Architecture of Desire: Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition

exhibition3By Paul Dallas

Le Corbusier’s famous assertion that a house must be “a machine for living” acquires new force in Exhibition, an exquisitely crafted and thrillingly ambiguous chamber drama by the British writer-director Joanna Hogg. Set almost entirely within a well-appointed modernist townhouse in London, Hogg’s film, which explores connections between space and psyche, is at once claustrophobic and expansive. For D and H, its bourgeois middle-aged occupants, the house is an autonomous zone that functions as a kind of adult playground. Its chilly interiors—all reflective glass, hard surfaces, and sliding partitions (more lab-like than home sweet home)—seem engineered for the together-alone dynamic required by two independent and childless artists accustomed to transmitting “I love you” via the intercom.

The narrative in this spare, unsettling film is set in motion when H, played with professorial confidence by conceptual artist Liam Gillick, suggests that they ought to sell the house “before it’s too late.” Because they’ve occupied it for the duration of their 20-year relationship, the proposition suggests an existential predicament equivalent to divorce. While for the cerebral, confident H, who may secretly harbour an unacknowledged fear concerning his own creative or sexual stagnation, it’s primarily a pragmatic decision, and he sets about engaging the services of a pin-striped suited broker (Tom Hiddleston). But for D (fully embodied by musician Viv Albertine), a performance artist struggling with her artistic identity, the suggestion unlocks a well of anxiety and dread.

D is tethered to the house psychologically and, at times, physically (she is seen melding her body with the architecture in a gesture that reads as both ironic and sincere). So intense is her fear that when H persuades her to dine at some friends’ house (who, by the way, talk nonstop about their children) she feigns fainting, and brings the evening to an abrupt end. D’s childish behaviour, and her anxieties—which are never fully explained—are channelled into her performance work, and the scenes of her labouring, intensively and inscrutably, have the messiness and indeterminacy of a process-based practice. It becomes clear that the house is her staging ground—the place where she probes the recesses of her own sexuality, enacting rituals of transgression against the etiquette of domestic space.

When H attempts to initiate sex with D, her body becomes inanimate and unresponsive, but a later scene finds her donning heels, slathering herself in lube, and masturbating next to him as he sleeps. Is she protesting, enacting a performance, or simply living in an authentic moment of sexual satisfaction? Hogg lets the possibilities hang in the air. In D’s studio, her private space, she’s often seen grinding her pelvis against inanimate objects or holding naked poses before a window for her neighbours, as if she’s playing the part of an over-sexed housewife. Hogg has acknowledged that pioneering feminist performance artist Valie Export was a key point of reference. (Aktionshose:Genitalpanik, or Action Pants: Genital Panic, involved walking through a cinema in crotchless pants.) Albertine, perhaps drawing on her own punk roots (she is a former member of The Slits), gets at the duality of exhibitionism, and endows the scenes with a mixture of vulnerability and rawness that is by turns entrancing and discomfiting.

Hogg’s austere formal approach—the fixed camera placements, extended shots, and music-less soundtrack—ramps up the ambient tension and sharpens the edges of the naturalism without ever tipping over entirely into surrealism. (The near-thunderous sound of H’s Eames office chair rolling across the wood floor above D’s studio is a comically ominous motif.) As with the director’s two previous films, Unrelated (2007) and Archipelago (2010), similarly spare dramas that make effective use of circumscribed locations (a Tuscan villa and a cottage on Tresca, respectively) as a means to examine a social matrix, Hogg’s seemingly dispassionate observational style bespeaks an open-ended humanism rather than an ironic critique.

Whereas Unrelated and Archipelago are ensemble dramas concerned with family dynamics—sibling rivalries and generational gaps—Exhibition, with its elemental triangle (man, woman, and house) feels archetypal and deeply mysterious. Red Desert (1964) and Repulsion (1965) seem to be two key stylistic and thematic reference points in terms of exploring female sexuality and domestic space. But Hogg is interested in exploring the interstices of genre and in forging a middle ground between conceptual provocation and human drama. This certainly flirts with psychological horror and satire, and could easily have become a predictable takedown of art-world pretension or the hypocrisies of the self-regarding creative class. (H’s freak-out over a workman parking in his townhouse’s parking spot edges toward the latter.)

