When the Church Bell Rings: Theaster Gates Celebrates Communion in 21st Serpentine Pavilion

The 21st Serpentine Pavilion, titled Black Chapel, designed by Theaster Gates. © Theaster Gates Studio. Photo by Iwan Baan. Image courtesy of Serpentine.
Theaster Gates, Hardware Store Painting, 2020/2022, steel pegboard, pegs and hardware store inventory, 487.7 x 853.5 cm, installation view in Art Basel 2022, Basel, 16–19 June 2022. Image courtesy of the artist and Gray.
“Shop Takeover: Theaster Gates”, installation view at the Gagosian Shop, London, 2022. Artwork © Theaster Gates. Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Image courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.
“Shop Takeover: Theaster Gates”, installation view at the Gagosian Shop, London, 2022. Artwork © Theaster Gates. Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Image courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.
The 21st Serpentine Pavilion, titled Black Chapel, designed by Theaster Gates. © Theaster Gates Studio. Photo by Iwan Baan. Image courtesy of Serpentine.
The 21st Serpentine Pavilion, titled Black Chapel, designed by Theaster Gates. © Theaster Gates Studio. Photo by Iwan Baan. Image courtesy of Serpentine.
Theaster Gates. © and image courtesy of Rankin Photography.
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CoBo Social Design and Architecture

In the long-running history of the Serpentine Pavilion, Theaster Gates is the first non-architect to helm the design. Titled Black Chapel, it serves as a monument of craftsmanship and offers a contemplative refuge for meditation and participation.

TEXT: Herbert Wright
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

The 21st Serpentine Pavilion, titled Black Chapel, designed by Theaster Gates. © Theaster Gates Studio. Photo by Iwan Baan. Image courtesy of Serpentine.

 

For the first time in its 22-year history, the annual Serpentine Pavilion has been designed by an artist. Theaster Gates’ new pavilion is called the Black Chapel, and rises like a huge black drum from the grass beside the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens. Since the very first pavilion in 2000 designed by Zaha Hadid, exceptional architects have always led the design of the Serpentine’s temporary building. The new pavilion was realised with support from internationally-renowned Ghanian-British architect David Adjaye, but have no doubt that this is Gates’ concept. It encapsulates a complex mix of the passionate personal motivations and agendas which drive his artistic practice.

The opening of the Black Chapel also coincides with Gates’ exhibition at Gagosian’s Basel outpost, and his take-over of the gallery’s shop in London. Though vastly different projects, connecting threads run through all of them.

A native of Chicago, Gates is known not just as a sculptor, craftsman, musician and performer, but also as an active agent in urban renewal back home. The African-American population of Chicago’s South Side has a history of deprivation, racism and segregation, but also of hope. Some of that is down to Gates, who founded the Rebuild Foundation to precipitate social change by transforming abandoned buildings into arts and community centres with active programmes. At the Serpentine Pavilion, Gates has installed a church bell salvaged from the South Side beside the Black Chapel, it once again serves to summon people.  

 

Theaster Gates, Hardware Store Painting, 2020/2022, steel pegboard, pegs and hardware store inventory, 487.7 x 853.5 cm, installation view in Art Basel 2022, Basel, 16–19 June 2022. Image courtesy of the artist and Gray.
“Shop Takeover: Theaster Gates”, installation view at the Gagosian Shop, London, 2022. Artwork © Theaster Gates. Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Image courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.
“Shop Takeover: Theaster Gates”, installation view at the Gagosian Shop, London, 2022. Artwork © Theaster Gates. Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Image courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.

 

The South Side also came to Gates’ Hardware Store Paintings (2020/22), exhibited by Gray at the recent Art Basel fair. By reimagining the point-of-sale arrangements of a family store, which Gates acquired when big-box retailers drained business away, he transformed walls into abstract canvases in which the found objects of store merchandise bring colour and shape. It celebrates the store’s legacy and the community’s workmen it supplied for. Memories of past Chicago work practice are also celebrated in the Black Chapel. “Ashen” at Gagosian’s Basel gallery sees Gates displaying his artisan skills in works wrought by fire, particularly ceramic vessels. His skills in ceramics had been honed early in his career, working with Japanese pottery masters such as Koichi Ohara, and ceramic vessels are a persistent, obsessive part of his output. He simply loves making vessels. Meanwhile, at Gagosian’s shop in the Burlington Arcade at London’s Piccadilly, alongside books, magazines, and vinyl records selected by the artist, Gates shows a selection of vessels in his shop takeover, including tea bowls, jars and sake cups.

