Zaha Hadid’s Chanel UFO

by Katrina Grigg-Saito

‘I was waiting for you so impatiently, torn between pleasure and pain,” the voice hisses. It is a woman’s voice, tinted with French, throaty and insistent. “Stay with me,” it begs. “Don’t wander off, I need you.”

Belonging to actress Jeanne Moreau, but eerily suggestive of Coco Chanel, the voice authoritatively sets our pace, pulling us from piece to piece within the Chanel Mobile Art Container.

Created by Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid for Chanel, the container is white, curvaceous and UFO-like, with slick, rounded panels that vaguely reference Chanel’s ubiquitous quilted bag. A collaboration between designer Karl Lagerfeld, Hadid and curator Fabrice Bousteau, the building houses works by 20 artists for Chanel. Resting across from Yoyogi Park, and set against the background of Yoyogi Stadium, the pod touched down in Tokyo on May 31. It will stay until July 4, after which it will stop in New York, London and Moscow before completing its journey in Paris in 2010.

Inside the pod, we are greeted by a swarm of staff in Chanel-logo sweaters who take our bags, slip MP3 players round our neck and press headphones to our ears. They direct us to sit in the cold hallway, with its slick, white benches, where we wait for a cue from our headphones — and are sent off, one at a time, into the first room.

With the warmth of Michael Lin’s brightly tiled floor, like a giant flowered handkerchief, this space contrasts with the stark exterior. It is excited and curious, and the sound of bells and tinkling music alerts you to delicate mirrors and triangles created by Loris Cecchini that float above your head. They are lovely but a bit too small, too underwhelming, for the space. It’s strange to try to find more to see in this first room, rather than moving on, but you have to wait for the cue. So you sit in a red leather armchair and stare vacantly.

The voice starts up abruptly and counts you up the stairs — “1, 2, 3, 4.” At the top is a well in which you see a cylindrical projection by Japanese animator Tabaimo. Black-and-white vertebrae appear to peel off like dried paint and morph into white heart valves that pump and palpitate to the music in your ears. They further morph into butterfly wings, and finally grasshopper legs open and fold closed. And this time you appreciate being held in place for longer than you might have, waiting for instruction from the voice, as the illustrations are repeated in pleasing patterns.

Next, your feet hit a realistic-looking cement sidewalk, complete with sewer cap, in a narrow, darkened room. Water pools where the sidewalk drops off into the asphalt street. Leandro Ehrlich’s projection is hidden behind a black wall so that all you can see is its reflection in the puddle. There are apartment buildings with lights turning on and off, a sky changing from day to night, and a Chanel storefront. You hear a music box playing, doors opening and closing, children laughing. Everything about it is evocative of the Paris that surrounded Coco Chanel, the motion and excitement reflected even in the occasional ripples that spill across the puddle. It is delightful and clear; I long to stay and watch these little lives unfolding, but am urged on.

In the well-lit room that follows are two portraits by Yang Fudong. But you notice a shiver, a slight twitch that reveals these women as cinematic and trying to stay still. Both Asian — and beautifully made-up — they appear to be trying to save face, holding their breath for fashion. Although slightly reminiscent of Warhol’s screen tests, Fudong’s are more captivating, perhaps due to the modern technology used to make them.

Art group Blue Noses offers six cardboard boxes inlaid with videos of characters swimming and cavorting. In one, naked people hit one another with giant purses; in a second, they are cheering with their breasts swinging; in a third, they float on giant Chanel bags. The brilliance is in the light hand they take to the great house of Chanel.

Next, you are greeted by large projections of images by Japanese erotic photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. They are yawningly predictable; the slides show painted vaginal flowers and a naked woman bound in Chanel chains. The voice says “Sex,” but some visitors laugh. Its air of mystery dissipates for a moment.

The voice becomes overexplanatory, speaking as if to a child when you move on to stare at a purse made of tattooed pig skin. “Pig skin bag. What an idea,” it says, even though it sits next to two of Wim Delvoye’s stuffed, tattooed pigs from his art farm in China. It goes on to point out the hair bristling from the bag, and you even hear the oinking of pigs. It’s the only time in a near perfect tour that sound designer Stephen Crasneanscki tends toward the obvious.

Then comes “Light Years.” Lee Bul creates a space throbbing and pulsing with fused fiberglass spheres and woven multicolored leather, the voice explaining that you are now “inside my brain, where my consciousness lives.” Small stairs lead to nowhere, and mirrors angle in to reflect the piece, which Bul created after visiting Coco’s apartment. The second floor, where Coco worked, is covered with mirrors angled so that she could see her designers and models at work on the first floor. From her perch, she could see them, but they could not see her. Bul conveys this obsession by giving her space in the pod a grandeur that none of the other pieces achieve.

The final room is the first space to use natural light, but it amounts to bubble- gum boredom. Sylvie Fleury’s “Crystal Custom Commando” features a giant Chanel purse you can sit in, a pile of postcards messily stacked on a table in Sophie Calle and Soju Tao’s “Urgent! Artist required; I don’t want to sleep alone,” large photographs by Pierre and Giles that look like Chanel ads, Stephen Shore’s documentary photographs of a handbag factory, titled “Handbag Factory,” and Yoko Ono’s “WISH TREE.” Ono rips off centuries of Japanese temples with white pieces of paper to write your wish on and tie to a couple of living trees.

There is an air of high expectation as visitors enter the pod, but in the end it doesn’t seem that a famous quilted bag, even a Chanel bag, is enough of a theme to unite around. The artists who succeed are those such as Tabaimo, for whom the bag itself is just an afterthought; Blue Noses, with their humorous touch; and Ehrlich and Bul, who explore a deeper world around the bag. For Ehrlich, it is in his simple yet artful display of a Paris street, expanding on place, memory and reflection; for Bul, it is her thoughtful delving into Chanel’s consciousness, creating something human and transformative. Hadid’s building is worth seeing. But the voice-over is the exhibit’s greatest success. Crasneanscki’s storytelling (on which Bousteau collaborated) and Moreau’s haunting voice tie the curious pieces together.

Tickets are available at Family Mart for ¥315 or via Pia’s ticket center