It begins with a very young Gaines walking down a dirt road—lined with small shacks and cackling farm animals—near his grandmother’s home in Charleston, South Carolina. Even at around five years of age, Gaines would ponder, with the wisdom only children seem to possess, the unanswerable: Why is a pig a pig? Or, dismissing the egg entirely, which was of no concern to him: Why is a chicken a chicken? One day, he brought this line of inquiry to his mother as they walked along the earthen path. He stared up at the birds singing in the surrounding trees and shouted, “Mom, why is that bird a bird?” She replied with a chuckle, “I don’t know, honey. It’s a bird!” He paused for a second, as if in deep thought, then responded, “Do you think when I die I’ll come back as a bird?”
Gaines views this recollection as an attempt to reckon with his confusion around why Black people are treated differently: Why is racial meaning arbitrarily assigned? Who assigns the meaning? Who has the power? As he walked on unpaved roads and encountered twittering birds, Gaines’s existential and metaphysical questioning began to take root, priming him to expand this line of thought begun in his grandmother’s neighborhood and use it as a lens to view the entire world and its systems: social, cultural, political, economic, and linguistic.
On a bright, sunny day this past spring, I spoke with Gaines about his artistic process, philosophies, and life experiences. He was preparing for his large-scale retrospective at Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, Charles Gaines: 1991‒2023, a sequel of sorts to his 2014 retrospective Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974–1989, which took place at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Under changing skies, we traveled from New York’s Meatpacking District to Gaines’s large-scale kinetic sculpture, Moving Chains (2022), located on Governors Island. A counter-monument that, to many, evokes the hull of a slave ship, Moving Chains, comprises nine 1,600-pound steel chains that grind slowly overhead as visitors walk through a linear passageway constructed out of a reddish-brown hardwood called sapele.