Contemporary art Exhibitions Fairs United Kingdom

A culture captured in clay in the Serpentine’s new space

Boots, iPods and an elephant are among the 2,000 works by Adrián Villar Rojas in the Sackler’s inaugural show

Villar Rojas has filled the former munitions depot with sculptures

Adrián Villar Rojas, a 33-year-old sculptor from Argentina, has been given the inaugural show at the new Serpentine Sackler Gallery, possibly the biggest gig in London’s art calendar this year. But instead of sticking to the confines of the Zaha Hadid-designed space, Villar Rojas has constructed his own architectural landscape—a place at the end of time and civilisation as we know it.

Raised and educated in the Argentinian city of Rosario, the young sculptor was relatively unknown until he catapulted himself onto the art scene with Mi familia muerta (My dead family), 2009, a monumental sculpture of a beached whale. The striking piece was created for the Biennial at the End of the World in Ushuaia, Argentina, the world’s southernmost city. But the 28m-long giant was not washed up on a beach, where such suffering animals are usually found: it was stranded in a small forest of beech trees. The fragility of such powerful creatures lies at the heart of the kind of work that Villar Rojas makes, something that is underlined by his use of delicate, unfired clay.

Rising to the challenge

In 2011, Villar Rojas was invited to represent Argentina at the Venice Biennale, where he created a dense environment of imposing clay sculptures. The following year, his clay works in a public garden were one of the highlights of Documenta in Kassel, Germany. Very little remains of his exhibitions, however, because his works are almost always tied to a site. At the Sackler, he has the unenviable task of competing for attention with Zaha Hadid’s refurbishment project and the historic architecture of the 1805 munitions depot in which the new gallery is housed. “It’s a tall order,” says Sophie O’Brien, the senior curator of exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery, who has organised the show, “and he has done extremely well.”

A clanking, slightly unstable brick floor is the first element of the exhibition that visitors encounter. It echoes the gallery’s brick vaulted rooms, in which gunpowder was once stored and which will certainly become the focal point of any future exhibitions in the space. But the floor also points to the artist’s studio in Argentina, which he set up near an old brickworks on the outskirts of his hometown. The distinction between artist and artisan is one that Villar Rojas likes to blur, employing assistants who are not strictly artists to help him create his sculptural projects. In London, he enlisted the help of nine people—his “nomadic crew”—to produce the 2,000 sculptures on show at the Sackler. The works were created in a studio on an industrial estate in Stratford over the past two months.

An oversized, three-ton elephant is probably the first thing the visitor will notice upon entering the gallery, however. Throwing its weight against the walls of the powder room, it is forced to its knees by a heavy beam, a replica of the historic frieze on the building’s exterior. The mix of concrete and clay that the elephant is made from is scarred by numerous cracks, making it look like a fossil from Pompeii.

Past, present and future

Moving on, the first vaulted chamber looks like an archaeological archive. Under the harsh neon light, shelf upon shelf is stacked with the remnants of our culture in clay: Calder-esque mobiles, iPods, a statue of Kurt Cobain, prehistoric tools, boots, animals and the legs of Michelangelo’s David. Growing out of the sculptures are plants and other organic materials that breathe new life into these ruins. The crumbling clay destroys the hierarchy, as if to say that, one day, everything will be on the same page. When the end comes, Cobain and the statue of David will be equal.

The next chamber provides a serene counterpoint to this crowded arrangement. “It is more sacred, though what is being worshipped is unclear,” O’Brien says. “It also provides a moment to spend time in the building and reflect on the original depot.” The room is empty save for two stained-glass windows, which add to the religious atmosphere of the space. The walls of the two chambers, though made of the same crumbling grey, look like futuristic architecture.

Time seems to stand still in Villar Rojas’s installation. Our traditional representation of the passing of time, the degeneration of material, is called into question here. We are at once looking at the past and at the future; what better way to introduce Hadid’s revamp of this historic building?

"Today We Reboot the Planet", Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, until 10 November

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