Computer image of two people standing inside a large circular structure in a park
A design render of Theaster Gates’s planned ‘Black Chapel’ pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery © 2022 Theaster Gates Studio

If, at first, the notion of a great, dark kiln arriving in Kensington Gardens sounds a little unsettling, it might be useful to remember that only a short walk away the “potteries and piggeries” of Notting Dale were among suburban London’s worst slums. Then look at the V&A or the Royal Albert Hall and Albert Memorial, to either side of the Serpentine Gallery, with their rich terracotta detail, or at the massive holdings of ceramics in the museum, and it begins to make more sense.

In this light, the announcement today by the Serpentine that this year’s Pavilion, a structure installed next to the gallery for the summer, will be “Black Chapel” by Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates might begin to look like an inspired choice. Gates had an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery last year based around his interest in the history, use and cultural significance of ceramics. This seems to be an extension of that interest. The renderings show a cylindrical structure of dark timber with an oculus at its apex. As much small temple as kiln, its name alludes to Gates’s interest in sacred space and, particularly, in sacred music and its role in creating and sustaining community and a sense of the spiritual in the city.

His own Stony Island Arts Bank facility on the South Side of Chicago revels in a huge archive of records, from gospel to jazz, blues to more recent urban genres, using music as a community asset, a way of communicating community through culture.

Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates © Sara Pooley

The South Side could hardly be further from the privilege of Kensington Gardens, yet perhaps that’s precisely why the commission is so intriguing. Gates has made a career operating at the margins of art, craft, community engagement, urbanism and architecture. More than most artists, he uses the language of construction as a bonding mechanism. Beginning with works using roofing felt, in homage to the trade he learnt from his father, Gates moved through projects of adaptive reuse, architectural preservation and crafts as a link to forgotten histories of place and in memories embodied through making.

The pavilion will feature a bell salvaged from the now-demolished St Laurence Church on the South Side, which will be sounded to announce events and openings, bringing the material culture of Chicago to the park.

The Serpentine Pavilion has traditionally given architects who have not built significant projects in the UK a chance to create a work of free, accessible and open engagement. It has been a huge success in creating moments of public experience with architecture and ideas, including works by Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Oscar Niemeyer and SANAA. There have been occasional artists involved, including Olafur Eliasson in 2007 (with architect Kjetil Thorsen) and Ai Weiwei in 2012 (with Herzog & de Meuron) but Gates is the first major artist to design a pavilion in his own right. He will be assisted in the project by Adjaye Associates.

Gates says: “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.”

The pavilion is scheduled to open on June 10

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