Wednesday, September 17, 1997

Antonio Gaudi

Posted By on Wed, Sep 17, 1997 at 12:00 AM

Can one make Zen documentaries? If so, Hiroshi Teshigahara has made one. Teshigahara is best remembered for his 1964 existential drama, Woman in the Dunes. It was a film that located the romantic obsession between an entomologist and a woman in the physical and psychic midst of a vast and indifferent desert. The striking feature of the film was Teshigahara's mindful lack of direction. That is to say, a studied absence of presence.

That same "peace of mind" has been brought to bear on this cinematic portrait of the works of Antonio Gaudi, the architect of Barcelona in the early 20th century. A devout Catholic, raised in an ancient Roman village, Gaudi was neither a mystic nor a mad scientist. If he has inspired a thousand acid trips with his complex symmetry of design, it is not because he himself was taking a trip at the drafting table.

Teshigahara rightfully presents Gaudi's buildings as integral elements of the civic life of Barcelona. We see couples sipping drinks in a living room of the Casa Mila. Children roller-skate through the plaza of Guell Park while lovers pitch woo on the mosaic-laden benches. Clearly Gaudi wanted his art to be part of life, not dreams. No surprise then that he rejected Dali's admiration of his so-called "surrealistic" bent.

The psychic fit between the hermit of Cataluña and the Japanese penchant for positive ambient vibrations seems almost too good to be true. Gaudi was a nature boy, through and through. Call his style Eco-Gothic, if one could put a finger on its twisting, spiraling flow of stone, tile and metal. His favorite motif was the tree trunk, followed closely by the seashell, the spider web and the tortoise. Still, fans of psychedelia have reason to dig to Gaudi. Spend an hour roaming through his creations and you expect gnomes in Technicolor robes to serve you microdots on mushroom pillows.P

The modern architectural imperatives for straight lines and flat walls were no match for Gaudi's sense of spiritual connection to the organic forms of nature. The signature "soft" bulges and hollows of his designs were not affectations. They were his way of connecting building to earth through the truest form of replication, with Nature dictating to Culture.

There is a dark side to the Japanese infatuation with Gaudi that the film chooses to leave in the shadows. In 1936, a gang of anarchists raided the crypt of the Sagrada Familia and made off with all the blueprints and models, in the process of some festive grave-robbing. Even if the plans had survived, it is doubtful the building now being finished, thanks in no small part to Japanese funding, would resemble Gaudi's true vision. Gaudi, ever the artist, preferred to improvise as he went along to ensure that he was putting the full imprint of his genius on his work.

As Robert Hughes notes, the Sagrada Familia is shaping up as nothing more than "a giant simulacrum." Which, if one thinks about how infatuated the Japanese are with Uncle Walt's kitsch nightmares, must suit them quite nicely.

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