As the narrative moves elliptically toward the property’s inevitable sale, Hogg complicates the social and political implications of the film. Indeed, the murky territory she evokes is provocative in part because it’s problematic. Take, for example, the gender roles and power dynamic between H’s successful and articulate (male) artist and D’s emotional, insecure (female) artist. While we never find out what exactly H’s art amounts to—we only see him working on 3D software—he’s often goading her like a parent for not being able to talk about her art. There’s a sense that D needs his approval, and she holds off telling him the big news—that she’s received an offer for an exhibition—for fear of upsetting the balance of their relationship. Is Hogg really suggesting that the patriarchy must be maintained, even if it’s an illusion, just to keep an orderly house?

The real question for Hogg is more elemental. At the heart of Exhibition is the desire to probe what it means for two people, with all their personal inconsistencies and desires, to share a space and a life. Where do the boundaries between public and private exist, if at all? How do you stay together and alone? Hogg wants to know how the spaces we choose to live in shape our behaviour, and to consider what happens when the walls are no longer there.

Cinema Scope: I wanted to start by asking about the house and the dedication at the end of the film to its architect, James Melvin.

Joanna Hogg: The house is from 1969. Melvin was primarily a commercial architect who designed office buildings and universities. This was a rare commission, to design a house for himself and his wife.

Scope: Did they have children?

Hogg: They did. Interestingly, there were two houses next door—they’ve been demolished now—that Melvin built in the ’50s, which were designed explicitly for families.

Scope: No sliding doors and spiral staircase?

Hogg: No, no spiral staircase, and only two floors. After his children grew up, he wanted to build a house for just himself and his wife. They must have been in their 60s or 70s when they moved in, because he was 99 when he died in 2011.

Scope: How did you come across the house?

Hogg: I knew James and his wife. I met them in the early ’90s through a childhood friend, actually. Even though they were an older generation than myself, I had an affinity with them. They were lovely people and I grew quite close to them. His wife was Norwegian and died a couple of years later. I got to know the house well.

Scope: By the time you made the film, it was owned by someone else. Had the house been altered?

Hogg: There was a bit of a redesign by a firm called Sauerbruch Hutton Architects based in Berlin, who’ve done really interesting work there and in London. They did a refit and added certain details, such as the sliding doors.

Scope: That’s what threw me. The house is clearly late modernist but has details that don’t entirely fit. The plum-coloured sliding doors feel very ’90s, for example.

Hogg: You’re absolutely right. Well, they were late ’90s.

Scope: Had the house been an example of pure modernism, it might have steered the film into more familiar territory, say, a critique of modernism’s failure. These added design elements help complicate a reading of the space.

Hogg: Yes, it’s not as pure as it might have been. In fact, those elements that Sauerbruch Hutton added help create a certain theatricality to the space that was perhaps not there in the original 1969 house. When I first knew the house, it was much more monochrome and there were ’60s-style thick pile carpets and those vertical blinds you find in offices. The house felt closer to a commercial building before the refit, I suppose.

Scope: Let’s talk about shooting interiors, since almost all of the film takes place inside the house.

Hogg: The inspiration was the house, the space. There were challenges. The glass windows constitute a big part of the design, and I’ve always been struck—not just by this house but by many modern spaces I’ve been in—by how when you’re looking outside, you’re often actually looking inside because of the reflections. I thought this ghost-like quality was really interesting for the film because it’s about two people who have lived in the same space for the duration of their relationship. There’s this idea of the ghosts of the previous owners and also the idea of themselves as ghosts in the future. Somehow, this idea of the inside-out lent itself really well to the story. But I don’t neatly work out these ideas ahead of time. The house was a gift, and so much emerged from that.

Scope: We’re constantly revisiting spaces—D’s studio, the living room, the garden—but the different camera angles give the impression that the space is continually unfolding.

Hogg: Sometimes, in certain films, it feels like the architecture or the space is a background. In Exhibition, I’m trying to make the space the foreground. The house is not just another character; it’s the whole world for the characters. And there’s this idea of D and H disappearing into this world.

