Carl Michael von Hausswolf

The steady but almost imperceptible pulse of the sound track and the uncanny images of Carl Michael von Hausswolff’s film Hashima, Japan (made with Thomas Nordanstad), 2002, spark the same quickening of adrenaline and awareness as when you’re finding your way in the dark. The film is a tour of an abandoned island off the coast of Japan that for years was the site of intensive coal mining; at its peak it had a higher population density than Manhattan. Now, seen in straightforward still shots that fade into one another, the island looks as if abandoned in a rush: The camera catches deteriorated beds, sewing machines, children’s toys, a chemistry lab with bottles out on the tabletops, drips and leaks; the impression of dereliction is reinforced by the obvious disrepair of some of the buildings and by the light overgrowth covering the exteriors. These remnants invite a narrative more apocalyptic than the true history of the island, bringing to mind as they do The Day After Tomorrow’s scenes of a deserted New York or even footage of Hiroshima after the bomb.

The film starts with the boat journey to the island. The camera pans the exteriors, ventures deeper inside, and then backs away, a structure echoing the familiar sci-fi trope of arrival on a seemingly deserted planet. The subtle pulse pricking your ears—barely noticeable at first—doesn’t let up until the island recedes into the distance again, prompting a sigh of relief. Hausswolff often works with electronic sound, and here he employs it unostentatiously, displaying an acute awareness of the ability of white noise to take on physical, sometimes even anthropomorphic, qualities. Every so often a heavy clunk echoes like ghostly machinery, while the sound of a radio picking up indecipherable noise starts on the sound track as the camera enters the buildings, as if it might animate the signs of life found there.

The press release notes the island’s “grim history of forced labor and exploitation” of human and natural resources, but Hashima doesn’t push an overtly political message, though, along with the apocalyptic allusions, the harsh backstory is easily pieced together. As a self-contained unit, a hyper-Manhattan, the island is the ultimate demonstration of capitalism’s seamless merging of work with leisure; alongside its movie theater and pinball parlor, Hashima even boasted a brothel. Especially after life in housing-hungry New York or London, it’s freakish to see an entire (albeit small-scale) cityscape uninhabited, and difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is what the world will look like once we’ve exhausted it, or ourselves.

Unfortunately not all the works on view were so nuanced. For instance, the installation Freedom is not complete if someone else controls the needs, 2005, juxtaposed a group of photographs of a fabled garden set in the Iranian mountains, the place where the medieval cult of the Assassins gathered, with a forty-eight-minute DVD shot in a zoo in the mountainous forests of northern Sweden. The result seemed little more than a compendium of signifiers of Orientalism, and its incessant sound track, consisting of the loud and grating squawks of some goshawks in the Swedish zoo, was hardly conducive to any deeper meditation on the work’s mawkish ideas. Only Hashima completely succeeded in forcing the viewer’s complicity in creating and sustaining its narrative suspense, in rhapsodizing and proselytizing in equal measure the picturesque, fantastical sight—and accompanying sounds—of capital accumulation pushed beyond its capacity.

Emily Speers Mears