Reflections on the Serpentine Pavilion
30 Jul 2012
The atmosphere in London this summer lies flat, heavy and dense. The occasional opportunities for levity feel like oases, so descending into the dark bunker on the Serpentine lawn is almost a relief- especially when the company is as robust as the pavilion itself. In a touching tribute to two of London’s most popular historic outdoor pastimes, Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron have built a duck pond over a bear pit- and on the evening of the Ides of July it was the spectral bears of art and architecture doing the wrestling. Jacque and Pierre were joined by artists Hiroshi Sugimoto and Michael Craig-Martin, and the bout was deftly marshalled by curators Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obriest.More on the discussion later. As for the pavilion itself, in a pluralistic society one might expect the more successful public art to be richly layered, providing the viewer with opportunities for nuanced interpretations. For instance, a retired royal guardsman we met saw the roof boating lake as a gamely and coy invitation by Ai, in response to Artangel’s current temporary installation atop Queen Elizabeth Hall- the miniature steamboat Roi des Belges. Simultaneously, a group of familiar revellers congregating on the roof of the Serpentine Gallery main saluted an altogether different view- reverently toasting the vista out over the pavilion’s mirror pool, towards the distant eastern promise of the Shard- in the approximate direction of Ai himself. The temporary structure’s circular roof acknowledges this orientation with a neatly segmented western edge.
The pavilion is well described elsewhere, but simply and briefly the concrete water-table sits over a cork landscape meticulously reconstructed with delightful touches from the subterranean fabric of all eleven previously built pavilions. Of the years I have visited, this is conceptually and materially the most bombastic and monumental- and like much of Ai’s output it demands to be interpreted in a singular way, in this case as a horizon. This, ultimately, is perhaps the central cultural clash of the pavilion. A clear political message which has already been gently but robustly covered by more subtle European and Chinese artists is here driven home, a contrast made the starker by the fact that it follows directly on from Zumthor’s 2011 meditation. Ai effectively makes his own pavilion itself a relic, but it is no less potent as a result. Again typically, as a forging space for discussion, he provides a brutal statement without hinting at an answer; for instance it might have been an uplifting touch to have invited a rotation of landscape architects to imagine planting schemes for the roof-top pool.
On the whole, whilst we perhaps owe Ai and Herzog & de Meuron a debt of gratitude for providing an opportunity to eject the cultural baggage of previous pavilions, whoever is invited to build next will now be tasked with a franchise reboot of sorts. As the pool of unbuilt foreign ‘Starchitects’ dwindles, this might perhaps prove an intriguing moment for a mission reappraisal. In a stroke of luck however, thanks to MVRDV’s ultimately ill-fated 2005 design, the next pavilion the Serpentine commission will be the fourteenth. As ever it will be keenly anticipated.
As for the evening’s discussion? Under the warm glow of the Lindner industrial soffit lights like charming old thesps in their dressing room, the architects spoke archly to the audience they imagined they were speaking to- whilst the artists courted, pretending that in time they could become interested in building regulations. It would be indecent to report on the outcome of this particular grapple, except to say that it culminated in a love-in- but overall, in many respects the whole evening reminded me of poetry being shouted in the ruins. I can think of few better ways to spend a summer’s eve.
Ken Wilson, Antillia Collective