Analyzing Disney's Early Exhibits as Installation Art Work

Analyzing Disney's Early Exhibits as Installation Art Work

Jonathan Lillie (Loyola University Maryland, USA) and Michelle Jones-Lillie (Lillie Pad Studios, LLC, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8142-2.ch014
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This chapter compares several Disney exhibits—particularly those narrativizing technological innovation—to immersive installation artwork in order to explore the importance of narrative and textual reference in creating powerful immersive installations as presentation of technological and scientific knowledge through multiple media. The narrative craft of exhibits such as the Ford Magic Skyway and GE Carousel of Progress, which Disney created for the 1964-65 World's Fair in New York, are compared to works within the genre of installation art, which has developed greatly since the 1960s. Similar to Disney, many artists have deployed immersive installation art exhibits to envelop audiences in a detailed aesthetic and conceptual narrative. Some educational institutions have also used experiential education installations, especially for teaching scientific concepts.
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If there are any media today that are truly reminiscent of critical theorist Theodor Adorno’s critique of mass culture it would seem to be global mega blockbuster movies such as Disney’s hugely successful Frozen (2013), translated into 41 languages with potentially a billion or more children being interpolated into its message. But Adorno and his Frankfurt School cohort were addressing the media of modernity and the übber nation state of the mid 20th century. Whereas Frozen and like phenomena are in certain ways very postmodern, especially if you prefer Fredric Jameson’s (1991) popular definition that postmodern culture is the culture of advanced, global capitalism, with a few exceptions (such as the narrative breakout “In Summer” musical scene) Frozen’s storyline is very modern, sticking to the princess fantasy storytelling that Disney mastered almost 80 years ago with Snow White (1937). When Walt Disney began to sketch out his plans for Disneyland, which opened in 1955, he was explicit in this desire to bring the same narrative craft to rides and exhibits that he demanded of his feature films. He wanted visitors to (actually) step inside, immerse themselves in the story and experience the wonder and emotional connection directly. While the Disneyland and World’s Fair exhibits are certainly not the first examples of the construction of large-scale, immersive narrative experiences, they have been extremely influential in the art, education, and cultural realms. At the 1964-65 fair in New York, Walt Disney wanted to demonstrate the vast improvement in installation/dark ride technology over the 1939 World’s Fair (also in New York) and its influential future-gazing exhibits such as GM’s “Futurama.” In later years Disney, as well as other institutions such as museums and artists have drawn on these iconic exhibits to develop installations to convey concepts and trends in science and technology.

The 1960s also was a vital period for the development of installation art. Installation was one of several anti-commodity forms such as conceptual art, performance and body, earth works, and new forms of sculpture, which emerged in the 1960s (Morse, 1998, p. 4). However the birth of the genre is often traced back to the surrealist exhibits held in Paris in 1938, 1957, 1959 and in New York in 1942, which inspired the contemporary Art Installation movement insofar as the artists desire to display their artworks according to their own aesthetics rather than allowing a museum curator to take on that task (thus, defining the exhibition of the collection of artworks as an integral element of the artwork as a whole). The Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme was a surrealist exhibition held in Paris in 1938 with 229 artworks collaboratively arranged and displayed by 60 surrealist artists from 14 countries. Visitors were guided through a series of spaces that were considered by the artists to be a part of the surreal experience of viewing the art. The forecourt was the site for Dali’s “Rain Taxi” (Figure 1), which was an old car covered with ivy. Inside the ‘taxi’ was a driver (a doll who’s head was inside the jaws of a shark) and a backseat passenger (a female mannequin with messy hair in an evening dress with live snails on her neck) who was sharing the seat with a few heads of cabbage, chicory, and a sewing machine. The exhibition completely transformed the exquisite décor of the Galerie des Beaux-Arts, a small Parisian venue with a lavishly decorated interior, so as to become more aligned with the aesthetics and mood of the dream-like artworks included in the installation (“Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme,” 2013). An opening performance – French actress Helene Vanel, naked and wrapped in chains, hopped from a pile of pillows and began splashing wildly in a puddle – in conjunction with the treatment of the space and arrangement of paintings, sculptures and other objects, “served as elements in a completely surrealist environment” (Tomkins, 1996, p. 364).

Figure 1.

Salvador Dali’s “Rain Taxi” (1938, public domain photo by Denise Bellon)


Key Terms in this Chapter

1964-1965 New Work World’s Fair: Between April 22, 1964 and October 17, 1965 fifty-one million people visited the New York World’s Fair held at Flushing Meadow in Queens, New York, on the site of the 1939 World’s Fair. The Fair closed for the winter months. Thus it actually was open from April 22 to October 18, 1964 and in 1965 from April 21 to October 17, for grand total of 360 days. The fair featured 140 pavilions on 646 acres. Due to a stipulation that no nation can host a World’s Fair more than once a decade and that an official World’s Fair was held in Seattle in 1962, the New York Fair did not enjoy the official sanction of the Bureau of International Expositions. While several Communist Bloc and European nations boycotted the Fair due to its unofficial status, many Latin American and Pacific countries did host exhibits.

Kaprow, Allan: Kaprow (1927–2006) was an American artist. Though he was considered a painter, he is perhaps better known for organizing art exhibitions in the 1950s and 60s that he termed “environments” due to the artists’ altering of the art venues combined with thematic performances. These exhibitions helped to influence the development of the contemporary installation art movement in the 1980s and 90s.

Cartesian Dualism: Cartesian dualism is an ontological philosophy, which posits a separate distinction and existence of the human mind and body, drawn from the work of French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650). Descartes wrote extensively on dualism and its consequences for human thought and perception of the world. He is considered to be one of the founding fathers of Western philosophy.

Installation Art: An art movement or genre based on three-dimensional work. It was not considered a true art movement until the 1980s, but has roots in surrealism exhibitions of the 1930s. What sets installation art apart from other genres is that the artists themselves install the work due a concern for how location and space impacts or becomes part of the work. Most installation artwork comprises multiple objects, multiple media, and takes up a whole room or many rooms in a gallery or venue.

Disney, Walt: Walt E. Disney (born December 5, 1901 – died December 15, 1966) is a famous American media pioneer. The Walt Disney Company, founded by Walt in 1923, is best known for its animated fantasy feature films and theme parks, but it has many other corporate holdings including television stations ABC, ESPN and the family of Disney channels catering to children and teens.

Dark Ride: A “dark ride” is the term often used to describe large indoor installations produced for the purpose of entertainment at theme parks such as Disneyland. They tend to be heavily immersive and themed environments. They are called by other names as well, such as “ghost train” in the UK and Australia.

Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme: The Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme was an exhibition held in Paris in 1938 with 229 artworks collaboratively arranged and displayed by 60 surrealist artists from 14 countries. Visitors were guided through a series of spaces that were considered by the artists to be a part of the surreal experience of viewing the art. This was the first of several surrealist exhibits held in Paris in 1938, 1957, 1959, and in New York in 1942. These exhibits are considered by many art historians to have influenced the development of the contemporary Art Installation movement.

Hamilton, Ann: Hamilton (born June 22, 1956) is an American artist known for her large scale installations.

Immersive Installation: Many works of installation art attempt to engulf visitors in a fabricated environment where the complete gallery or venue space is significantly altered to impart a particular experience for visitors.

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