Theaster Gates’s Serpentine Pavilion

A tolling church bell has joined the summer sounds of birdsong and tinkling fountains in Kensington Gardens, announcing the arrival of an unusual sacred space. Standing among the trees as a brooding black cylinder, this year’s Serpentine pavilion, titled Black Chapel, is one of the more sombre structures built for the annual commission so far, designed as a place for quiet contemplation, meditation and sacred music (and a bit of raucous dancing, too).

“I want it to be somewhere where people can be together in silence, be with their thoughts and rest,” said Theaster Gates, the Chicago-based artist behind this year’s pavilion. “But it can also be an amplifier and a resonator, a place where great music can happen, where we can sing together and dance.”

Part industrial, part spiritual, the pavilion feels like a funerary chapel built inside a converted gasometer. A narrow black boardwalk slices across the freshly laid lawn outside the gallery, leading towards a tall thin doorway cut into the momentous timber drum, beckoning visitors within. Inside, a continuous bench runs around the edge of the vast cylindrical volume, while vertical wooden trusses support plywood panelled walls, rising to a shallow domed roof punctured by a single gaping oculus.

Every surface is drenched with inky black stain, creating an atmospheric backdrop for seven square panels that shimmer in the gloom, hanging on the wall like an enigmatic altarpiece. A late addition to the pavilion, these are some of Gates’s tar paintings, made from layers of blowtorched silvery bitumen roofing material (known as “torch down” in the US), prompted in part by the recent death of his father, who was a roofer by trade.

“The pavilion feels like a kind of memorial to his life, and to the transmission of this skill from him to me,” said Gates, who is the first artist to be solely awarded the Serpentine commission, which usually goes to an architect. “Maybe even when I didn’t want the skill, you know – I was just a kid growing up, having to work with my pops. But I now feel really fortunate, and I use his techniques a lot in my work. The whole pavilion is essentially one big roof.”

A roof with a three-metre hole punched through it, that is, which has already put the underfloor drainage system through its paces over the washout weekend. “I’ve been thinking more about the light than I have about the rain,” Gates admits; although being here in a downpour could be its own spectacular performance, akin to when it rains inside the Pantheon in Rome, with droplets reverberating inside the great drum. It will add another sonic dimension to the sound of the big bronze bell, mounted on the ground around the back of the pavilion, which was salvaged from a demolished church on Chicago’s South Side, and will be ceremonially rung throughout the summer’s packed programme of events – set to range from Gregorian chanting to jazz recitals, Japanese tea ceremonies and family clay workshops.

As with much of Gates’s work, the inspiration for the pavilion began with ceramics. His commission was delayed by a year so that it could coincide with his wider multi-venue project in London, The Question of Clay, which has seen exhibitions across the V&A, Whitechapel Gallery and White Cube exploring the history, craft and racial politics of ceramics. He sees the pavilion as the mother vessel of them all: “I thought, ‘What if I could make a small pot bigger? What if it could go from holding a drink to holding people?’”

Taking inspiration from the bottle kilns of Stoke-on-Trent and the beehive kilns of the western US, Gates initially imagined a big domed brick structure, but the temporary nature of the project ruled it out. Steel was then considered, but also ditched on grounds of its embodied carbon and the speed of construction.

“It has to be designed and built to such a strict timeline,” he said. “But I also wanted to strip it down to its most essential parts, so that it feels pure. I’m not an architect, so I wanted it to have the logic of a basic builder, instead of doing something like the more fancy pavilions of the past.”

The structure has a refreshingly workmanlike simplicity, although it has been filtered through the refined, carefully-detailed lens of Adjaye Associates, who helped with execution of the project. It feels like something has been lost in translation: there is little of the rough, tough, ad hoc spirit of Gates’s usual work, such as the community buildings he has reimagined on the South Side of Chicago, or the Sanctum space he co-designed in Bristol in 2015, made from recycled materials gathered from sites of labour and religious practice. Gates knows better than most that materials embody meaning, but the precisely cut, freshly processed timber on display here speaks more of Goldman Sachs sponsorship and the pavilion’s acquisition by an Austrian spa operator than the kind of community-focused, locally-rooted practice he made his name with. It’s all a bit too slick. Gates said he tried to use reclaimed or surplus materials for the pavilion, but struggled to find enough components of the right dimensions.

As in previous years, the nature of the project – prefabricated in Yorkshire by Stage One set builders and trucked to Kensington – means the materials are fitted to a predetermined design, rather than the other way around. Other designers hoping to use locally sourced components (such as Francis Kere’s plan for mud bricks or Frida Escobedo’s aim to use off-the-peg roof tiles were similarly foiled by the practical realities of the gallery’s tightly choreographed production.

Still, these limitations are known from the beginning, and some have navigated them with more agility than others. The success of last year’s pavilion, by the youngest architect yet, Sumayya Vally of Counterspace, suggests that the Serpentine might do better to explore further untested names, for whom the commission would be their highest-profile project – rather than busy global superstars who might not consider a pop-up party pavilion to be their top priority.

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Author: Akagamino

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