Theaster Gates Serpentine Pavilion: Creating Sacred Space


How to create a sacred space? Theater Gates seeks to address this issue with black chapel, his design for this year’s Serpentine Pavilion. It’s a fitting task for the Chicago-based artist, who has received international acclaim for his community and cultural interventions in black space, particularly on Chicago’s South Side.

Theaster Gates, photographed in his South Side studio in Chicago on August 3, 2021. Photography: Caroline Tompkins

Nestled in Kensington Gardens in London, the monumental Black Pavilion, made with architectural studio Adjaye Associates, evokes both traditional concepts of the chapel, but is also firmly rooted in ideas of monumentality, occupation of space and disturbance creating peace. and quietness. Instantly imposing, yet quietly meditative, it is a confident and confident statement and testament to black communities, encouraging stillness, reflection and a retreat into nature. “I hope people further afield than Hyde Park can find comfort in this space,” Gates says. Standing in his chapel, looking up at the oculus, he feels able to transport himself in time and contemplate the Pantheon.

The Pantheon, completed around AD 126-128 during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, is one of the best-preserved monuments of ancient Rome, with its main feature being a rotunda with a massive domed ceiling that formed a lasting inspiration in the minds of artists and architects alike. The largest such structure when built, the Pantheon sits where an earlier structure of the same name once stood, built around 25 BC by Marcus Agrippa. It is believed to have been designed as a temple for the gods.

Serpentine Pavilion 2022 designed by Theaster Gates © Theaster Gates Studio. Photo: Iwan Baan. Courtesy: Serpentine

At 16m in diameter and 10.7m in height, Gates Chapel is the largest serpentine pavilion to date, with a 201m² cylinder towering with a fearsome but comforting grace. Gates’ architectural references include the beehive kilns of the American West, the traditional mud hut shapes of Musgum in Cameroon, the Kasubi tombs in Uganda, and industrial structures such as the bottle kilns in Stoke-on-Trent (the heart of the British ceramics industry).

Here, Gates draws on his own ceramic practice while connecting to the history of religious structures such as a 16th-century Tempietto in Rome designed by Donato Bramante, the Umbrian architect who would later design the Basilica of St. -Peter in the Vatican. Meaning “little temple”, the Tempietto is a small circular church whose design blends the aesthetic intentions of sculpture with the spiritual ideals of an ancient pagan temple, relying heavily on and honoring classical aesthetics – a style popular during the Renaissance. Italian and ensuring harmony and command. The elements are mathematically proportioned, a unity and simplicity also achieved in Gates’ research on clay. black chapel fuses spirituality with a multicultural High Renaissance.

serpentine pavilion 2022 designed by Theaster Gates © Theaster Gates Studio. Photo: Iwan Baan. Courtesy: Serpentine

The concept of sacred space has its origins in the very beginnings of civilization, with iterations and reinventions appearing in various cultures. It is significant – a universal construct that proves its necessity and healing power in its prominence and recalibration throughout history. Sacred spaces such as black chapel introduce meaningful experiences into the vast, seamless expanse in which city life can envelop us.

Who are the gods of Gates? “I want to encourage the black presence,” he says.

Gates, through a strong set of curated programs with the Serpentine, will activate the chapel. We are thus witnessing a hierophany, the interventions and activations of the pavilion seeking to fundamentally modify our relationship to space and time. The measure of any architectural structure is its ability to transcend the contemporary and the historic, to transport those within into a world of the artist’s conception, and thus achieve a purpose. For Gates, it’s about giving form and space to black meditative sound, converting the monastic to the contemporary, and, as he divulges, “encouraging ideas about performance and aesthetic traditions.”

serpentine pavilion 2022 designed by Theaster Gates © Theaster Gates Studio. Photo: Iwan Baan. Courtesy: Serpentine

As is usually the case with Gates’ practice, music is a fundamental element of the pavilion, which will host church choirs, experimental piano composers and jazz musicians, until the closing performances in October. from Grammy-winning singer Corinne Bailey Rae and the Gates ensemble. The Black Monks, whose music offers a powerful celebration of Eastern monastic sound with the soulful musical backbone of the American South. Outside the chapel is a large bronze bell, salvaged from St. Laurence, a demolished Catholic church and a landmark on Chicago’s South Side. Gates is known for excavating abandoned buildings such as St Laurence for new meaning, and previously displayed a statue of the patron saint.

For his pavilion, Gates was inspired by the “transcendental environment” of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, which houses 14 dark-hued paintings by Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko. Gates’ new series of seven tar paintings – using layered and blowtorch roofing materials that reference his late father’s trade as a roofer – lives in his black chapel. The artist knows that light is powerful. The story of the Rothko Chapel set an artistic precedent for this lesson: for almost five decades, the light in this chapel was not good. The Texas sun blew through the original transparent skylight, blotting out vision of the dark paintings and hampering the spiritual encounter Rothko envisioned for the space.

In black chapel, Gates has reached a resolution and a forward-looking piece that honors many legacies. The oculus that anoints us with the gray light of London is a poignant reminder of the power of nature and looking up. It is a window to consider an ever-changing world; as sunlight brings joy and the night sky fascinates with a sense of the unknown, we too can be blinded by light and overwhelmed by nature. Historically, religions have used these experiences of light to emphasize the mysticism of their deities, echoing this idea in building design. Here, Gates encourages us to consider the mysticism of contemporary life.

serpentine pavilion 2022 designed by Theaster Gates © Theaster Gates Studio. Photo: Iwan Baan. Courtesy: Serpentine

The interplay of lightness and darkness in the chapel thus evokes a socio-political juxtaposition and focus. Bathed in the gray-white light of our cloudy sky, it is a gathering place for all and a gesture of welcome for the black community. Looking up, we consider all that we hope for. We all look at the same sky – we always have.

Gates Chapel is a unifying devotion to the spiritual as a force to connect, provide safety, and encourage reflection beyond the confines of this world. Urgent and politically ambitious, black chapel believes in inspiration and healing as a catalyst for progress. Gates, who is dedicated to a social practice that rekindles communities, has brought her spirit to London. Let the legacy unfold. §

Theater doors, Gone are the days of refuge and martyrdom, 2014 (still) Video, color, sound, 6 min. 31 sec. © Doors of the Theatre. Photo: Sara Pooley. Courtesy of Theaster Gates studio

Theater doors, Black vessel for a saint2017. Photo: Gene Pittman. Courtesy of Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.


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