In December 2017, six months after the tragic Grenfell Tower fire that took with it 72 lives while destroying countless others, the artist Steve McQueen boarded a helicopter equipped with his camera. He filmed ‘Grenfell’ – a single-take 24-minute scene of the charred building, burnt to its bare bones. McQueen was adamant to capture the tower before the local authority covered it up.
This powerful film opens with an aerial view of suburban, leafy west London, the camera moving deliberately towards the tower block to the sound of the circling blades and city soundscape below. On approaching the tower block, the film falls absolutely silent as the helicopter circles and hovers around the building.
McQueen’s steady gaze takes the viewer in and out of the building, occasionally lingering on a blackened, broken window, a discarded object, trash bags, and forensic teams in PPE. Recalling Hitchcock’s seminal scene in the ‘North by Northwest’, the silence only helps magnify the sense of absolute terror and (in this case) absolute grief.
The Grenfell fire should never have happened. It was due to the cheap combustible cladding (banned in Europe) that was installed on the social housing high-rise only a year earlier. And the building had inadequate fire extinguishers and sprinklers.
In a powerful essay ‘Never Again Grenfell’ Paul Gilroy, author and scholar of race, culture and nationalism, writes:
‘To me, Steve McQueen’s work suggests that there is much to gain in confronting the meanings of the damaged structure and making the shock of our painful contact with it instructive. Opening ourselves humbly to that possibility can be accomplished without betraying the tower’s plural traumas or the political complexity of this moment in which closure is not an option. We cannot understand Grenfell unless we keep the reality of this building firmly in mind.’
On the day I went to the ‘Grenfell’ preview screening at the Serpentine, the collective expression was solum; most of us had cried. McQueen’s lens is spellbinding. It makes us meditate in that moment on the memory never to be forgotten.
The film is being screened until until 10 May, after which the work will be placed in the care of the Tate Gallery and the Museum of London ’s collections.
Rolls-Royce has chosen four shortlisted artists for the inaugural ‘Dream Commission’ for moving-image art. Chosen by an independent jury of leading international figures in the art world, the work this dynamic group produce is highly relevant, reflecting our current discussions on culture, on gender and race and our relation with technology.
They include Beatriz Santiago Muñoz from Puerto Rico, Zhou Tao from China and the American artists Martine Syms and Sondra Perry – all of whom have made short moving-image pieces detailing their concepts. Once the jury has decided on an ultimate winner, Rolls-Royce will finance the full-length moving-image artwork to be released next year.
The biannual Dream Commission is aimed at emerging and mid-career artists who demonstrate innovation in the field of moving image art. As the name suggests, participants are asked to investigate their dreams as a way of finding an alternative sensory universe – perhaps take us on journeys into the world of the subconscious. Their work needs to be impactful and immersive.
To understand more, I caught up with Hans Ulrich Obrist, the curator, author and artistic director at London’s Serpentine Galleries, who is on the Dream Commission selection jury.
Nargess Banks: Needless to say, these are challenging times for the arts. On the one hand, the temporary closure of art spaces has brought a renewed longing for seeing live visual arts. Then, these are extraordinary times too in that we are revising and reviewing how art is shown – what subjects are represented and who has been underrepresented. What struck me immediately with this selection is the relevance of the chosen artists.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: A series of brilliant nominators proposed a wonderful long list of artists, which the jury then shortlisted from. The commission acts as a laboratory for artists, and what has become evident is that this next generation is thinking about mixed reality, and quite radically liberating moving image away from defining characteristics such as its ‘loop’, works become instead infinite, sprawling and organic.
NB: The theme of dreams and investigating our subconscious strikes me as a fascinating topic.
HUO: Around 20 years ago I met Hélène Cixous, the great French writer, who was at the time working on a book called ‘Dream I Tell You’, where she transcribed her dreams. It opens with an observation: ‘They tell me their stories in their language, in the twilight, all alike or almost, half gentle half cruel, before any day, any hour. I don’t wake, the dream wakes me…’
I often speak to artists about their unrealised projects, their dreams; I’ve been documenting them since the ’90s and it is one of the recurring questions I’ve been asking throughout my interview project. My investigations are intimately connected to the dimension of dreams also, projects as a cherished aspiration, an idea or an ambition.
NB: And what were you looking for when deciding on the Dream Commission shortlist?
HUO: We asked ourselves how, as a jury, can we better listen to what is being said by artists amongst so much distance and confusion? So we engaged in some active listening and this is the shortlist that spoke to us.
