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A look back at the Serpentine

As Ólafur Elíasson and Kjetil Thorsen’s pavilion is readied for deconstruction, we revisit Ilka & Andreas Ruby’s introduction to the Serpentine catalogue.

The fact that this year’s Serpentine Pavilion has been given to artist Ólafur Elíasson and Norwegian architect Kjetil Thorsen of Snøhetta represents a singularity in the history of the pavilion project. It is the first time that an artist has been asked to design the pavilion, together with an architect who, which is equally novel, does not belong to the ubiquitous guild of architectural superstars that made the previous pavilions.

One could argue that by choosing an artist and architect, the Serpentine Gallery wanted to acknowledge a tendency of art that has emerged over the last 15 years, of which Elíasson is but one representative among others such as Jorge Pardo, Tobias Rehberger, Carsten Höller, Dominique Gonzales-Förster, or Clemens von Wedemeyer, to name but a few. All of them have, in different ways, incorporated architecture as part of their material and conceptual vocabulary. After decades of alienation and forced marriages such as Kunst am Bau, art and architecture now relate in productive ambiguity. We have grown accustomed to situations of disciplinary cross-dressing such as art that looks like a building or, vice versa, architecture that looks like a work of art.

This generosity of the brief is particularly accommodating for Elíasson, as it allows him to realise his trajectory of appropriating the language of architecture to an as yet unprecedented degree. Throughout his work, Elíasson has been attracted to architecture in terms in a number of ways, one of it being its scale. He likes to execute his installations in quasi-architectural dimensions, often customtailored to fit particular architectural buildings.

Yet instead of simply adding a decorative sculptural object, he always seeks to transform the appearance and performance of the chosen building completely, such as in The mediated Motion, Kunsthaus Bregenz (2003) or in The Weather Project, Tate Modern (2005-06). Recently, Elíasson has gone so far as to actually take over entire parts of new buildings to be built, such as in the Concert and Congress Centre, Reykjavík (2005–09, by Henning Larsen Architects) by designing the entire glass facade of the building. The artwork is inseparable from the building as it borrows the architectural body to materialise itself.

The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion marks a certain quantum leap because it is here, maybe for the first time in Elíasson’s work, that the disciplinary and material interface between art and architecture has become ultimately invisible – an achievement for which coauthor Kjetil Thorsen of Snøhetta cannot be credited enough. Clearly the pavilion benefits from Snøhetta’s non-fetishist design agenda, with its preference for auratically charged archetypal forms that manage to render a contemporary quality of the sublime. Snøhetta’s team ethic – apparently Thorsen only reluctantly agreed to have his individual name credited, rather than the firm’s name – eased the otherwise vulnerable ego-scape of art and architecture joint ventures. Indeed, Thorsen and Elíasson managed to synchronise their efforts to such a degree that there is no division line between the artist’s and the architect’s contribution; no marking of territories, because there are no separate territories to begin with - the pavilion is just one entity, object, building... or whatever you would like to call it.

Resume: Goodbye, sweet pavilion. You were never built to last…

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