Zaha Hadid’s recent death at age 65 was sad on many levels. One of those is that she won’t get a chance to see the Contemporary Arts Center’s brilliant use of her building for its current installation, Do Ho Suh’s Passage.
Hadid died of a heart attack on March 31 while being treated in a Miami hospital for bronchitis. Renowned internationally as a visionary architect, the Iraqi-born Britain-based Hadid first attracted acclaim in the U.S. for designing the CAC in 2003.
It’s a wonderfully radical building, its exterior referencing Minimalism and Modernism with its clinging sections of precast concrete and windows above a glass-enclosed first floor.
Yet it’s also different in its newness. Inside, the building is startling yet never shrieking, from its concrete “urban carpet” of a main floor to its floating black stairway leading up to galleries, which contain surprising rooms and labyrinthine passageways — some large and open, some smaller and cloistered.
Her building was so different, in fact, that artists and curators have had trouble competing with the architecture to bring attention to their shows.
I think Do Ho Suh’s Passage, curated by Steven Matijcio, is the best fit for Hadid’s building that I’ve seen there. The South Korea-born British artist seems as dedicated to transforming architecture and transcending conservative notions of what a “building” should look like as Hadid. Like her, he also thinks big but has a sensitive, poetic touch for the smallest details.
I put “building” in quotation marks because two of Suh’s major sculptural installations — the key work of this show — are structures you can walk through. Yet they are soft and fragile, made with gossamer-like fabric unobtrusively supported by steel tubes.
Soft versions of “hard” objects aren’t new — Claes Oldenburg did it decades ago. But Suh makes these something more. His pieces are, in essence, unexpected architecture. And in a building that is itself that, they are the perfect complement.
They are challenging yet delightful. They evoke walking in a dream state that is beautiful but precariously close to dissipating like fading mist. And, to go one step further (literally), they serve as metaphors for what it’s like to be walking in Hadid’s building (which you are doing), and also for life itself.
It helps that Suh’s “Hub” is smartly situated between two large videos. You enter it after being in a room with a three-channel (and three-sided) video in which you get a constantly forward-thrusting view. In it, the artist’s stroller-mounted camera captures his journeys with his young daughter on the streets of London and Seoul.
Then, after walking through “Hub,” you face a single-camera video that simulates an endless walk down another corridor inside a building; it’s like you’re still moving.
Overall, “Hub” is a recreation of corridors in Berlin and London buildings where Suh has lived or worked. He has obsessively recreated in fabric all the details of those corridors — ridged door frames, light switches, a fire extinguisher, wall outlets and even an intercom phone complete with a fabric coiled cord. Each of these interior details is the same color as its corresponding corridor.
Impressive as this work is, the centerpiece of Passage — and of Hadid’s building while the show is there through Sept. 11 — is “348 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10011 USA – Apartment A, Corridor and Staircases.” It is a revisionist recreation of four floors of stairs in his former Chelsea apartment.
This work, which is about space, uses the CAC’s own space shrewdly, specifically the atrium between the fourth and fifth floors that soars upward. If the CAC’s jutting, evolving interior can sometimes make you think you’re in two places at once, “West 22nd Street” requires you to be in two places at once to see it. On one floor of the CAC, we walk through the work’s green corridor with its open doors, but we can’t fully peer up the red stairwells or see the upper-floor landings unless we climb the CAC’s own floating stairway to look inside Suh’s delicate tower of stairs. So we use the architectural details of the real building to fully engage with the interior of the artist’s fantasy building.
Suh isn’t himself an architect, but he understands its powers as well as the best of them. And Zaha Hadid was among the best.
CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]