Scope: Throughout the film, you’re often referencing spaces outside the frame. Could you talk about the use of sound in this respect?

Hogg: Yes, yes. Those sounds, such as when Viv is in her studio on the first floor and we hear Liam’s chair rolling across the floor above her, are for the most part very real and very much a part of that particular space, and come from the Eames office chairs they’re using. However, as a filmmaker you obviously manipulate the levels when you’re doing the sound design, and I was very concerned to get the right pitch. I wanted to push the sound so that it’s almost like thunder above her. On the other hand, I didn’t want to exaggerate it too much and we were calibrating these levels very carefully.

Scope: The sounds are right on that edge, suggesting both normal domestic noises and something deeper and more ominous.

Hogg: They provide an essential tension in the film, because I’m not using any music. These sounds become a kind of musical soundtrack.

Scope: You shot Exhibition digitally, correct?

Hogg: Yes, we used the Alexa. It was my first time and I liked it. Like a lot of people, I’m feeling a little sad about the end of film. I started out shooting on film entirely. I grew up with that. I began with Super 8 and graduated to 16mm and 35mm in film school. When I left school, I was making music videos that were shot on 35mm. It’s amazing to think about now. I did a few commercials, and those were also shot on 35mm. The early television work I did was on 16mm. So it’s strange, in a way, that by the time I got to make my own films, I went the digital route. However, it wasn’t an easy decision because naturally I wanted to shoot Unrelated on film. In order to get it made, it was necessary to compromise. It was a big compromise, but actually I think the aesthetic adds something. We shot it on a Sony Z1, which is laughable now. Things have developed so fast, and I’ve found this pace very frustrating. With Unrelated, we had very little money, so I had to do a lot of the post-production work myself. You learn the technology for that particular film, but it moves so fast that you can’t carry that knowledge onto the next film. All three films I’ve edited on Final Cut Pro, however.

Scope: It’s a condition that has affected both film and architecture profoundly. Can you talk about the editing process, because you mentioned that it was a real discovery for you on this film?

Hogg: I’ve worked with my editor Helle le Fevre on all three films, and she’s a wonderful collaborator. We had a particular way of working on the other two films. Those films were more linear. I wasn’t exploring another level of consciousness or a dreamlike level, which is what I’m more interested in now. With Exhibition I wanted to push the imagescape and soundscape in a way that is not about telling a story in a straight line but is much more connected to my own perception of life.

Scope: You mentioned not wanting to make too much sense, which is an important aesthetic and philosophical position.

Hogg: Yes, yes. I’m interested in not making too much sense and creating enough ambiguity to allow for different readings of the same moment. At the premiere, I talked about wanting the audience to engage their own imagination and create their own story from what I’m presenting to them. When I say that, I’m aware that there are many filmmakers, either people I know personally or whom I’ve read about, who have that same desire to give the audience space. I’m aware it’s not an original idea. But I feel it’s so true. As a viewer myself, I don’t like it when I’m not given room to enter the space of that film. I find it disrespectful, in a way, and uninteresting. When you’re told something, you’re not participating in it. I’m more interested in an immersive experience with cinema. I think we’ve travelled away from that and we’ve gotten caught up in telling stories in a particular kind of way, where one event follows another event. I see many films and feel that they’re all going in the same direction. Really, with film we’re talking about images and sound and how they juxtapose and the power of that relationship.

Scope: Going into Exhibition, I anticipated an art-world satire, and I was relieved and excited to find it focused on larger and more mysterious themes. There are elements of Buñuel and Haneke, but while the film flirts with different genres, it ultimately falls in between.

Hogg: It’s interesting that you mentioned Buñuel. I’m not interested in referencing other filmmakers. And of course I love and admire them. I actually co-run a cinema club called À Nos Amours in London. We actually work with different cinemas such as the Curzon in Soho for our bigger events. We recently showed Stalker (1979) and had Geoff Dyer there. We’re also doing a Chantal Akerman retrospective that will take place over a couple of years. We thought it was an interesting idea to do a full retrospective over a long period of time where you can actually digest all the work. It’s really exciting. I’m very concerned that younger generations of filmmakers are not getting access to the breadth of cinema that I had growing up. But I try not to blur the lines between my work as a curator and my work as a filmmaker. I’m very careful not to look at other films while I’m writing and shooting. I’m in a bit of a vacuum. I’ll read more than I see. I feel strongly that I’m a filmmaker who wants to explore new territory, so what’s the point of looking back at what other people have done? We’re sponge-like in our own way, but it’s not interesting to me to try to consciously do a little nod to Buñuel or a little nod to Tarkovsky.

