Theaster Gates

The 21st Serpentine Pavilion, Black Chapel, designed by Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates was unveiled on 10 June 2022. Black Chapel is realised with the architectural support of Adjaye Associates. Theaster Gates said: “I’ve admired the Pavilions since Zaha Hadid’s inaugural commission in 2002. As a younger student, I remember thinking that this is such a beautiful way to honour land projects and the design field while allowing people to practice big ideas in real time.”

Conceived as a space for gathering, meditation and participation, with an emphasis on sacred music, Black Chapel becomes a platform for Serpentine’s live programme throughout the summer and beyond, offering reflection, connection and joy to the public. Gates continues “The title takes its name from a commissioned work that I did at Haus der Kunst, a commission given to me by one of my dearest heroes, Okwui Enwezor. The project at Haus der Kunst was using the atrium of the museum to reflect on Black sacred space. This project creates the structure whereby Black sacred life might play itself out through music. I wanted to honor Okwui’s generosity, and I have a feeling that Black Chapel will be a recurring project for me into the future. I would love to make a series of Black Chapels around the world.”

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. Gates explains his conceptual framework: “With all of my buildings, I want people to leave feeling like they could create the same kind of architectural or sacred space in their homes, in their garage, on their plot of land. I want the Pavilion to feel both ambitious and familiar. I want visitors to feel inspired to visit small chapels in London and around the world. I hope people who never think about architecture or sacred space would reconsider both and consider the built environment and unbuilt environment in new ways.”

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 honours 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. “Black Chapel proposes that the program is as important as the architecture. We are building the chapel so that the performance and execution of Black musics might be possible. It is a sacred space in the worldliest sense, protecting a public’s desire to be quiet while creating opportunities for amplified voice. We will sing. We will make great music. We will listen in the space. We will dance.”

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.”

Gates’ Serpentine Pavilion 2022: Black Chapel follows The Question of Clay, a multi-institution project featuring exhibitions at Whitechapel Gallery (September 2021 – January 2022), White Cube (September – October 2021) and a two-year long research project at the V&A.

Asked about his preferred way of working: drawing, from models and CAD, Gates responds: “When I first started working on the project, I made a series of minor Pavilions out of clay. I knew the structure would be cylindrical. It felt like I was reading about bottle kilns, Stoke-on-Trent, and Doric temples for two years. I was visiting sites in Rome and in other parts of Italy and Greece, and I was learning from the project I had done with the Walker Arts Center, Black Vessel for a Saint.  It’s amazing how past projects converge to extend the conversation. It is one of the greatest gifts of being an artist. You get to iterate on ideas, come back to them, and give more flesh to their bones over time.”

Running in parallel to Serpentine’s Pavilion is a take over by the artist of the Gagosian Shop in London’s historic Burlington Arcade and an exhibition at Gagosian, Basel, titled ASHEN. The display at Burlington Gardens includes wall and floor sculptures featuring a range of clay vessels—tea bowls, water jars, sake cups—forms that are foundational to Gates’s art making.

Downstairs, the bottom floor of the Shop has been transformed into a reading room where visitors can browse a curated selection of books that have influenced the artist, with subjects ranging from urban planning and pottery to the Russian avant-garde. Two limited-edition vinyl records produced by Gates and his musical ensemble the Black Monks are also available.

Theaster Gates. © Rankin Photography.
Serpentine Pavilion 2022 designed by Theaster Gates © Theaster Gates Studio. Photo: Iwan Baan. Courtesy: Serpentine.
Theaster Gates: Shop Takeover, installation view, 2022 © Theaster Gates – Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy Gagosian.