Theaster Gates designs the ‘Black Chapel’, the 21st Serpentine Pavilion

STIR speaks to Natalia Grabowska, the project curator of Serpentine Pavilion 2022 on the inspirations, metaphors, and the-making-of-the Black Chapel by Theaster Gates.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Jul 23, 2022

Serpentine Pavilion has been pioneering commissioned projects since the year 2000. It began with Zaha Hadid and has presented some of the biggest names in international architecture and arts community, including collaborations between Olafur Eliason with Kjetil Thorsen, 2006; and Ai Weiwei with Herzog & de Meuron, 2012. In 2021, the Pavilion programme evolved beyond its physical location for the first time and expanded with a series of fragments placed across London. The Pavilion programme has evolved over the years as a commissioning platform for the Serpentine’s experimental and interdisciplinary programmes.

They believe, you breathe, they quake, you dance, they wet, you pray, 2020, Johnson Publishing Company carpet and high fired stoneware with glaze, Carpet, Vessel | Black Chapel | Theater Gates | Serpentine Gallery Pavilion | STIRworld
They believe, you breathe, they quake, you dance, they wet, you pray, 2020, Johnson Publishing Company carpet and high fired stoneware with glaze, Carpet, Vessel Image: Theo Christelis; Courtesy of Theaster Gates, White Cube

The 21st Serpentine Pavilion is designed by Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates. Titled Black Chapel, it is realised with the architectural support of Adjaye Associates. Drawing inspiration from the significance of the great kilns of Stoke-on-Trent, the structure of the Pavilion is predominantly made of wood and the design alludes to the performative and meditative qualities of a small chapel. An operating bell, originating from the demolished St. Laurence Church on Chicago’s South Side, is placed next to the entrance of the Pavilion, to be used to announce performances and activations. A single source of light from an oculus creates a sanctuary-like environment for reflection and communion. “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,” says Theaster Gates.

This year’s Pavilion selection was made by Serpentine Artistic Director, Hans Ulrich Obrist, CEO Bettina Korek, Director of Construction and Special Projects Julie Burnell, Director of Curatorial Affairs and Public Practice Yesomi Umolu, and Project Curator Natalia Grabowska, together with advisors Sir David Adjaye OBE and David Glover.

Oh The Wind Oh The Wind, 2021, Theaster Gates | Black Chapel | Theater Gates | Serpentine Gallery Pavilion | STIRworld
Oh The Wind Oh The Wind, 2021, Theaster Gates Image: Courtesy of White Cube Mason's Yard

I speak to Natalia Grabowska on the inspiration, metaphors, and the making of the Black Chapel.

Rahul Kumar: The pavilion has drawn inspiration from the great kilns of Stoke-on-Trent. How did Gates conceive of this and what led him to ‘pay homage to the British manufacturing traditions’?

Natalia Grabowska: Theaster aimed to pay homage to craft and manufacturing traditions, found especially on the African continent, in England and in the United States. In his design, he references these architectural forms, and the varying ways that they hold space, for people and for sacred moments. He is invested in how these forms produce energy and amplify sound, creating space for the sonic and the silent.

With this Pavilion, Theaster continues his exploration of the vessel as a form that holds things. The artist has also looked at kilns as structures that are crucial in the production of ceramics, but also has been drawn to its sonic qualities. Extending these ideas into the Pavilion, the structure is one that enables gatherings of people and is a space for convening, performance and creative exchanges. From the very beginning of the project, it has been key for Theaster that the Pavilion is host to a dynamic live programme and has been conceived as a space for that.

Black Chapel – inside view, 2022, Theaster Gates | Black Chapel | Theater Gates | | Serpentine Gallery Pavilion | STIRworld
Black Chapel – inside view, 2022, Theaster Gates Image: Iwan Baan, Courtesy of Serpentine Gallery

Rahul: Why is the pavilion called the Black Chapel? What are the metaphorical references to be drawn with this title and the architectural elements like a single source light in the space?

Natalia: Black Chapel offers a reflection on several important moments within Theaster’s practice. Most notably is its namesake, a work stemming from a commission Theaster received from the late curator Okwui Enwezor, to activate the central atrium of Haus der Kunst in Munich, built by and for the Nazi Regime. Black Chapel (2019) was his attempt to breathe Black spiritual life into this ‘sanctuary for war’. The Serpentine Pavilion Black Chapel continues his professional investment in the creation and preservation of structures for spiritual possibilities.