Sondra Perry says of making work that she ‘wants people to feel like they have space and agency’.
For Martine Syms, ‘art is a way for me to think and way for me to learn about myself, but also about the world and other people’. Through making work she explores her own personal mythology, anchored in the biological, psychological and the sociological.
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz explains that it’s an opportunity to ‘experiment with the expanded mind’. Moving-image is for her an ‘experimental process which functions like an organism’.
Zhao Tao told us that moving images are experiences which reflect on the spatial interface of a ‘remote space’ during this time of lockdown.
NB: Collectively, their work speaks very much of our time.
HUO: Indeed, our shortlist have worked to create films during the pandemic. It is this time, more than ever, we should be listening to artists – it is often they who have the most important and prescient ideas about how one can act in times of crisis.
NB: The commission artists are from such different cultures and backgrounds. Do you see a unified voice coming out of this?
HUO: All of our shortlisted artists address urgent issues of our time with remarkable energy and commitment. Their work is all very different, but it is all generous, engaged and empathetic.
As Marshall McLuhan writes in ‘Understanding Media’: ‘Art is an early alarm system pointing us to new developments in times ahead and allowing us to prepare to cope with them.’ These artists all make work that will help us understand the world that is to come.
Take a look at the work of the four shortlisted artists in the Rolls-Royce 2021 Dream Commission here. Also read why brands and businesses should support arts and ideas here.
See the four chosen Dream Commission artists discuss their work:
sculpture attempts to fill the
gap between art and public to make art public and artists citizens again,’ so wrote
artist Siah Armajani. And this is (almost) always the case with the Serpentine
Galleries’ annual Pavilion commission in Hyde Park.
This season’s contribution is by Junya Ishigami. The Japanese architect is continuing his conversation with free space philosophy here; his organic architecture is seeking to find harmony between the manmade and elements created by nature. The Pavilion design is informed by the humble roof, here constructed through arranging slates to create a single unit that appears to emerge from the grass of the surrounding Kensington Gardens.
Ishigami’s Serpentine Pavilion is at once delicate and brutal, comical and visceral. This flowing structure, a feathered-friend bird-like canopy with its rough and irregular overlapping slabs of slate, sits on slender columns seemingly too delicate to hold the hefty 60-ton weight. You just want to touch the cold slates and, happy with the knowledge that it hopefully won’t collapse, take refuge underneath the flowing roof, sip coffee, write a few words, watch park life and the world go by.
In the architect’s words, ‘a stone creates a landscape, and a landscape usually sits outside of a building. I wanted to create the landscape inside the building, as a theory of the landscape that the stone creates outside… I tried to create this landscape that exists outside, inside the building.’
Ishigami’s is a long-term study of the relationship between structures and landscape. So, the Serpentine commission, now in its two-decade search to create site-specific public structures that live, breathe and contribute to the life of Kensington Garden and Hyde Park for the duration of the summer seems, is a perfect canvas for the architect.
A pavilion that mimics a grand tree and offers a spectacular waterfall has won the 2017 Serpentine Pavilion project. The Serpentine Gallery’s artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist and CEO Yana Peel have named architect Diébédo Francis Kéré the latest designer for the annual project. The award-winning architect, who leads Kéré Architecture in Berlin, will bring his characteristic sense of light and life to Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park when he constructs his temporary structure later in the year to be enjoyed by the public during the summer months.
Kéré is committed to socially engaged and ecological designs. Here he is inspired by the tree that serves as a central meeting point in his childhood village Gando, Burkina Faso where in 2004 he received the Aga Kahn Award for Architecture for his primary school design.
For Kensington, Kéré has designed a responsive pavilion that seeks to connect its visitors to nature and to one another. It also engages with our unpredictable summer climate. A central steel framework supports the expansive roof to mimics a tree’s canopy, allowing air to circulate freely whilst offering visitors shelter.
There are four planned entry points with an open-air courtyard in the centre for visitors to sit and relax during sunny days. In the case of rain, an oculus funnels any water that collects on the roof into a spectacular waterfall effect, before it is evacuated through a drainage system in the floor for later use in irrigating the park. The wooden roof and wall system act as solar shading, creating pools of dappled shadows by day whilst at night the walls become a source of illumination as small perforations twinkle with the movement and activity from inside.
‘Every path and tree, and even the Serpentine lake, were all carefully designed,’ says Kéré. ‘I am fascinated by how this artificial landscape offered a new way for people in the city to experience nature. In Burkina Faso, I am accustomed to being confronted with climate and natural landscape as a harsh reality. For this reason, I was interested in how my contribution to this Royal Park could not only enhance the visitor’s experience of nature, but also provoke a new way for people to connect with each other.’
