Can cultural spaces and galleries be landscapes of ideas?

I have strong views on the vital role of the visual arts and culture to help shape society and vice versa. My thoughts are that a degree of social engagement is necessary, especially in these volatile times. Without which these are just decoration, an ego massage, or worse strictly commercial enterprises. This applies as much to architecture and design as it does to the fine arts, film and music.

Public cultural spaces are in a great position to be an open landscape for ideas, to bring isolated voices together and instigate exciting discourse and debate.

Last week I met with Yana Peel, the chief executive of the Serpentine Galleries in London – two small galleries in terms of their footprint, but with a ‘local, national and international reach’, she says.

Grayson Perry, Death of a Working Hero, 2016, Tapestry, 250 x 200 cm © The Artist Courtesy the Artist, Paragon Press and Victoria Miro, London. Photographer: Stephen WhiteI admire the Serpentine and sister Sackler for they are proof that art galleries need not be grand institutions to make an impact – that sometimes it is often these more independent establishments that are willing to shake things up.

Peel talks of utilising her privileged position, this public platform, to bring in dissenting voices. Alongside the Serpentine’s artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist, they have set a courageous programme to explore voices from outside the mainstream art circles.

So, expect some interesting dialogues to emerge this summer as Arthur Jafa, the provocative American cinematographer and filmmaker, exhibits alongside Grayson Perry at the galleries.

Jafa is set out to explore how black film can achieve black music’s sense of theatre and he will be reinventing the Sackler space, teases Peel. Whilst across the Serpentine Lake, Perry’s provocatively titled The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! will do just that – question, as the British artist often does, art’s popularity and populism.

Then on the grounds next door to the Serpentine, in the midst of Kensington Garden’s beautiful nature, Berlin architect Diébédo Francis Kéré will connect visitors to the park and to one another through his winning Serpentine Pavilion project. His work is inspired by a tree which served as a central meeting point in his childhood village of Gando in Burkina Faso – as Peel puts it ‘bringing a little of Gando to Kensington Gardens.’

And the Serpentine Marathons – the supporting talks, debates, conversations – at the Pavilion, across London and on social media will keep a lively debate running all summer. Peel’s hope is that these events will connect with those from outside the art world and with younger generations. She tells me, ‘we need to make sure we are listening as well as talking. It must always be a dialogue’.

Public cultural spaces have to be risk takers – if they don’t, we are in deep, deep trouble. The Tate Modern, with its sheer size and reach has a responsibility to continue to make a stand, show unusual exhibitions, provoke, excite – not just entertain. These should be spaces where culture, politics and art can happen naturally – feed off each other and learn from one another.

Equally, architects and designers (yes, even car designers, a world I’m very familiar with) involved in public work, or grand gestures of creativity, or simple objects that occupy our landscape, should use there platforms to defend the planet, protect its citizens and living species. That is the power of creativity.

Nargess Banks

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