Inspired by sacred music, an artist’s ‘Black Chapel’ is opening in London


Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

A striking meditative temple made of painted black wood has been built in London’s Hyde Park as part of a prestigious annual architecture commission.

Conceived by Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates, the “Black Chapel” is the 21st Serpentine Pavilion commission and is meant to provide a space for reflection and healing. It includes a meaningful tribute to the artist’s late father, and will also be a site for experimental performances this summer and fall, including a sweeping tribute to the history of sacred music.

“(‘Black Chapel’) 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,” Gates said in a press release about the design. “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” photographed just before its opening. Credit: Iwan Baan/Serpentine

Each year, Serpentine invites one architect, artist or collective to build a temporary structure from scratch, providing free reign to experiment with form and concept. Past commissions have included the late Zaha Hadid in 2000, Frank Gehry in 2008, and Ai WeiWei and Herzog & De Meuron in 2012.

Last year, Sumayya Vally became the youngest architect to design the commission — with a pink and brown curvilinear structure inspired by London’s architecture, her firm Counterspace paid tribute to the spaces in the city which were once vibrant cultural pillars but no longer exist.

A transcendental experience

“Black Chapel” reflects Gates’ larger practice, which revolves around communal spaces and how they can provide shelter, solace and community.

According to the press release, Gates was inspired by the “transcendental environment” of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, which houses 14 works of dark hues by the abstract-expressionist painter Mark Rothko. Inside the “Black Chapel,” Gates has created a new series of seven tar paintings that reference his own late father’s trade as a roofer, using layered roofing materials that have been blowtorched — a technique called “torch down.” Gates’ father passed away in May, the artist confirmed in an Instagram post.

Gates' paintings inside the minimal space are a tribute to his father, who recently passed away.

Gates’ paintings inside the minimal space are a tribute to his father, who recently passed away. Credit: Iwan Baan/Serpentine

The chapel’s minimal, round shape with simple entryways reference sites as varied as beehive kilns in the American West, which are relics of old mining operations, to the traditional African forms of Cameroon’s Musgum mud huts and Uganda’s Kasubi Tombs.

Outside of the chapel, Gates has placed a bronze bell salvaged from St. Laurence, a Catholic church that once served as a landmark in Chicago’s South Side but was torn down in 2014, 10 years after it closed due to disrepair. The artist, who has led initiatives in the neighborhood to revitalize abandoned buildings as art and cultural spaces, has often used materials and objects from St. Laurence in his work. Among the objects he collected following its demolition, he has exhibited a statue of the titular patron saint.

In 2017, the statue of St. Laurence became part of the permanent collection of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Gates coated the saint with tar and housed it in a black brick temple in the museum’s sculpture garden — a precursor to the Serpentine commission.
“The Walker project was the first moment when I could consider a meditative zone that would be a permanent architecture,” he said in an interview with the museum in 2017.
"I have always wanted to build spaces that consider the power of sound and music as a healing mechanism," Gates said in the press release.

“I have always wanted to build spaces that consider the power of sound and music as a healing mechanism,” Gates said in the press release. Credit: Rankin Photography

Because music is fundamental to Gates’ pavilion, “Black Chapel” will host a number of performances from acclaimed church choirs; experimental lo-fi piano composers and progressive jazz players, according to Serpentine. In October, the final performances will come from Grammy award-winning singer Corinne Bailey Rae and Gates’ own ensemble The Black Monks, which combine the contemplative sounds of eastern monastic traditions with the soulful music of the American South.

Bettina Korek and Hans Ulrich Obrist of Serpentine called the work “astonishing” in the press release. They said, “‘Black Chapel’ brings spirituality around Gates’ extraordinary vision.”

Black Chapel” will be on view at the Serpentine Pavilion from June 10 — October 16.

Top image: A rendering of the new pavilion.

Quoted from Various Sources

Published for: red wine stain removers