Fueled by a fortune built on a handbag, a glossy white art-filled spaceship has touched down in Central Park. It’s designed by Zaha Hadid, the Pritzker Prize winning Iraqi architect and underwritten by Chanel, making for a kind of architecture-meets-fashion-meets-art-meets-brand promotion fantas-magoria.
Spawned in 2006 when Chanel creative director, the Goth-like German Karl Lagerfeld, met Hadid in the lobby of Soho’s celebrity canteen, the Mercer Hotel, the "Mobile Art" exhibition previously swooped through Hong Kong and Tokyo before landing in New York.
Inside, the 7500 square foot pavilion, visitors are outfitted with an MP3 player on which the French actress Jeanne Moreau meditates on life, love, and desire, in her irresistibly sexy, world-weary voice. Like the world’s sultriest docent, she also comments on the art, and keeps traffic moving through Hadid’s curvy maze-like interiors.
The art? It’s a mixed multimedia bag that includes wacky film clips of buck naked fatties frolicking in the bottom of cardboard boxes; a bottomless pit, where images of what appear to be sting rays, fossils, and ganglia swoop around the rim; photographs of women made from reptilian skins; and projected images of women bound in nothing but chains alternating with images of anthuriums, the floral equivalent of flashers in trench coats.
So, what’s the point? At first, the connection is subtle. Moreau begins her commentary by saying, "I have an overwhelming need to empty my bag." It’s a French saying, she later explains, that means "get something off my chest." Innocent enough, right? Maybe not...
Things soon get a little more pointed. A batch of screens feature short films by the Indian artist Subodh Gupta. They depict various scenes involving bags – stolen bags, stuffed bags, patterned bags, bags on the run. Moreau intones: "A bag can make life lighter. You can hide anything in a bag. You can get killed for a bag."
Hmmm. Starting to sense a theme?
Then, around a corner, you happen upon a big enameled green shipping container, partially open, in which a woman in what appears to be a Chanel jacket is humping a big black rubber bear. Nearby is a set of swings —- done up in a suspiciously Chanel-like quilted pattern, and suspended by a suspiciously Chanel-like chain. Get it yet? A linked pair of horseshoes placed prominently in the front hammers the brand message home for any bonehead who’s missed the more subtle clues.
The kicker? At the exhibit’s end, in Hadid’s light-filled atrium, a giant quilted handbag is splayed open to reveal a furry pink interior housing a giant pressed powder compact, with a rope=like gold chain snaking along the floor.
Turns out, Women’s Wear Daily reported, that before starting work, artists had been invited to visit Chanel’s leather goods factory in suburban Paris ‘just to get their creative juices flowing.’ Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s head of fashion, says the project was designed to "surprise customers, communicate the brand’s heritage, and energize one of its iconic products."
So, the creative muse that inspired this work was linked to the brand as surely as Coco’s C’s are linked in the hardware that dangles off her signature bags.
Still, Chanel stopped short of what rival house Louis Vuitton did when they installed an actual handbag shop as part of the Murakami exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art earlier this year.
Sadly, given all the brand theatrics, nobody was offering 20% off coupons good for redemption at a Chanel boutique near you.
Don’t get me wrong: this show is entertaining. Moreau is a terrific guide, and for most North Americans, this is as close as we’re likely to get to experiencing a building by Hadid on our own soil. But don’t mistake this for anything other than what it is: a luxury house’s high-brow foray into brand building.
Fortunately, the show is free to the public so, apart from the time you invest in standing on line, you don’t have to pay to be sold. It’s open from Oct. 20-Nov. 9. Enter Central Park from Fifth Avenue at E. 72nd St., and look for the signs.