The tolling of a bell might be an unusual sound for Kensington Gardens, but it marks the arrival of a sacred cylindrical structure for this year's Serpentine Pavilion. Black Chapel by Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates promises to be a place for gathering, meditation and even Japanese tea ceremonies.
Sat amongst the leafy greenery of the London park, the chapel-like installation, brought to life by architecture studio Adjaye Associates, has an industrial-type feel with every curve and surface doused in a soft shade of black.
"The name Black Chapel is important because it reflects the invisible parts of my artistic practice," says Gates. "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. It 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."
The imposing 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. On entering the space, it's easy to spot these inspirations at play. An operating bronze bell, salvaged from St. Laurence, a landmark Catholic Church that once stood on Chicago's South Side, stands next to the entrance. A thin boardwalk then leads you from the gardens and into the cylinder structure with a bench around the inner walls and a domed roof featuring a gaping hole, offering light and a glimpse of the heavens above. If it rains, then the water will only add to the drama. Thankfully, a drainage system below will ensure nothing gets too wet.
As one would expect, there's an altar, which features a series of new tar paintings by Gates, crafted from layers of blowtorched metal roofing material – a technique known as 'torch down'. The seven panels hang from the interior structure, allowing Gates to honour his late father's craft as a roofer.
Gates adds: "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."
Black Chapel will host a number of events over the summer and beyond. Highlights of the programme include The Vernon Spring, a piano performance by composer and producer Sam Beste. London's most acclaimed ensemble singers from The Choir of London Oratory, directed by Patrick Russill, will also perform. And multi-award-winning and 2020 Mercury Music Prize shortlisted Moses Boyd will play a selection of musical pieces, bringing his progressive Jazz sound to Serpentine.
Elsewhere, Keiko Uchida, a qualified Japanese tea ceremony master, will explain the history and philosophy of Japanese tea culture initially developed as a Zen ritual in the 15th century. She will perform the traditional meditative ritual while offering the audience a cup of matcha tea. London-based community pottery studio Mud Gang Pottery C.I.C. will also offer workshops to children, families and anyone interested in clay in September.