Theaster Gates – Black Chapel Serpentine Pavilion

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

The latest Serpentine Pavilion hunkers within the grounds of the Serpentine in Kensington Gardens like a dark grain silo transported from the prairies of the USA. But walk inside, and the eye is naturally drawn up to a circle of light. The open central dome frames the blue sky and scudding white clouds like a section of a Renaissance painting. It also brings to mind the Pantheon in Rome, a temple built by Hadrian, then turned into a Roman Catholic church dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs, where the light spilling from the central oculus invites us to contemplate the heavenly and the spiritual.

A sacred space for the 21st century

Built by the Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates, a one-time urban planner turned artist, in collaboration with the award-winning British architect Sir David Adjaye OBE, Black Chapel sits somewhere between sculpture and architecture. A sacred space for the 21st century, it encourages multiple meanings, uses and interpretations. Though the initial catalyst, Gates claims, was deeply personal, for the building is a homage to his late father – a skilled roofer – and draws on memories of the years spent attending church as a young boy. ‘ I wouldn’t,’ he said, ‘make a chapel unless I liked chapels.’

Theaster Gates © Sue Hubbard

Spare and minimal, with a severe beauty, it provides a space where in contrast to the isolation experienced during the recent pandemic, people can come together as they have always done in village squares and churches. Drawing inspiration from numerous architectural sources, from the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, to the Musgum mud huts of the Cameroon and Kasubi Tombs of Kampala, Uganda, from the industrial kilns of Stoke-on-Trent to the onion domes of Russian and Greek Orthodox churches, its circularity echoes the rituals of voodoo and of Roda de capoeira, a circular formation used in a number of Afro-Brazilian dance forms. Outside, the sonorous tones of a bronze bell salvaged from St. Laurence, a landmark Catholic Cathedral that once stood in Chicago’s South Side, calls audiences to performances and events.

During their recent talk at the Serpentine, Sir David Adjaye suggested that it takes thousands of years to build a city and that later buildings interweave themselves with the palimpsest of that past history. Both he and Gates wanted Black Chapel to create the experience of being emerged in a space without the constraint of the language of structural engineering, for each believes that architecture is more than the sum of its technicalities and ideas, that it can have a profound effect on how we experience the world. We all yearn, Gates suggested, for meaning and ritual, which despite the loss of confidence in organised religion, is contained deep within our DNA.

Taking a cue from the Rothko Chapel that houses fourteen of Mark Rothko’s paintings, Gates created seven new tar paintings for the space in celebration of his father’s roofing skills, using tar and a blow torch to create black seams in the shimmering silvery tabla rasa. Success, he suggested half-jokingly, would be if you could stand beneath them and they didn’t let in the rain.

Black Chapel forms part of The Question of Clay, a multi-institution project that has included exhibitions at the Whitechapel, White Cube and the V&A. Since its inception in 2000, the Serpentine Pavilion Commission has produced some extraordinarily innovative works from the inaugural design by Dame Zaha Hadid to those created by Janya Ishigami and Olafur Eliasson. These dreamlike structures have, over the last 20 years, become as much part of London’s summer season as Wimbledon, allowing innovative structures to be enjoyed and experienced by the many rather than just the few in the art world.


One thought on “Theaster Gates – Black Chapel Serpentine Pavilion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.