From Isaac Julien’s political, poetic and utterly gorgeous show at Tate Britain to the equally powerful Carrie Mae Weems survey at the Barbican, Tomás Saraceno spiders and other species awakening us to our connection to nature at the Serpentine Galleries in conversation with Lina Ghotmeh’s delicate timber Serpentine Pavilion, and Leonardo Drew’s explosive installation at Yorkshire Sculpture Park Chapel, there’s been no shortage of excellent art and design in London and beyond this summer season.
‘Public 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.
Read about last year’s Serpentine Pavilion by Friday Escobedo here.
The Serpentine Galleries hold a unique position. They are nestled in Kensington Gardens in London’s glorious Hyde Park. They occupy discreet spaces and you may not even notice them walking by. Yet the two boutique galleries – Serpentine and Sackler – have held some of the most exciting exhibitions in the city. Then there is the annual commission for the Serpentine Gallery pavilions – one of the most anticipated events in the architecture calendar since its launch in 2000 showing work by Zaha Hadid, Frank Ghery, Bjarke Ingels and now Diebedo Francis Kéré.
Yana Peel became chief executive of the organisation over a year ago when she took over the position from its founder Julia Peyton-Jones. She has an extraordinary record of service to the arts, co-founding the contemporary art fund Outset, co-chairing the public debate forum Intelligence Squared Group; she sits on many arts advisory boards, and still appears to have time to write children’s books.
Peel also brings a very different approach to the Serpentine programme which I discovered when I met with her in March for an article for Weatherbys Private Bank Magazine. Below is an edited version of our interview.
Nargess Banks: You’ve spoken passionately about making exciting art and ideas available to a broad audience, and there is something egalitarian about the Serpentine Galleries being accessible and free, which also relates to your background at Outset and art philanthropy.
Yana Peel: I am incredibly excited about this open landscape for art and ideas. What we are trying to do is lure in the visitor who would normally not come in, for instance with the Pavilion, whether it’s the wireless access in terms of the mobile app, or virtual reality with Zaha Hadid. It is about creating programmes around art, architecture, fashion and music. It is about collapsing these universes and being a hub for these kinds of multiple discussions which are so relevant in the world today.
NB: How do you see the Serpentine expanding on its mission to bring these visions to an even wider audience?
YP: Well, as with all things we do at the Serpentine, it starts with the art and the artists we work with. Take our 2017 Summer season – we are excited to present Grayson Perry, the first solo UK show of the American filmmaker and artist Arthur Jafa, and our Summer Pavilion by architect Diebedo Francis Kéré.
As you can tell by the show’s title ‘Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!’, Grayson addresses front on the question of popularity and populism – who comes to an art gallery and why. AJ is someone with a cult reputation for work with Spike Lee, Stanley Kubrick and Solange Knowles. Here he reinvents the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, taking his message right across London with a series of interventions in unexpected places. And Kéré is a marvel, and perhaps the nicest man you will ever meet, with community at the very heart of his practice. All these artists are excited by the opportunities the Serpentine presents and we’re excited to work with them. We are a small gallery in terms of our footprint, but with a local, national and international reach.
NB: I’ve read you admire creatives with disruptive ideas, a vision you share with the artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist. Given our current political climate, how crucial is the role of galleries like the Serpentine to provoke open debates, explore how the arts can help shape society, agitate even?
LP: Essential! And it is the artists who are best place to do this. That’s why everything we do is artist led. The late John Latham (who exhibited at the Serpentine at the time of our interview) believed powerfully in the artist’s role in society. His Artist Placement Group put artists in industry long before the concept of residency became cool. At Sackler, we showed four contemporary artists picking up this radical mantle.
NB: The younger generation consumes art in different ways, perhaps in a less linear fashion. How do you see the organisation responding going forward?
LP: It is a given that we must be where they are. This mean across all social media platforms, those we know and those we don’t yet know about. Technology is a key focus for me, and something Hans Ulrich and I work closely on with our curator of digital. How can we use technology to give bigger and wider audiences access to our art? More importantly, we need to make sure we are listening as well as talking. It has to be a dialogue, always. Whether that is Hans Ulrich’s 89+ project (co-founded by Simon Castets), our educational outreach on the Edgware Road, or our fantastic Future Contemporaries fundraising board. To be meaningful, the dialogue must reach across all areas of the organisation.
NB: Events such as the summer marathons, although open to all, can be intimidating for some. How can they be made to be more inclusive?
YP: The Marathon is an annual joy, and last year’s Miracle Marathon was our best yet. The second day was held just off Brick Lane, mixing our West London magic with East London cool. The atmosphere was fantastic and the audience definitely younger than ever. We also broadcast the entire event on the Serpentine Radio, opening it up to a whole new audience, giving people the chance to engage with the material on their own terms.
NB: The annual Serpentine Pavilion commission has become one of the most respected events in the architecture calendar. How do you see this project pushing the envelope even further?
LP: (The 2017 Pavilion winner) Francis Kéré’s work is so exciting and a way of bringing his village of Gando, Burkino Faso into Kensington Gardens. The Pavilion has such a history and Hans Ulrich and I, in making our first joint selection this year, were so mindful of that. Equally, we did want to push things forward. Kéré’s practice is rooted in community and sustainability. He is also the most wonderful storyteller. His design, based on a tree which is the focal meeting point in his hometown on Gando, is the inspiration for a new piece of programming that will bring even wider audiences in to what we call an open landscape of art and ideas.