 

The 21st Serpentine Pavilion, titled Black Chapel, designed by Theaster Gates. © Theaster Gates Studio. Photo by Iwan Baan. Image courtesy of Serpentine.

 

At the opening of the Black Chapel, Gates told guests, “It’ still probably the largest vessel I have ever made”. It’s a vessel built with black wood and steel, but there is a connection to ceramics, in how its shape echoes a pottery kiln. It is the largest Serpentine Pavilion structure to date, and the simplest—essentially a circular cylinder 10 metres high and 16 metres wide. Two giant slit openings are on opposite sides. The interior is a sombre empty space, with walls of dark wood. The steel frame that holds up the roof is visible, so it’s a little like being inside a gasometer. Light filters come through a circular oculus in the roof, as if it comes from heaven. The sense of solemnity inside the Black Chapel is so strong that it immediately stills you, just as stepping into a vast old church can do. Gates states that the pavilion “acknowledges the role that sacred music and the sacred arts have had on my practice and the collective quality of these emotional and communal initiatives”.

 

The 21st Serpentine Pavilion, titled Black Chapel, designed by Theaster Gates. © Theaster Gates Studio. Photo by Iwan Baan. Image courtesy of Serpentine.

 

While these invisible influences are embedded in the Black Chapel, there is a very visible other-worldly element in the form of what he describes as a “memorial to my history of making with him [Gates’ father]”. Around the inside, an arc of seven large silvery metallic squares are mounted a couple of metres above the floor. They may reinforce the space’s industrial impression, but these are new “tar paintings”, which recall his father’s work as a roof maker. The paintings reproduce the look of the roofs they made together—fire-treated metal panels divided by dark likes. Like his Hardware Store Paintings works, Gates is again honouring the memory of past labour in Chicago.

The pavilion also carries something of the impression made on Gates by the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, designed by artist Mark Rothko and architect Philip Johnson. A hallmark of Rothko’s abstract, minimalist paintings is that their effect comes gradually in dark conditions, and 14 of his darkest works are spread around the interior.

Not everything is solemn in the Black Chapel. Like all Serpentine Pavilions, this one will host a big programme of events, talks, and performances, including Gates’ own gospel-inspired, experimental musical ensemble The Black Monks. He sees the Black Chapel as “a platform through which great artistic moments in music and conviviality might happen”. That conviviality may lead to friendships which, as Gates imagined when talking at the opening, start with the suggestion of a coffee. Sure enough, opposite the tar paintings, a wall divides off a thin segment of floor for a café, also entirely black. It has one of the highest ceilings of any café in London!

 

Theaster Gates. © and image courtesy of Rankin Photography.

 

No previous Serpentine Pavilion has the massive, meditational qualities that Gates has produced (although Peter Zumthor’s 2011 pavilion also used black wood, and its cloister-like structure was a refuge for contemplation). The only other comparable structure to the 201-square-metre Black Chapel has been In Absence, the 2019 NGV Architecture Commission in Melbourne, created by Edition Office and Yhonnie Scarce. By coincidence, that too was a black wooden cylindrical form, but it was different inside and covered just 79 square meres. Its message was that Australia was never empty—for 3000 generations it was the territory of First Nations peoples. There is a parallel. 

The Black Chapel is “about Blackness”, said Gates at the press preview. Clearly, Blackness is something that runs deep in his practice, but it means many things. One that Gates listed is “something to do with the ability to remain open, to remain optimistic […]” The pavilion’s dark contemplative space is open, and having found an inner, spiritual peace there, you should emerge with a refreshed optimism.  

 

Serpentine Pavilion 2022: The Black Chapel
Kensington Gardens, London
10 June – 16 October 2022

Shop Takeover: Theaster Gates
Burlington Arcade, London
10 June – 2 July 2022

Theaster Gates: Ashen
Gagosian, Basel
13 June – 30 July 2022

 

   

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