From the very beginning, it was very important for Theaster that the Pavilion is a space that is activated through music and rituals. Responding to Gates’ multidisciplinary practice using space, architecture, sculpture and material, guest curator Bianca A Manu has partnered with the artist and the Serpentine curatorial team on a live programme centred around ideas of the sacred. The Pavilion will host performances by The Vernon Spring, The Choir of the London Oratory, Moses Boyd, Corinne Bailey Rae and The Black Monks alongside workshops by Mud Gang Pottery C.I.C with Freya Bramble-Carter and Phoebe Collings-James, and a tea ceremony by Keiko Uchida.

Theaster Gates | Black Chapel | Theater Gates | Serpentine Gallery Pavilion | STIRworld
Theaster Gates Image: Chris Strong, Courtesy of Gallery White Chapel

Rahul: There is a multisensorial experience – immersive, play of light and shadow, sound and echo, and the project itself straddles multiple disciplines – architecture, art, performance. There are elements of it that take space and others consume time. What is the desired ‘ultimate’ viewer experience you intend through this presentation?

Natalia: Black Chapel is a site for contemplation and convening, set within the grounds of Serpentine in Kensington Gardens. The structure’s central oculus emanates a single source of light to create a sanctuary for reflection, refuge and conviviality. The project mirrors the artist’s ongoing engagement with ‘the vessel’ in his studio practice, and with space-making through his celebrated urban regeneration projects.

The question of clay | Black Chapel | Theater Gates | | Serpentine Gallery Pavilion | STIRworld
The question of clay, Theaster Gates Image: Chris Strong, Courtesy of Gallery White Chapel

Rahul: There was a parallel multivenue presentation across 2021-22, The Question of Clay. How does it all tie together? And how does it culminate to the Black Chapel? Further, he has been researching the ceramic collections of V&A Research Institute (VARI) to examine the relationship between eastern and western aesthetic practices and political histories within craft. What have been his findings through this research and how has that informed the Black chapel?

Natalia: During his research at V&A, Gates focused on ceramics objects from the collection, which tell forgotten, or hidden stories of enslaved labour and colonial exploitation. A selection of these were included in the exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery to foreground racist and colonial collecting practices and narratives of exploitation. The other historical ceramic pieces included in the exhibition were early ceramic works from China, Korea and Iran; works by David Drake, an enslaved Black American, who worked on a pottery plantation in North Carolina’ and potters Michael Cardew, Ruth Duckworth and Peter Voulkos, alongside Gates’ own pieces.

The question of clay | Black Chapel | Theater Gates | Serpentine Gallery Pavilion | STIRworld
Voulkos #1', 2021, on display in the V&A's Ceramics Galleries, stoneware clay Image: Courtesy of The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This shows how broad Gates’ references are and how many histories he weaves together in his practice. He continued his engagement with clay by looking at structures that enable its production – the bottle kilns of Stoke-on-Trent in England and the beehive kilns of the Western United States. He has approached the design of the Pavilion in a similar way – by thinking of spaces for Black spiritual life and looking at a history of places for gathering and convening. In his design, he references places from across time and geographies – from San Pietro and the Roman tempiettos to traditional African building structures such as the Musgum mud huts of Cameroon and the Kasabi Tombs of Kampala, Uganda.

Black Chapel by Theaster Gates | Black Chapel | Theater Gates | Serpentine Gallery Pavilion | STIRworld
Black Chapel by Theaster Gates Image: Iwan Baan, Courtesy of Gallery White Chapel

Rahul: Please talk to us about the collaboration with London art institutions like The Victoria and Albert Museum, Whitechapel Gallery and White Cube.

Natalia: Gates’ Serpentine Pavilion 2022 Black Chapel is part of The Question of Clay, a multi-institution project which comprised of exhibitions at Whitechapel Gallery (September 2021 – January 2022), White Cube (September – October 2021) and a two-year long research project at the V&A. The project seeks to investigate the making, labour and production of clay, as well as its collecting history, through exhibitions, performance and live interventions, with the aim of generating new knowledge, meaning and connections about the material.

Rather than competing with one another, we decided to come together to realise Gates’ multi-layered project. Each of the institutions developed their own strand of the project, which focused on Gates’ work with clay. During the process, it was clear that each of these elements influenced the other – some of the works in the V&A collection were exhibited as part of his show at Whitechapel; equally some elements of the research for both exhibitions, have fed into his thinking about the pavilion design.

Originally, all these projects were supposed to culminate in the same year, however due to the pandemic our schedules needed to shift. This resulted in projects happening over two years and has given us and the artist the opportunity to have more time and to really thread all the strands of research together.

Natalia Grabowska | Black Chapel | Theater Gates | Serpentine Gallery Pavilion | STIRworld
Natalia Grabowska Image: Courtesy of Gallery Serpentine

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