We’d had a coffee in the courtyard cafe at the Victoria and Albert Museum, still able to comfortably sit outside on the unseasonably warm October morning, once the rain had stopped, and decided that we should go and have a look at the new Serpentine Gallery. All we knew about the new space had been gleaned from newspaper articles: it was somewhere in Hyde Park, had been a munitions store, and the refurbishment had been designed by Zaha Hadid.
With no discussion, but deep in conversation, we headed down Brompton Road towards Knightsbridge. It was only after we’d navigated the crossroads by Harvey Nicks that we looked at each other , and in near unison, said, we should have just walked up Exhibition Road.
I like to congratulate myself on the London map that I have in my head. There are whole areas that are blanks, there be dragons,: tracts of the City, most of what is South of the River, but the West End and west as far as South Kensington, I like to think I’ve got well mapped as it were. But walking two long sides of quite a big triangle, instead of taking the direct route, is a reminder that it can sometimes be quicker to think about where you are before setting off.
Having said that, it was a lovely afternoon for a walk in Hyde Park; the sun was so warm that we both ended up carrying our jackets, and because of our ridiculously roundabout route, I saw areas of the Park from new angles. Our wandering tour was worth it in the end.
The inaugural exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler is a huge installation by Adrian Villar Rojas. When we arrived, the gallery was being evacuated because of a fire alarm, so we walked around the outside of the building to examine the curves and sweeps of the Zaha Hadid extension. From some angles, the whole looks rather incongruous: a square building of golden bricks with a white curve stuck on the side; but the curving roof does have a pleasing shape, and cries out to be stroked – a possibility in those places where it swoops to the ground. It appears to be made of painted plastic and canvas. Light flows into the space from light wells in the roof, which are integrated into the support pillars, shapes reminiscent of the depiction of Triffids on 1960s editions of the John Wyndham novel. (There are T-shirts sporting the design shapes, in the minimalist shop for a mere £45.)
It clearly wasn’t a major fire emergency, as by the time we had complete the circuit of the exterior of the building, we were allowed to go inside.
The whole gallery is dedicated to the Villar Rojas installation, even down to the bricks on the floor, which the young man who greeted us at the door informed us were specially made, and had been laid loose, so that they respond with creaking and chiming as you walk on them; like a distant relation to the nightingale floors of Imperial Japan. Evidently, all of the bricks are newly made using traditional South American methods. It’s an astonishing feat of concentrated hard work and industry.
The entrance area is dominated by a sculpture of an elephant, made from textured concrete and plaster, apparently ramming itself into the wall, pushing its way into the gallery. There is something both powerful and poignant about it – its great shoulders stuck underneath a lintel, and its trunk curling helplessly below it on the floor. The surface is rough, and cracked, as the concrete has dried. Interior walls of slowly drying and cracking concrete surround the rest of the installation. The temptation to touch and to feel the surface is near overwhelming (and I gave in, but only for a moment, and really, really gently on tippy tippy finger tips), and there is that smell of fresh plaster in the air, that reminder of every hellish home refurbishment project ever undertaken.
Villar Rojas has created a collection of apparently random objects, the detritus of bits and pieces of contemporary life, and displayed them on racked shelved reaching to the ceiling. Many are coated in concrete, or sprout vegetation growing from green potatoes. It’s as if we are looking at a vision of our world which has been dug up by slightly confused archaeologists of the future.
I’m not sure I understood it, but it’s one of those exhibitions that will stay in the memory, if only for how much fun it was to walk on the brick floor.