Without a Screen: Zaha Hadid’s Cinema of Form

Through March 25th the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Perelman Building hosts Form in Motion, a groundbreaking exhibition of Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid’s sculptural design.  Winner of numerous awards for her daring and originality, Hadid is under commission for the 2012 London Olympics.  In fact, her creations are currently being built in 40 different countries.  Her combination of protrusive organic formations, linear embellishments, futuristic sensibilities, and grand scale might well make her the world’s first Naturo-Brutalist for all her forceful presence.  For this unique site-specific exhibition – the first solo exhibition of her product designs in the US – Hadid orchestrates a “carefully controlled movement through space,” which suggests to the author an analogy to the action of filmmaking, and to the experience of cinema (Hiesinge).  Where cinema creates form from movement, Hadid creates movement from form.  Her objects and her environment are sinuous and continuous.

Without A Screen responds to the experiential exhibition and Hadid’s distinctly sensuous voice with a hypothetical film curatorial.  These interpretive associations between Form In Motion and particular films are fluid and subjective, and not meant to insinuate deliberate references on the part of the artist.  Some connections are obvious and material, others are abstract and stream of consciousness, but all are intuitive.

More than a mere selection of Hadid’s sculptural objects – not all of which will be discussed – the gallery at the Perelman is rendered into an “interior landscape,” where structure, terrain, space and light are augmented to fuse a sense of inside and outside, design and nature.  Though Form in Motion imparts an overall sense of sterility – due to its limited palate (black, white, grey/silver) and the laser precision of its surfaces – Hadid elicits entropy and erosion in her references.  Whether remarking on her sofas, tables, “lounge” chairs, shoes, twisting neon chandeliers, or waveform architectural wall (queue the undulating interior of the Ritz at the Bourse), Hadid’s formations are akin to those arrived at in nature by geologic processes like erosion.  Hadid distills and refines her futuristic forms through the most advanced materials and fabrication techniques; a juxtaposition of organic resemblances and industrial processes.

One’s first encounter in Form in Motion is an open circular antechamber, the ceiling of which is partially domed.  For individuals beneath the circumference of the dome, sounds made within that same space (ones own voice, footsteps, shuffling, breathing) amplify and reverberate.  Hadid’s dome creates a privatized sensory event that envelopes the experiencer(s) with its cinematic fullness, as well as its finitude.  In effect, she washes away the recent history of each viewer, prepares them for the exaggerated quality of her forms, and reminds the viewer of their integral part in the equation of art.  The white floor is marked here with broad curling strokes of black, evocative of waves or even tribal iconography.  The marks, flowing from inside the gallery proper, have both a coaxing undercurrent and an expulsive push.  As if wading upstream in the ripples, one enters into Form in Motion where the artist presents a visual time frame that is both primordial and ultramodern, wherein the individual provides the “present.”

Astride the futuristic chic Zephyr sofa at the fore of the main gallery, are two curving neon Vortexx Chandeliers that funnel down from the ceiling and bask a white stage in shifting colored light.  They strongly evoke the neon-embellished industrial designs of Tron Legacy (2011) as much as they do the warped architectural forms of Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926).  Hadid’s association to Gaudi, appropriate to much of her work, can be fully appreciated in the visual documentary Antonio Gaudi (1972); director Hiroshi Teshigahara’s own poetic “carefully controlled movement” through beguiling manipulations of space and form.  The Vortexx Chandeliers appear to be simple free-form spirals, but closer inspection reveals the elegance of Hadid’s tangles.  Each Chandelier, varied on the same warped spiral movement, eventually twists up through its own center and back onto itself.  The effect is Mobius-like.  Filmmaker David Lynch comes to mind, having performed a similar act of inversion, in narrative terms, with the structure of Lost Highway (1997).  While in prison for a terrible crime, a disturbed musician named Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) undergoes an identity-fugue.  By becoming a much younger man named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), he finds himself living a new almost diametric life.  Lynch convolutedly and terrifyingly leads Pete back around to his former identity, not unlike what Hadid does with her Chandeliers, and also with the gallery; returning the viewer to an experience of themself in the antechamber as they exit.

