What a day for the Serpentine Gallery’s CEO to announce her resignation: the very moment at which the gallery’s 2019 pavilion – a temporary structure designed by a leading architect – was due to be launched. If this year’s building, by the radical Japanese architect Junya Ishigami, represents a soaring triumph of engineering over crushing weight, the gallery’s forthcoming plans have conversely been grounded by a calamitous scandal surrounding Yanna Peel.
The glamorous Russian-born Canadian businesswoman and philanthropist has resigned from her position amid revelations that she is co-owner of a venture capital company with a controlling interest in a $1 billion Israeli tech company whose products have allegedly been used for surveillance purposes by authoritarian regimes. In a statement, the Serpentine, which receives 17-18 per cent of its funding from the Arts Council, but otherwise relies on privately generated support, praised her role in “growing reserves [and] total income and [establishing] an international donor programme” since she became CEO in 2016. Even so, Peel seemed a slightly odd fit from the start.
Her predecessor, Julia Peyton-Jones, who was responsible (in partnership with artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist) for turning the formerly embattled gallery in Kensington Gardens into one of the world’s leading contemporary art institutions – and who initiated its pavilions programme – had spent her life working with artists and operated under the modest title of co-director. Peel, who assumed the title CEO (does a public gallery in a park need a CEO?), hadn’t, as far as I’m aware, organised or curated an exhibition in her life, and seems to have been chosen in the expectation she would bring in patronage on a scale a mere museum-person could only dream of. While she seems to have had some success in that respect, ultimately this arrangement has come to an unfortunate conclusion, in a way that may have lessons for cultural institutions considering quasi-familial rapprochements with big business.
The pavilion itself, meanwhile, hasn’t been without its own controversies. The news that architect Ishigami uses unpaid interns, who apparently work punitive hours, has unleashed a storm of comment in the architectural press and a statement from the Serpentine asserting that all interns were paid in the construction of its pavilion.
Nevertheless, Ishigami’s remarkable structure deserves detached scrutiny in its own right. Designed to resemble a heap of slate, it appears to float – anomalously for a clearly massively heavy structure – in a random wave form. Where the gallery’s own silver roof slates are arranged in conventional neat rows, the pavilion’s jagged shards of grey-green Welsh stone appear precariously heaped on to the fragile structure.
When you get inside, you realise that the heavy mass overhead is in fact a skin covering a triangular mesh vault, supported by a forest of terrifyingly slender white steel poles. You feel as though you’re looking up at the surface of a Welsh hillside transformed into a convex canopy.
If it doesn’t quite convince as the “hill of stones growing out of the lawn” that Ishigami intended, it’s a remarkable updating of the ethereal traditions of traditional Japanese architecture and aesthetics. Meanwhile, I doubt very much that yesterday’s revelations – embarrassing though they are – will seriously impede the Serpentine’s progress as one of Britain’s major art institutions.