Looking at the Mobile Art pavilion currently stationed in central Hong Kong’s Star Ferry Car Park is kind of like looking at a limited edition Chanel handbag. You know you shouldn’t be staring in that gauche way, but you can’t help yourself. Nestled near Hong Kong harbour, with the city’s iconic skyscrapers seemingly standing guard, the white, segmented cocoon is a giant travelling tribute to Chanel’s signature quilted bag, and a container that holds the efforts of 20 celebrated artists from around the world.
More than two years ago, the French fashion house had commissioned Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid to build a travelling museum or, as curator Fabrice Bousteau describes it, “A sort of passing UFO that lands for a number of weeks in the middle of some of the largest cities in Asia, the US and Europe.” Bousteau had the task of commissioning artists to create works in a medium of their choice. They had complete freedom, but there was one specification: Use the quilted 2.55 bag as inspiration. This now iconic handbag (one of the first to feature a shoulder strap which left the wearer’s hands free) was a hit when it was launched by Coco Chanel in 1955.
Experiencing the show is like moving through a 3D film; very often, it is voyeuristic, like walking through someone’s home without them knowing. An MP3 player given to each guest provides the soundtrack. It features the husky, cigarette-and-whisky-aged voice of French actor Jeanne Moreau who, like an authoritative dominatrix, guides you through the show. Actually, orders would be a more accurate term. At times she tells you to move forward when you want to stop and ruminate on a work; at other times you want to discover what lies around the bend, but she’s not ready yet. It can be frustrating, but heightens the experience of the show.
The exhibition unfolds in eight progressive sequences, each made up of more than one installation. It starts on a tranquil note, with Japanese artist Michael Lin’s joyful, camellia-inspired mosaic floor installation, which lies under Italian Loris Cecchini’s Floating Crystals. Lin’s flower bed of red and white camellias, made of 65,000 diamond-shaped metal lozenges, are cut to the size of the quilting of Chanel’s 2.55 bag, while Cecchini’s luminescent clouds suspended above the floor are made up of 25,000 transparent plastic crystals that are a 3D version of the same diamond shape.
At the head of a short flight of stairs comes Japanese artist Tabaimo’s At the Bottom—a padded, quilted leather well with black and white cartoons of insect abdomens and butterfly wings projected on its inner walls. Moreau’s voice allows you to linger, until she leads you to the entrance of another chamber. The wall and entrance are covered by the neon candy stripes of French artist Daniel Buren’s work—a luminous material made with multicoloured optical wires and designed in collaboration with Lyons’ silk workshops. You step through the bright walls into a darkened chamber to see Leandro Erlich’s Parisian street.
Out on the other side, you encounter Chinese artist Yang Fudong’s video installation, My Heart was Touched Last Year. It features the faces of two women in an old-fashioned portrait style. It looks like a still picture, then you detect subtle movements and see that the picture is alive.
Then Nobuyoshi Araki — or Japan’s Warhol, as he is known — captures attention with his slides titled Arakinema: Kaori and Painting Flowers. The provocative work shows black and white slides of a naked dancing woman entwined with Chanel bag chains; these are alternated and superimposed with images of bright, poisonous flowers. Araki wants to show the 2.55 as a fantasy of leather and chains.
In front of Araki’s large screen are six cardboard cartons. Peek into them and you’ll see the video installation by Blue Noses, a Russian collective. Fifty Years After our Common Era, or Handbags’ Revolt takes a comic look at a world in which a 2.55 bag satisfies every need — playing, eating, sleeping, making love, swimming. Blue Noses’ irreverence gently brings the bag down from the pedestal it has been placed on.
The neighbouring chamber showcases Subodh Gupta’s videos. The Indian artist shows two films — one is clips from Bollywood films that feature handbags or bags, while the second is poignant. It shows a worker in Dubai packing his bags to go home. The small gifts for his family that he puts into them, such as Nivea cream, toys and perfume bottles with their caps taped down, portray his dreams tied together in one package.
After works by David Levinthal, Wim Delvoye and Fabrice Hyber comes Lee Bul’s cybernetic sculpture, crowned by an accumulation of various scraps of Chanel bags.
Sylvie Fleury’s giant bag leads the way to the atrium, which features Iranian photographer Y.Z. Kami’s 35 black and white close-ups of the quilting of a bag. Iconic American photographer Stephen Shore’s Handbag Factory shows 15 photographs of exactly that—the 2.55 bag being crafted in a workshop.
Lastly, visitors can make their wish and attach it to Yoko Ono’s tree.
The exhibition takes no more than 35 minutes to walk through, but it does what art is meant to do — educate, expand, shock, disgust and inspire. Here are the works that stayed with us long after the show.
1. Pierre et Gilles
I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, photograph/painting
Photographer Pierre Commoy and painter Gilles Blanchard are partners in love and art. Their portraits are created using both their talents, and the result is part photograph-part painting that is always highly stylized and larger than life. Their exhibit is a triptych of an attractive man in his briefs, lounging on a bed and in a bathtub, with a fuchsia Chanel bag by his side. Like Soju Tao’s installation, this is not part of the main exhibition, but will be displayed in a Chanel store in every city the show travels to. The images are set up on a glittery hot pink altar, with plastic candles and padded red hearts sprinkled in front of it. It’s campy, has a gay sensibility and a wistful air, but gives the impression that the artists had a lot of fun paying homage to a buff guy and a handbag.