Turning one’s attention from the Vortexx Chandeliers, Hadid’s creative inclusion of the floor becomes evident.  The black graphic striations, continued from the antechamber, read like rippled reflections of the undulating wall structure that runs along the entire left side of the gallery.  Her graphic references are to the ebb and flow of the nearby Schuylkill River, and its understated significance to the formation of the area.  The opening shots of Rian Johnson’s High School set neo-noir Brick (2005) surface in thought.  Indelibly imprinted with their bluish tint and tinkering incidental music, Johnson reveals a dead girl’s braceleted hand lapped by the soft ripples of a creek.  This image sets the dramatic entropy of the film motion.  South Korean filmmaker Chang-dong Lee’s film Poetry (2010) also begins and ends with the ebb and flow of a river that buoys yet another dead girl’s body.  The girl’s cause of death bears great consequence for Mija (Jeong-hie Yun), an old optimistic woman raising her snide grandson, consumed by a late-life interest in writing poetry.  Like Form in Motion, Poetry contains a liquid constancy throughout its deliberate anticlimaxes.  Ruminations on Brick and Poetry infuse Hadid’s “river” with an unintentionally somber essence.

The river, and the aforementioned “waveform wall structure,” have a distinct relationship to one another.  Built into the gallery itself, the wall functions as an object, a stage for other objects, and barrier to create a space-within-a-space; a concealed video lounge featuring computer generated models of Hadid’s architectural projects.  The wall’s stacked topographical construction recalls sedimentary formations and the rivulets of desert sands.  No film has ever extracted greater poetry out of sand than Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes (1964), about a nameless man on a quest to discover a new species of beetle in the dessert.  He finds himself forcibly sharing a house with a woman at the bottom of a giant sand pit, and the film depicts his feverish stages of reaction to this situation.  Looking up at the wall, one feels as the film’s nameless protagonist might; daunted by the imposing enormity.  Teshigahara’s adaptation of author Kobo Abe’s existential masterwork is a visually textural experience (sand, flesh, water, sweat, wood), and for that fact, the smoothness and starkness of Hadid’s wall feels all-the-more like a polished abstraction of natural formations.  The river flows round the wall, responding to it and shaping it.  All the objects placed on the floor space are also shaped roundly by the erosive flow of “water.”

Elongated barnacle-like growths emerge from the wall, around the far bend.  Their pearlescent-grey scooped-out contours could almost cradle a human body, and inspire a vague recollection of Japan’s infamous capsule hotels.  A much more subjective association to Hadid’s capsule forms is yet again from Woman in the Dunes.  The nameless man sits inside a small abandoned skiff, slowly being consumed by desert sands.  This existentially ripe image of a landlocked sea craft has appeared in numerous films – Never Let Me Go (2011), and Ki-duk Kim’s Samaritan Girl (2004) to name a few.  The boat’s form, and therefore its emptiness are asserted by its unconventional locale, just as Hadid’s capsules raise curiosities about their proportional relationship to the human body vs. their vertical arrangement.

The movement of the exhibition – the overriding directionality of the wall / floor-piece, and the smooth curvature of all Hadid’s sculptural forms – has a kinship to the elliptical cinematography of Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien.  In particular, Form In Motion recalls Café Lumiere, Hou’s homage to Yasujro Ozu.  The film patiently revolves around Yoko, a young and suddenly pregnant Japanese woman researching a Taiwanese composer.  The film is airy and crisp in its simplicity as Hou negotiates Yoko’s relationship with her parents, her quietly budding friendship to a bookstore clerk, and to the city itself.  As always, Hou’s camera follows the movement of individuals in spaces from relatively fixed perspectives, without breaking continuity.  The unblinking lens allows the viewer to enter fully into Café Lumiere’s environs, and to bask in the days’ softly diffused light.  Café Lumiere draws parallels between the chaotic-yet-regulated beauty of Tokyo’s rail systems, and the chaotic-yet-regulated courses of individuals.  It isn’t difficult to extract Hadid’s river from Hou’s rails.

Author: Aaron Mannino

Aaron Mannino is a Philadelphia area artist, film enthusiast, and some other things. He has made contributions on film analysis to the publication Korean Quarterly. Visit his blog or his website for writings and art-ings.

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