Nine months after London’s Serpentine Galleries announced that Chicago-based artist and urbanist Theaster Gates would design the 2022 Serpentine Pavilion, we now have a first look at his Black Chapel.
For the first time in the 22 years of the pavilion program (the first Serpentine Pavilion was erected in 2000 by Zaha Hadid but the 2020 edition was pushed to 2021 due to COVID), the commission has been awarded to a non-architect. But although Gates isn’t accredited, he’s no stranger to big, multidisciplinary designs that combine performance art with structure; in 2019, he oversaw work on the University of Chicago’s transformation of the Edward Durell Stone-designed Keller Center and participated in the Chicago Architecture Biennial that same year.
Black Chapel, like the name might hint at, will blend the solemnity and meditative qualities of a chapel with a form that references British craft traditions, specifically ceramics (and the massive kilns that enabled production on an industrial scale at Stoke-on-Trent). As the Serpentine Galleries pointed out in its announcement this morning, Black Chapel is also the name of a 2019 Gates’ installation realized at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, an “attempt to bring Black spiritual life” to a museum originally built for the Nazi regime in 1937.
Taking the form of a massive timber cylinder topped with a singular oculus reminiscent of the one overhead at the Pantheon in Rome, it’s expected that visitors to the pavilion will find a meditative, sanctuary-like environment where they can slow down and reflect.
That is, when the structure won’t be in use. Music and public engagement will be a big part of Black Chapel’s programming when it opens on Friday, June 10, with live music and dance performances scheduled to take place inside. A bell salvaged from the demolished St. Laurence Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side will be installed outside of the pavilion and rung to signal when performances and other events are taking place.
(That specific church is a font Gates has delved into before. His 2014 video piece, Gone Are the Days of Shelter and Martyr, saw dancers slamming the freed wooden doors of the then-abandoned parish right before the building’s demolition. In 2015’s Martyr Construction, Gates took objects saved from the demolition and displayed them as a commentary on the continual disinvestment and dismantling of holy places in poor and Black neighborhoods.)
Perhaps taking into account the backlash the Serpentine Galleries received over the environmental impact of the concrete and steel used to anchor the 2021 pavilion designed by Counterspace, Black Chapel will be lightweight and predominantly built from sustainably-sourced wood to minimize its carbon footprint. Adjaye Associates will provide architectural support for realizing the pavilion (David Adjaye also sat on this year’s selection committee) and Black Chapel is the first international Design for Freedom by Grace Farms project.
“The name Black Chapel is important because it reflects the invisible parts of my artistic practice,” said Gates in the Serpentine’s announcement. “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/or deep participation.”
Black Chapel will remain in the Serpentine Galleries’ space at Kensington Gardens from June 10 through October 16. It also culminates the two-year survey The Question of Clay, a collaboration between the Serpentine, The Victoria and Albert Museum, Whitechapel Gallery, and White Cube that saw Gates investigating clay’s role in craft, labor, history, colonialism, religion, and every other possible aspect through sculpture, film, and now architecture.