The 21st Serpentine Pavilion, Black Chapel, designed by Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates opened on 10 June 2022. Conceived as a space for gathering, meditation and participation, with an emphasis on sacred music, Black Chapel becomes a platform for Serpentine’s live program throughout the summer and beyond, offering reflection, connection and joy to the public.
The cylindrical volume rises 10.7m with a 16m diameter. It has two entrances and an open oculus in the roof. The structure is clad in stressed-skin plywood and stained timber boards. Steel has been used for high-stress elements such as the tension and compression rings of the spoke wheel roof, while the precast concrete foundations are designed to be removable and reusable. While the Pavilion begins its life in Kensington Gardens, it will be re-sited to a permanent location in the future.
Black Chapel draws inspiration from many of the architectural typologies that ground the artist’s practice. The structure references the bottle kilns of Stoke-on-Trent in England, the beehive kilns of the Western United States, San Pietro and the Roman tempiettos and traditional African building structures such as the Musgum mud huts of Cameroon and the Kasabi Tombs of Kampala, Uganda.
Drawn to the transcendental environment of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, Gates has produced a series of new tar paintings especially for Black Chapel. Determined to create a space that reflects the artist’s hand and sensibilities, seven panels hang from the interior structure. In these works, Gates honors his father’s craft as a roofer and uses roofing strategies and torch down, which requires an open flame to heat the material and affix it to the surface.
An operating bronze bell, salvaged from St. Laurence, a landmark Catholic Church that once stood in Chicago’s South Side, stands next to the entrance of the Pavilion. Underscoring the erasure of spaces for convening and spiritual communion in urban communities, the historic bell acts as a call to assembly, congregation and contemplation throughout the summer’s events.
Reflecting on his oeuvre, the Serpentine Pavilion 2022 designed by Theaster Gates shares the same title as a commission Gates received in 2019, from the late museum director and curator Okwui Enwezor to activate the central atrium of museum Haus der Kunst, Munich, originally built for the Nazi Regime. This project was an attempt to bring Black spiritual life to the museum.
Theaster Gates said: “The name Black Chapel is important because it reflects the invisible parts of my artistic practice. It 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. Black Chapel also suggests that in these times there could be a space where one could rest from the pressures of the day and spend time in quietude. I have always wanted to build spaces that consider the power of sound and music as a healing mechanism and emotive force that allows people to enter a space of deep reflection and deep participation.”
Bettina Korek, Chief Executive, and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Artistic Director, said:
“We are honored to undertake this remarkable project with leading visual artist Theaster Gates. One of the most significant voices working today, Gates’ praxis combines formalism, conceptualism and powerful impact felt throughout the communities in which he works and beyond. We look forward to welcoming visitors to Black Chapel as a platform for engagement, spirituality and togetherness.”
Theaster Gates (b. 1973) creates works that engage with space theory, land development, sculpture and performance. Drawing on his interest and training in urban planning and preservation, the artist redeems spaces that have been left behind. His work contends with the notion of Black space as a formal exercise, one defined by collective desire, artistic agency and the tactics of a pragmatist.
In 2010, Gates created the Rebuild Foundation, a non-profit platform for art, cultural development and neighbourhood transformation that supports artists and strengthens communities through free arts programming and innovative cultural amenities on Chicago’s South Side.
Image: Iwan Baan. Courtesy: Serpentine, except as noted.