2. Fabrice Hyber
You’re invited to peer through the chained doors of a large, acid green shipping container, created by one of the world’s best-known French artists. There’s a sense of voyeurism and a feeling of inaccessibility to the imprisoned objects inside (to mimic the air of rarity around luxury goods). Some of Hyber’s previous works of “Prototypes of Functioning Objects”, or POFs (which switch the original functions of everyday objects to enhance their utility), have been Chanel-ified. Red armchairs which double up as Swiss knives have been covered with the signature padded leather of the quilted bag, as have swings and other objects. His idea was to have his work customized by the brand and not the other way round, showing that the relationship between a brand and an artist need not be one-sided.
3. Wim Delvoye
Jesus, Love and 2 Chanel Bags, installation
One of the most provocative pieces is a joint effort by the artist’s Art Farm in China and the craftsmen of Chanel’s 2.55 bags. Delvoye has been tattooing live pigs since 1997 to make them into art that grows. He also uses their skin as art works after their death. The exhibit includes two stuffed pigs (named Jamie and Slobodan), their backs tattooed in intricate patterns. There are also two 2.55 bags made from the hide of another tattooed pig.
The process works like this — a pig is tattooed every month for a year from its birth to its death (it requires an anaesthetist each time to put the pig to sleep without provoking a heart attack). This process involves 50 hours of work for each animal. The skin is then tanned in a two-week process.
At first glimpse, you feel shocked disbelief. The exhibit is striking and beautiful, but aesthetics take a back seat to questions about the treatment of animals, their skins and our right to “beautify” them and use them for our handbags.
4. Leandro Erlich
The Pavement, video installatio
You’re in a long, dark room watching a rain-washed gutter on the ground in front of you. You can see the façades of buildings on the Parisian street (Rue Cambon, of course) in the reflection. It’s voyeuristic and almost dream-like. Women stand at the windows and argue, dance and work in their apartments. Day moves to night, the lights in the homes dim, and you move on.
5. Soju Tao and Sophie Calle
Japan and France
Urgent! Artist Required, installation
Calle placed an ad in Japanese art magazines looking for an artist to produce the Mobile Art project in her place because she didn’t have the time to do it herself. That’s how Soju Tao was included in the show. The 30-year-old Japanese artist carried out Calle’s idea of stopping women on the street, who were carrying Chanel bags, and offering to buy them with all their contents. The premise being that a bag doesn’t just reveal its contents but also provides you a glimpse into a woman’s life.
One bag and its spilt guts were handed over to fictitious artists (Tao himself) at Okame Pro, Tao’s company. Inspired by the bag’s contents, he has created lovable, cartoon-like works using bright pop colours, as well as charcoal sketches—a tribute to the bag’s owner—which will be installed at Chanel stores.
In case you’re wondering, that bag contained two camera cellphones (white and red), with charms attached, a small wooden fish for luck, lavender hand cream, breath mints, a diary and a pen, lip essence, a blood-group card, money, a handkerchief and keys on a cutesy key chain.
6. Sylvie Fleury
Crystal Custom Commando, video installation
Sylvie Fleury has previously explored the desirability of luxury products; many of her shows contain iconic symbols of the fashion world. For Mobile Art, she created a giant 4m long, 2.50m deep and 1.20m high handbag, made of real leather and lined with pink long-haired rabbit fur. “Everyone tells me that they want to crawl inside, but I’m the only one who’s done that,” Fleury says gleefully.
Inside is a giant powder compact, the mirror of which doubles as a screen, showing a video of a number of Chanel bags being mutilated by real bullets. The video is a sort of foil to her oversized homage to the bag. The aspect that Jeanne Moreau’s voice asks you to concentrate on is the smell—the unmistakable smell of animal skin. But there was another odour; whether it was deliberate or accidental is unknown—that of a strong glue.
7. David Levinthal
Transformers, , photography
Eerie, other worldly and disturbing describe celebrated photographer Levinthal’s images. He asked the Chanel handbag workshop to cover the faces of two mannequins in leather. The result looks like two women whose skin has been replaced by cured leather. The figures seem alive; beings with strangely textured skin, landed from another world. It’s strange how we think leather looks stunning on our arms or feet, but are disturbed by it taking over our faces. The effect of the work is claustrophobic, not entirely pleasant but, like Delvoye’s work, it forces you, to examine your relationship with animal skins.
8. Yoko Ono
Wish Tree, installation
Calls for peace have been a major part of the lives of Ono and her late husband John Lennon. Her contribution to this show has also been a part of many of her previous exhibitions. This tree, the culmination of the Mobile Art walk, is placed in the atrium, with natural light coming in. She invites each visitor to write a wish on a piece of rice paper and tie it to the ficus tree. At the end of this exhibition (as well as others with her wish trees), all the wishes will be collected and placed at the Imagine Peace Tower at Reykjavik, Iceland.
Mobile Art will be on the road till 2010. Check your schedule to see if your stops coincide
Hong Kong, March 2008
Tokyo, May 2008
New York, September 2008
Milan, March 2009
London, June 2009
Moscow, September 2009
Paris, January 2010
Book your spot at www.chanel-mobileart.com