Watch this space as we are going to bring in different groups. We’re looking at how we can use our privileged position, use our platform to bring in dissenting voices. Always better to debate a question than to answer…
‘Grayson Perry: Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!’ and Arthur Jafa ‘A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions’ are on at the Serpentine and Sackler galleries until 10 September. Francis Kéré’s Serpentine Pavilion will be at Kensington Gardens until 8 October.
This is Diébédo Francis Kéré’s gentle architectural installation for the annual Serpentine Pavilion project. It will sit here on the lawns of Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park in London until October encouraging the public to enter, sit, read, eat, interact.
The 2017 Pavilion is a far cry from last year’s jazzy unzipped wall of cold, hard-edged metallic boxes by Bjarke Ingels. Whereas that was a brilliant visual statement and picture-perfect for Instagram, the award-winning Berlin-based African architect’s structure is modest – the materials are from nature and almost blend into the surrounding park.
Kéré’s Pavilion mimics a tree, one that serves as a central meeting point in his childhood village of Gando, Burkina Faso. His architecture seeks to connect its visitors to nature and to one another. It is about giving shelter but not cutting people off – encouraging interaction, building communities.
I spoke with Yana Peel the new Serpentine Gallery chief executive a little while ago who was visibly excited about the prospect of working with Kéré. She told me her and the Serpentine creative director Hans Ulrich Obrist want to push things forward with the Pavilion project – be more radical. ‘Kéré’s work is so exciting,’ she says. ‘He is a marvel, and perhaps the nicest man you will ever meet, with community and sustainability at the very heart of his practice.’
The 2017 Pavilion also acts as the inspiration for a new piece of programming aimed at bringing wider audiences in to what Peel calls ‘an open landscape of art and ideas’. This includes the Serpentine Marathons which involve talks and debates here throughout the summer.
It also involves exhibiting artists who are controversial, who speak to a wider audience such as the summer exhibition of Turner Prize-winning British artist Grayson Perry with the provocative headline: ‘Grayson Perry Presents: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!’. Judging by the endless line outside, it certainly seems to be living up to its name. Peel says: ‘Grayson wants to address front-on the question of popularity and populism – who comes to an art gallery and why.’
Whilst over at the sister Sackler gallery down the lane, the American cinematographer Arthur Jafa, with a cult reputation for his outstanding work with the likes of Stanley Kubrick, Spike Lee and Solange Knowles, is reinventing the space and taking his message right across London with a series of ‘interventions in unexpected places’, says Peel.
The Serpentine Pavilion is architecture as installation art and, since its inception in 2000, has become one of the most anticipated events in the architectural calendar. It certainly is one of my annual highlights. Yesterday afternoon, as I made Francis Kéré’s architecture my temporary office, first sitting on the wooden stools inside, then at the back on a park bench nestled amongst real trees, I witnessed people of all ages settle, find a good seat, smile, chat, enjoy treats from the little café. Much like the natural light and soft textures that make this building, the atmosphere here is warm and friendly. Who knows, perhaps it will help build communities during the summer months.
Photography: Leigh Banks
Serpentine Pavilion 2017 will be at Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, London from 10 June – 9 October
I have strong views on the vital role of the visual arts and culture to help shape society and vice versa. My thoughts are that a degree of social engagement is necessary, especially in these volatile times. Without which these are just decoration, an ego massage, or worse strictly commercial enterprises. This applies as much to architecture and design as it does to the fine arts, film and music.
Public cultural spaces are in a great position to be an open landscape for ideas, to bring isolated voices together and instigate exciting discourse and debate.
Last week I met with Yana Peel, the chief executive of the Serpentine Galleries in London – two small galleries in terms of their footprint, but with a ‘local, national and international reach’, she says.
I admire the Serpentine and sister Sackler for they are proof that art galleries need not be grand institutions to make an impact – that sometimes it is often these more independent establishments that are willing to shake things up.
Peel talks of utilising her privileged position, this public platform, to bring in dissenting voices. Alongside the Serpentine’s artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist, they have set a courageous programme to explore voices from outside the mainstream art circles.
So, expect some interesting dialogues to emerge this summer as Arthur Jafa, the provocative American cinematographer and filmmaker, exhibits alongside Grayson Perry at the galleries.
Jafa is set out to explore how black film can achieve black music’s sense of theatre and he will be reinventing the Sackler space, teases Peel. Whilst across the Serpentine Lake, Perry’s provocatively titled The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! will do just that – question, as the British artist often does, art’s popularity and populism.
Then on the grounds next door to the Serpentine, in the midst of Kensington Garden’s beautiful nature, Berlin architect Diébédo Francis Kéré will connect visitors to the park and to one another through his winning Serpentine Pavilion project. His work is inspired by a tree which served as a central meeting point in his childhood village of Gando in Burkina Faso – as Peel puts it ‘bringing a little of Gando to Kensington Gardens.’
And the Serpentine Marathons – the supporting talks, debates, conversations – at the Pavilion, across London and on social media will keep a lively debate running all summer. Peel’s hope is that these events will connect with those from outside the art world and with younger generations. She tells me, ‘we need to make sure we are listening as well as talking. It must always be a dialogue’.
Public cultural spaces have to be risk takers – if they don’t, we are in deep, deep trouble. The Tate Modern, with its sheer size and reach has a responsibility to continue to make a stand, show unusual exhibitions, provoke, excite – not just entertain. These should be spaces where culture, politics and art can happen naturally – feed off each other and learn from one another.
Equally, architects and designers (yes, even car designers, a world I’m very familiar with) involved in public work, or grand gestures of creativity, or simple objects that occupy our landscape, should use there platforms to defend the planet, protect its citizens and living species. That is the power of creativity.