Elephant’s Bottom Greets Guests at New Serpentine Gallery

The first sight that greets the visitor to the new Serpentine Sackler Gallery is a life-sized sculpture of an elephant’s posterior.

Part of an exhibition by the Argentine-born artist Adrian Villar Rojas, this is not a bad introduction to a new public art space that is ungainly yet substantial with unconventional charm.

The new gallery, a short distance north of the long-established Serpentine Gallery which it supplements, is a remodeling and extension of a small building that has been standing inconspicuously in Kensington Gardens since 1805.

Known as “The Magazine,’’ it was originally constructed as a gunpowder repository. It consisted of two vaulted store rooms, massively constructed of brick to withstand explosions and masked by a neat little neo-classical portico.

Around the ammunition storerooms, the architect Zaha Hadid has created a sober circuit of galleries. Next door, she has built a restaurant area that looks like a tent designed by Gaudi.

The resulting architectural blend is not a smooth one. It looks a little like a barracks alongside a marquee billowing in a high wind.

Still, the light-hearted mood of the extension suits its function. Flamboyantly curvaceous contemporary architecture is less problematic as a background to food than to art (it can fight for attention with the latter.)

Recycled Museums

The difficulties of the Serpentine Sackler as an art gallery don’t come from Hadid’s contribution, but from those Georgian gunpowder stores at its center.

It’s true that we are getting used to art galleries inhabiting recycled structures. A good deal of the Venice Biennale is shown in the naval warehouses of the old Arsenale. Tate Modern was once a power station and the Musee d’Orsay is a former rail station.

Yet these tunnel-like “Powder Rooms’’ have a very strong architectural personality of their own. They won’t suit every kind of art -- those massive walls would stifle paintings, for example.

For his opening exhibition, “Today We Reboot the Planet’’ (through Nov. 10), Villar Rojas has decided to work with the building rather than fight it.

His art -- which made a splash at the 2011 Biennale -- is about the connection between ruins and time. This installation suggests that we are looking at the remnants of some ancient civilization, and simultaneously, the recent past and present.

Villar Rojas has used one of the “Powder Rooms’’ as a different sort of store, not of gunpowder but of hundreds of small sculptures arranged on shelves around the walls -- jugs, a cast of a dog like something from Pompeii, living plants mingled with effigies of Kurt Cobain.

Powder Room

Meanwhile he has encased the exterior of the old storerooms in a sculptural wall of clay (the elephant is part of this). As a homage to the early-19th-century buildings he has left the other “Powder Room’’ empty, but with specially made stained glass windows at the top. Finally, he has installed a temporary brick floor on which the visitor walks.

On the whole, it’s a striking London debut for Villar Rojas, and for the new space. From now on the Serpentine will run two exhibitions concurrently. At the old Serpentine, five minutes’ walk away, a show by the veteran Italian artist Marisa Merz will open at the same time as the Villar Rojas.

How the Serpentine will divide the functions of the two sites in the future remains to be seen, as does the question of how other artists will respond to this quirky location.

The London art scene is already bursting with exhibitions and venues. Yet this still looks like a welcome addition.

The founders of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery are the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation. The Serpentine Sackler Gallery and its opening exhibition are sponsored by Bloomberg.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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