Scope: That ambiguity you mentioned comes across in Exhibition. Can you talk about Viv Albertine, who plays D? This is her first time acting, and it’s such a committed performance.

Hogg: She’s a real discovery, yet I’ve known her for about 30 years. She’s a really good friend of mine, and I’d never thought of her as an actress until ten days before the shoot, when I was having difficulty finding the right cast.

Scope: What has she been up to in the years since being in The Slits?

Hogg: She’s been working as a musician. At Meltdown, the London music festival that was curated this year by Yoko Ono, Viv performed at Royal Albert Hall with Siouxsie of Siouxsie and the Banshees. I don’t want to quote Viv, but she said that acting in Exhibition was absolutely a one-off, and it’s not something she’s going to pursue.

Scope: But she enjoyed the experience.

Hogg: She did. The first thing she said to me when I offered her the part was, “I’m all yours,” and she stayed true to that.

Scope: We never know, precisely, what form D’s art ultimately takes. We seem to be watching a lot of open-ended process, much of it involving melding her body with the architecture and with objects in the house in different ways.

Hogg: Yes, I leave it open and also I blur the lines between what is art and what is her life in the house and her relationship with H. It’s why I felt D’s character had to be a performance artist. I felt that the house is itself very performative and theatrical. With those big glass windows, you are literally on exhibition living there. I had no idea of Viv’s talent and her fascinating way of moving. I think she has a beautiful way of moving her body around the house. I couldn’t capture that enough.

Scope: The film is also about the instability of identity. Viv conveys D as a character who, like the house, is unfolding.

Hogg: It was really fun to direct Viv because she took it incredibly seriously and would just embody the ideas that I gave her, and brought many of her own ideas. In order for her work as a performance artist to be convincing, she’s had to be genuinely creating it. It had to be coming out of her. I’ve so often seen artists portrayed in films and it just feels fake or unbelievable.

Scope: About two-thirds into the film, I wondered if in fact D in fact had no interest in having an exhibition, that her main interest was to collapse the line between life and art and to simply design her life as a lived performance. It seemed that the essential tension would between her embodied art and H’s professionalized art, a career full of talks and exhibitions.

Hogg: I think it’s interesting to read it that way. I think she just lacks the confidence that H has. She doesn’t want to upset their relationship by being in conflict with him professionally. She’s also very wary of talking about her ideas.

Scope: Liam Gillick was such an unexpected and perfect choice for H. His natural professorial persona (and his background as a conceptual artist whose practice is deeply engaged with discourse) makes him the perfect counterpoint to D’s non-verbal, messy and emotive practice.

Hogg: I very much wanted them to represent the cerebral and the instinctive, which are embodied in these two characters by Liam and Viv, who really aren’t playing themselves either. They both turned out to be great actors. While they’re individual artists, D and H are also a couple who’ve been together for 20 years. They have habits, tensions, and anxieties which come out despite them being artists. D’s hesitancy to tell H about the offer she receives for an exhibition and her fear that, because she’ll be in competition with him, he will stop loving her—it’s a fear of upsetting the delicate balance of a relationship.

Scope: The other subjects being addressed here are middle age, how a relationship endures, and what it’s like to share a space with someone.

Hogg: Yes, yes. And how architecture can dictate behaviour. It actually shapes the relationship in a certain way. Exhibition is also about how the relationship will survive beyond the house. If they moved into a Georgian townhouse, would the whole dynamic shift?

Scope: When H says, “We need to sell the house. This is the time to do it,” he’s looking toward their next 20 years together. It’s about mortality.

Hogg: I think it’s a very scary thought. They’re in their 50s now. If they leave in ten years, when they’re 60…Well, you know, your body changes. The idea of a life spent within just one space is terrifying. Dallas Paul