Kéré’s Serpentine Pavilion will host a programme of events exploring questions of community and rights to the city, as well as the continuation of Park Nights, the Serpentine’s public performance series.
Kéré’s design follows Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), whose ‘unzipped wall’ structure was visited by more than 250,000 people in 2016, making it one of the most popular pavilions to date. He will be the seventeenth architect take part in this inspired public art project that launched in 2000.
There is a delicate neo-classical building on a little hill in the middle of Kensington Gardens nestled in thick grass and wild flowers and with views over the Long Water. You can see Henry Moore’s Arch across the water from here. I often run in Kensington Gardens stopping briefly by this romantic summer house. There is an old tree to its right – the trunk is a good size and perfect for a hand stand. Upside-down, the summer house is even more intriguing. The light from here is very special… in all seasons.
Queen Caroline’s Temple was designed in 1735 by William Kent for Queen Caroline who was responsible for the shape of the gardens as they are now. Some of the graffiti dates back to 1821 when Hyde Park was first opened to the public. Up until this week I had no clue as to the history of this summer house and in many ways the mystique had added to the romance. Now, the building is at the heart of the annual Serpentine Pavilion project which has grown from one commissioned temporary installation to five. This summer Hyde Park has transformed into a feast of architectural dialogue. But more on the summer house later.
For the 2016 Serpentine project, some 1,802 modular boxes of equal proportions form both the structure and envelope creating quite a dramatic vista. ‘This is a small structure in a gigantic park,’ mused the founder Bjarke Ingels at the unveiling of the building earlier this week on an equally dramatic English summer’s day as the sky turned abruptly from bright blue to darkness and thunderstorms.
These 400 by 500mm lightweight fibreglass frames are stacked on top of one another and joined by aluminium extrusions transferring the load from box to box for what Ingels calls an ‘unzipped wall’. He explains: ‘This unzipping of the wall turns the line into a surface, transforming the wall into a space’ so the promise is for the complex three-dimensional space it reveals to be explored in new and exciting ways.
Much like the fifteen pavilions that came before, BIG’s installation will house park goers by day, and in the evenings transform into a space for talks and debates on visual culture in Park Nights. ‘It embodies multiple aspects that are often perceived as opposites,’ says the architect, ‘a structure that is free-form yet rigorous, modular yet sculptural, both transparent and opaque, both solid box and blob.’ In October, when the building is dismantled, these prefabricated modular boxes will find new lives elsewhere in different forms and shapes.
Queen Caroline’s Temple sits a stone’s throw away from BIG’s bold project, and for the second part of the Pavilion project, the organisers have tasked four architects, ranging in age from 36 to 93, to respond to the summer house with very different answers.
Kunlé Adeyemi‘s is a classic summer house – a space for shelter. The form is an inverse replica of Queen Caroline’s that plays tribute to the original building’s robust form, space and material, says the Nigerian architect.
Barkow Leibinger chose to work with a second building William Kent had designed for Queen Caroline that no longer exists. It had been erected at the top of the hill nearby and would rotate 360-degrees so viewers could survey Kensington Gardens and the lake. Here the American/German firm has created a structure made of loops with a series of undulating structural bands as a nod to this vanished second summer house.
Elsewhere, Yona Friedman’s is a maze of modular wireframes expanding on the Hungarian/French architects La Ville Spatiale 1950s project. Here, the structure is a ‘space-chain’, which constitutes a fragment of a larger grid structure.
Lastly, the youngest of the group, London-based Asif Khan’s project is a secluded courtyard that reflects sunlight. He explains: ‘Kent aligned the temple towards the direction of the rising sun on 1 March 1683, Queen Caroline’s birthday.’ And his polished metal platform and roof aim to provide an intimate experience of this moment in history.
‘There should be no end to experimentation,’ says the Serpentine Pavilion co-founder Hans Ulrich Obrist, quoting the late Zaha Hadid who was the first architect to offer her pavilion design sixteen years ago, years before she had created an actual building in the UK.
The Serpentine Pavilion scheme is hugely exciting. Since 2000, every year the team commissions an international architect to construct a temporary building in whatever material they see fit – the structure remains in the park from June to October. Past projects have seen buildings erected using plastic, stone, even cork… and it is always fascinating to see how they age, how they withstand the unpredictable English summer, how they live in Hyde Park, as well as how the public responds to them. After all, these are not decorative art installations, but buildings that are there to be experienced.