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Kensington’s Summer Secret Garden and Mirrored Maze

16 Aug

Peter Zumthor’s Serpentine Pavilion has been compared to QuasarLaser parks and Star Wars pods. From a distance, its black exterior does look like an alien craft but get closer and you’ll see the walls of the black structure are a tactile faux-natural surface.  The walls are actually a lightweight timber structure wrapped and coated with scrim and black paste, mixed with sand.  This looks like hessian coated with paste.

Peter Zumthor’s Serpentine Pavilion 2011.  Image via www.phaidon.com

Several dark passages lead to a beautiful inner garden formed of muted colours.  Zumthor is fascinated by the presence, personality and character of plants – their delicacy, fragrance, movement, structure and proportion. The garden is a meeting point, acting as a calming centre where people can convene. The tableau vivant has been designed by Piet Oudolf, the renowned Dutch horticulturalist, who has created a space where not only people but bees and butterflies will flock.

Peter Zumthor’s Serpentine Pavilion 2011.  Own photograph.

Although the pavilion doesn’t have the same bravado as some pavilions in previous years (it is both low-key and low-lying), the contrasts and distinctions of space are impressive in their understatedness. We stopped for lunch amongst the rustling plants; sitting in this secret garden, it’s easy to forget you’re minutes away from the hustle and bustle of real life. In this sense, Zumthor has certainly achieved his aim. His hortus conclusus is enclosed all around but open to the sky.  We are protected but our dreams can soar.

Peter Zumthor’s Serpentine Pavilion 2011.  Own photograph.

The main Serpentine Gallery is currently exhibiting Michelangelo Pistoletto who has created a site-specific installation playing with the idea of a labyrinth. A serene maze of corrugated cardboard, enhanced by mirrored sections extending the space, leads visitors around through winding passages that reveal hidden sculptures.  Rolls and rolls of cardboard become an architectural form.  Even now that Pistoletto is famous he continues to work with the cheap materials with which he made his name.  But, despite looking like a solid structure, ironically, cardboard is easily damaged and knocked over.  Despite the colour resembling stone, these solid walls are fictitious.  This labyrinth is a myth.

Michelangelo Pistoletto, The Mirror Of Judgement.  Image via www.independent.co.uk.  

Amidst the cardboard scrolls of the first gallery a mirror is placed below the skylight.  Peering over the top of the installation, we are part of the glowing ‘heavens’ that are reflected.  This gestures to Pistoletto’s past works as well as immediately introducing one of his main exhibition themes, that of judgement (the title is after all The Mirror of Judgement) and of a meditation on heaven and the future.

While walking around the galleries, viewers glimpsed over the top of the maze become part of the work making use of the ever-popular ideas of spectatorship and inclusion. For once, being teeny presented an advantage.  I was in flats today – by necessity not choice as my knee injury has flared up – thus the corrugated cardboard maze was only a head or so taller than me.  Forced to crouch down a fair way, my tall companion did concede (a rare occurrence in itself) that my viewpoint was advantageous.  You shouldn’t be able to see where you are
going in a labyrinth.  Part of the fun and fear should be finding your way, not knowing where the next turn may take you – in life, in art, in anything.  There is something quite secretive (as there always is with maze works) about the process of discovery, peering over the top and scurrying through the passages.  In actuality, the maze would be better if it was even higher.

Michelangelo Pistoletto, The Mirror Of Judgement.  Image via www.grazia.it

The hidden works represent four major religions – Christianity (represented by a wooden prayer bench), Islam (by a prayer mat), Judaism (by a pair of large arched mirrors that recall the Torah) and Buddhism (by a ready-made Buddha statue)- and, as ever Pistoletto explores themes poignant to today’s society. All these signifiers are displayed in front of mirrors, hence including the viewer in the religiosity of intended prayer.

The artist in his installation.  Image via www.artlyst.com.  

The mirrored obelisk, in the central gallery, is designed to evoke the ancient Classical monuments.  Three linked ovals are suspended above it, forming the symbol of infinity.  This piece does create some interesting facades and new viewpoints but, placed in isolation, it would not be powerful.  It works because the constant reflections are stunning, almost oppressive in their number.

Michelangelo Pistoletto, The Mirror Of Judgement.  Image via http://anthropologicalurbanism.tumblr.com/.  

It is a wonderful, fun and provocative experience to weave through the maze.  The act of discovery is the most exciting part of this piece and the individual works aren’t as strong as the overall installation but, at the same time, simplicity makes this installation successful.

The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion is open until 16th October 2011. Michelangelo Pistoletto: The Mirror of Judgement is at the Serpentine Gallery on until 17th September 2011, http://www.serpentinegallery.org.

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