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Through a Monumental Sculpture of Moving Chains, Artist Charles Gaines Confronts the Enduring Legacy of American Slavery

October 25, 2022

Grace Ebert

All images by Timothy Schenk, courtesy of Creative Time, shared with permission

Eight years after artist Charles Gaines began work on “Moving Chains,” the monumental public work now stands at Outlook Hill on Governors Island. Evocative of a ship hull, the enormous kinetic sculpture features nine rows of steel chains weighing 1,600 pounds each that roll atop a structure made of Sapele, a wood native to Africa, with eight moving at the pace of the harbor’s currents and the other at that of a boat.

The 110-foot is Gaines’ first public art commission and a sharp critique of systemic issues inherent within the American economy. Located next to the harbor that was an essential waterway in the transatlantic slave trade, “Moving Chains” exposes the nation’s capitalistic impulses and inextricable foundation in the heinous practice. “I wanted the piece to address that… in order to produce this kind of economy, they had to legitimate slavery,” Gaines says in an interview. “It becomes a real emblem of what I call the fatal flaw that exists at the foundation of American democracy.”

Specifically, the artist focuses on the Supreme Court’s landmark Dred Scott ruling that prohibits anyone of African descent from becoming a U.S. citizen. Although reversed with the 14th amendment, that decision has spawned myriad effects that continue to plague American society today. “It shows the history of slavery and Manifest Destiny and colonialism and imperialism as an interlinking narrative,” Gaines told Artnet. “In education, they’ve been separated, but the U.S. economy was built on slavery. Manifest Destiny legalized the taking of land from other people.”

Commissioned by Creative Time, Times Square Arts, and Governors Island Arts, “Moving Chains” is one part of Gaines’ ongoing The American Manifest project and is on view through June 2023 in New York before it travels to Cincinnati. You can find more of the artist’s work on Hauser & Wirth and Instagram.

 

 

 

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