrant workers who had built Huguenot House. He also learned that Muddy Waters’s house in the Oakland neighborhood was slated for demolition, and decided to incorporate the crusade to save the building into his larger project.

And he decided to construct an installation in the MCA’s front atrium. Called 13th Ballad, it’s a continuation of 12 Ballads. Gates built a wooden double cross that follows the contour of the building and ran neon light behind it. The cross contains little boxes that will display objects from Huguenot House. Along the walls are church pews that had been thrown away after the University of Chicago decided to transform its Bond Chapel into a space for Muslim students to pray. They’ll serve as seating during the three performances that are part of the project and provide space for quiet contemplation the rest of the time.

“It’s about religious freedom,” Darling says, noting that the Huguenots were Protestants who fled Catholic-dominated France. “And it will remind people of how churchlike our space is. Somehow Theaster’s found ways to tie all the loose ends together.”