Cover David Adjaye (left) and Adam Pendleton (Photo: Tête-à-Tête Productions, courtesy of Pace)

Architect David Adjaye has joined forces with artist Adam Pendleton for an unusual exhibition at Pace in Hong Kong. Before it opens this month, the pair reflect on blurring boundaries and “activating society”.

An artist’s process and an architect’s process are completely different, but the end game is fascinatingly close,” says award-winning Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye over a crackly phone line from Accra, Ghana. That end game has been on Adjaye’s mind recently because he’s working on a new collaborative project with African-American artist Adam Pendleton, his close friend, that will be on show at Pace in Hong Kong from May 18 until June 30.

The exhibition features a body of new paintings by Pendleton alongside three new pyramidal sculptures from Adjaye’s Monoform series, which blurs the boundaries between sculpture and design. The day we speak is Martin Luther King Day in the US, which turns out to be of notable significance to the artists: Adjaye and Pendleton first collaborated on an ambitious architectural proposal for the Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King Memorial in Boston, Massachusetts in 2017. It was ultimately unsuccessful, but the project ignited a deeper dialogue between the pair, who both explore—and champion—black culture and history in their work.

“I love art for art’s sake, but I also love when art is able to be a socially transformative way forward,” says Adjaye. “There are a lot of practices now that are not just about making things on a canvas but activating society.”

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The pair first connected over social media. “He posted something on Instagram about one of his paintings that really touched me,” says Adjaye. “Adam’s Black Dada [texts written by Pendleton that draw connections between European Dadaist texts from the early 20th century and writings of African American leaders from the 1960s] was also a really powerful thing at the time, so I reached out to him.”

Adjaye has long been associated with the art world. He has collaborated on installations and exhibitions with British painter Chris Ofili, Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and Nigerian curator and art critic Okwui Enwezor, among others; he’s also designed private homes and studios for artists including London photographer Ed Reeve and artist duo Sue Webster and Tim Noble. Adjaye is a graduate of art school himself—he studied at the Royal College of Art in London, the city he moved to as a child (he was born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents). In 2017, he was elected as one of only 80 members of London’s Royal Academy of Arts; that same year he was knighted by Prince William.

His interest in and knowledge of art influence his work with his architecture studio, Adjaye Associates, which has studios in London, Accra and New York, and last year celebrated its 20th anniversary. “I try to sympathise with both sides—I try to see [my] work as both functional and also as an artwork,” he explains. “I’m very interested in this line between [architecture and] artwork that can be used, not just cerebrally, but also practically.”

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It’s probably this approach that makes Adjaye both refreshingly and frustratingly hard to categorise. His many buildings around the world are without an obvious signature, as are his smaller-scale products and furniture. Some call him a radical, an abstractionist; some even compare his buildings and furniture design to conceptual art. “I’m not really interested in synthesising form through a language of architecture, so my buildings never look the same,” he says.

One common thread is his need to investigate history and ecology to inform our future—he regularly discusses his desire to preserve culture, protect the environment and uplift communities. This has inspired buildings such as the monumental Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington DC, which opened in 2016 and arguably remains the highest-profile project of his career. He has also designed game-changing libraries, such as the Idea Store in London and the Francis A Gregory Neighborhood Library in the US capital. Gallerists including Marian Goodman have entrusted him to create unique, thoughtful spaces, too. His recently opened Ruby City, the Linda Pace Foundation art centre in San Antonio, Texas, is a standout among all his arts projects—it has a distinctive pink exterior. He’s also working on a new space for the Studio Museum in the Harlem neighbourhood of New York City.

Adjaye’s works for this new exhibition at Pace in Hong Kong are part of a series of experimental pieces that lie somewhere between sculpture and functional design: three perfect, geometric pyramids that decrease in dimension and can be dismantled and rearranged. They are made from three different stones: black, grey and white marble. “What looks like platonic, absolute forms that are just about visual pleasure and relate back to architecture, can in fact break up,” explains Adjaye. “There are three operations: a pyramid as a pure form, the void of the pyramid and then a segregated landscape of objects. I call them Monoform because they’re not design, they’re not art. I love the ambiguity and would like to keep it that way for as long as possible.” At times during the exhibition, the works will be rearranged live on site by gallery staff.

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Pendleton, too, who later this year will present a new solo show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, is interested in the roles ambiguity and abstraction can play in our everyday lives. “I think David and I both try to push the tenets of minimalism to their theoretical and aesthetic extremes,” he says from his studio in New York. “What can a formal vocabulary be in service of—historically, conceptually?”

The MoMA show, Adam Pendleton: Who is Queen?, will comprise a large multimedia installation as well as paintings from the Untitled (WE ARE NOT) series, which is also being shown in Hong Kong. “This will be my first solo show in New York in over seven years,” says Pendleton. “Since then, so much has happened in my work, in the city itself, and in the cultural and political realities experienced in America on a daily basis. My work does not shy away from these dynamics. I am using the museum as a site of engagement to probe the urgent questions of our moment, which are timeless in their character.” He explains that the show will “require viewers to engage on every level: to look, to listen, to read and to navigate the physical and theoretical space the work creates.” Pendleton believes it to be his most ambitious show to date.

Perhaps the social unrest in the US during 2020 has affected his work? “Black Lives Matter has been doing cultural, social and political work for nearly a decade,” says Pendleton. “My work is not illustrative of this movement yet speaks to certain concerns that it vocalises. Ultimately, though, my work insists on understanding the possibilities of abstraction and its relationship to representation.”

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Of the links between his work and Adjaye’s, Pendleton sees not just the surface connections—both work in a palette of black and white—but also something greater. “Both bodies of work are layered, the marble by rocks being subjected to many years of metamorphism and the paintings by layering [text]. I think we both question the relationship between representation and abstraction, and seek to articulate the space between each position.”

As so many of Adjaye’s buildings are rooted in place and environment, is there significance in the unveiling of this project in Hong Kong? On this occasion, the decision to show in the city was made by Pace, Adjaye admits. “Hong Kong is a place I love, it’s one of the great Asian metropolitan centres and I’ve spent a lot of time there, but this work isn’t about Hong Kong,” he says. “It’s about the work—this idea of abstraction, form and meaning.

“I’m very interested in going close to the idea of blurring what you think is an artwork and allowing it to perform in different ways. These are experiments that are useful for the way I work, trying to break down structure and hierarchies in architecture, and the way in which people think certain things should look a certain way.”

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