The Serpentine Pavilion and the Tate Tanks
Ai Wei Wei and Herzog and Meuron’s Serpentine Pavillion was described by its curator as a ‘palimpsest of ghosts’. The structure takes the foundation of the previous 11 years buildings and circumscribes their foundations and rubble to create a structure that is both wholly original and yet also clearly derivative. It is less a structure in its own right as it is a meditation on how the past lives side by side silently with the present. It softly muses on what it means to remember, what it is to live with memory.
It’s record is in many way incredible human. It is in fact a subtle jamais vu. The previous foundations were never there to be ‘unearthed’ in the process of this one’s inception. Instead, it was created by laying the previous designs over each other, building up the past layers as if the next architect had literally as opposed to figuratively built upon each previous pavilion.
The collaboration represented a chance for the artist to collaborate with Herzog and de Meuron on his own terms, after having been employed as a consultant to the architects to work on the design of the Bird Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics and later distancing himself from the project and the whole Beijing 2008 project, wondering why China lacked ‘the self-confidence to clearly examine yourself, rather than to give this kind of pretend smile on your face’. The collaboration itself nearly did not go ahead, with Ai unable to leave China. Skype and other online methods had to be used to overcome his geographical confinement.
In many ways it is typical of both its creators work. Ai deals with memory, forgetting, the past and loss across many mediums in his work, from modernisation’s wrenching of China from its historical past to the experience and memory of the individual within the collective, such as his 2007 work Fairytale where 1001 citizens from across China were brought to Kassel in five groups over 40 days, left to wander, see, and simply exist, bringing their memories and taking with them new ones. Herzog and de Meuron are best known in the UK for their work on the Tate Modern and have a record of integrating extending, refurbishing, and working with previous buildings, reshaping the past, from the extension of the Walker Museum in Minneapolis or their subtle synthesis of winery with vineyard at the Dominus Winery in the Napa Valley to their enlargement of the Unterlinden Museum in Alsace. Both have a streak running through their practices of attempting synthesis where different temporalities come into conflict.
The result of their collaboration at the serpentine, a still shallow disc of water sitting above this soft cork semi-subterranean structure that outlines this architectural archeological model, reminds us of the ghosts all around us, and despite lacking the knowing, gauche irreverence of post modern in-jokes, it quietly acknowledges that everything is derivative and nothing is really new. It is a design that is remarkably low on ego and all the better for it.
The same can be said of conflicts that one may have pre-empted in the newly opened Tanks at the Tate Modern by Herzog and de Meuron, an underground performance art space in three converted oil tanks. Turning storage to display and the closed and claustrophobic to the open could have been a call for drastic reengineering, but the resulting space has been born out of a sympathetic transformation, creating something that is new while remaining wholly recognizable as the previous space, which the Tate Tanks- as art and performance space- both inhabit and exhibit in their new role. It is an incredible achievement, and one that is more significant than the first phase of the Tate Modern- cathedral of power to cathedral to art was always going to be an easier transubstantiation.
The artist and the architectural practice seem to have found collaborators who are very much each the other’s equal, and in London, a place that is a strong fit for both. Ai Weiwei’s and Herzog and de Meuron’s work, whether alone or in collaboration seems to sit well with this city whose present is constantly negotiating with multiple versions of its past and lacks one defining previous era through which to frame that discussion.