‘Ecstasy can happen if you’re courageous and open enough to receive it,’ preaches Theaster Gates before whacking a large bronze bell salvaged from a Chicago church to inaugurate the summer programme at his new Serpentine Pavilion.
He is referring not only to this temporary retreat – a literal and figurative platform for quiet respite, performance and chance encounters – but to his artistic practice, which has spread joy throughout his hometown Chicago and his’ second home’ London.
An accomplished potter, urbanist and artistic polymath, Gates has a preoccupation with spaces of ecstasy. Professionally, he is best known for rejuvenating, decorating and animating communal spaces where Black people can interact safely and creatively. In this way, he seems an obvious choice as the first non-architect to design a summer pavilion for the Serpentine Galleries, since the first was built by Zaha Hadid 22 years ago. (Architect David Adjaye acted as a consultant on the project.)
This pavilion is about the possibility of new friendships – and, he says, ‘it may be one of the largest vessels I’ve ever made’.
The so-called Black Chapel, on the grounds of London’s Serpentine Galleries through 16 October, is an extension of Gates’ passion for place. It is imposingly tall, containing 200 square metres of pure space within an envelope of blackened, almost ‘fired’ timber, to tie it metaphorically with his clay work. Cut out from the ceiling is a perfect oculus framing the sky. The inspirations are numerous: bottle kilns used to fire ceramics in Stoke-on-Trent; traditional Cameroonian huts; Ugandan tombs, Hungarian round churches; and, perhaps obviously, the Pantheon in Rome, with its perfect oculus overhead.
It also summons memories of ecstatic moments in his youth, when, he says, ‘the church and the club were the two places you could lose it entirely, with no preoccupation about how you’re losing it.’
The summer programme will enable similar moments, by musicians like Corinne Bailey Rae and Gates’s own band The Black Monks, who’ll perform in the round.
Gates looks emotional when he expresses his gratitude to the Serpentine for pulling him toward something ‘slightly different’. Black Chapel, he acknowledges, was conceived as a memorial to his late father, a roofer, who taught him to think critically and rationally by talking him through simple roofing problems. The senior Gates also taught his son the ‘torch down’ method of heating tar with an open flame to affix it to a surface, which ultimately led to the artist’s crude, textural tar series. Seven new tar paintings hang on the pavilion walls.
All this literal blackness may recall a condition as heavy and unrelenting as tar, yet it culminates in that oculus, a window for hope. Blackness, he says, is ‘the ability to remain open, optimistic, active in one’s cultural and spiritual life even though the truth of subjugation is all around you.’
The Serpentine Pavilion 2022 opens daily from 10 June at Kensington Gardens until 16 October. Details of the live programming can be found on the Serpentine Galleries website.