Poster from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993.
Wednesday night was the opening of Tim Burton: The Exhibition (imaginatively named, I know) at ACMI. There was a red carpet and everything: a long line, lots of camera flashes on the way in, and circus performers to amuse the onlookers. Of course, the only person I really noticed (in that celebrity way) was Burton himself, but I’m told there were other ‘people of note’ around as well; my date apparently walked in with Eric Bannagh. Naturally there was the usual opening night paraphernalia – alcohol, music, speakers – but on closer inspection the whole thing had a distinctly unusual underpinning. There were drinks served in globe-shaped bottles marked with poisonous skull-and-crossbones’; the strings trio played a delightful collection of rag-tag-style music in a variety of minor keys; and clearly somebody behind the scenes had a lot of fun designing the food: Big Fish fingers, trays decked out with tiny, perfect cupcakes and assorted Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-esque sweets, and (my favorites) the ‘human meat pies’ a la Sweeny Todd. The advantage of working on a retrospective, I suppose, is that one has a whole career to reference instead of having to pick just one theme.
Tim Burton: The Exhibition opening night, Baloon Boy, ACMI foyer, 2010.
ACMI itself has been showing Burton-ish signs for weeks. There’s a giant Nightmare Before Christmas stripy-stocking snake-monster out the front, and an enormous, melancholy, blue Balloon Boy floating in the foyer. On the night the interior was lit to match, reds and blues that made it hard to get a good photograph, but certainly went with the general mood. The choice in speakers was a little…unfortunate. Despite his presence, director Glenn Lowry of MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art, New York) made no comment, and Burton himself got less stage time than anyone else. When he did speak it was in a sort of haphazard interview format rather than a talk of his own, and while of course he was scruffily, self-deprecatingly charming and thus forgiven, it would have been great to hear more from him directly about what we were about to see. The problem with interviews is that one is at the mercy of the interviewer, and in this case the questions asked left a lot to be desired. I would really have been much more interested in hearing Burton’s own take on the show; considering he finished the speech with a suggestion that the work would be best appreciated by those who had taken advantage of the bar, I imagine it would have been enjoyable.
Tim Burton: The Exhibition opening night, Gaping Maw, ACMI foyer, 2010.
The exhibition itself is…well, it’s Tim Burton, so when I walked in – the stairs down to the ACMI gallery, by the by, have been specially framed for the occasion. One now enters via a very toothsome, gaping maw – I was pretty certain I was going to see something I liked. And I did. Most definitely. The exhibition contains precisely what the name suggests: 100% Tim Burton, so if you’re a fan, it’s worth seeing just for that. There are hundreds of drawings, paintings, and storyboards. There are even pages ripped straight from the sketchbook. One of Burton’s greatest strengths, I think, is satire (something he doesn’t get enough credit for, and is certainly hard to find in, say, his latest disneyfied creation) and one of the great perks of this show is an array of drawings that are frankly hilarious, and highlight this under-acknowledged gift for caricature and observation.
Puppets from Mars Attacks, photo by Mark Gambino, 2010.
There is also an extensive collection of material from his films: costumes, videos, notes, and – my absolute favorite – puppets. A whole case of puppets from Corpse Bride, and some from Mars Attacks, too, including a gorgeous unclad armature (for anyone not interested in puppets I understand this will hold only passing interest, but for people like myself, it’s almost worth going just for that). Unfortunately, despite all finger-crossing to the contrary, the show does not include any set pieces from the stop-motion films. I would have loved to see, say, the Everglot’s entry hall from Corpse Bride, or a piece of the Nightmare township, but ah well, at least there are sculptures of the inhabitants. There are also three costumes from Alice in Wonderland (Alice’s blue and red dresses, and the Mad Hatter’s outfit and hat) which I spent an awful lot of time examining (no zips on the clothes! All lovely old-fashioned fastenings! Though I can’t say the same for Alice’s boots, more’s the pity [I am a boot snob and zips on laced boots offend me deeply]). There are also sculptures by Burton himself – which I’d never even seen photographs of before – which I found thoroughly fascinating. Few directors, I think, not only draw but sculpt their thoughts during the design process.
Sculptures by Tim Burton, photo by Mark Gambino, 2010.
I do, however, have a gripe with the curation. It looks, for anybody familiar with the reference, an awful lot like the brilliant Pixar exhibition a couple of years ago: plain dark walls, good spot-lighting, work exhibited cleanly and at regular intervals. This approach worked beautifully for Pixar, but with Burton’s work it looks…forced. As though – ironically enough, considering the hype about the artist’s involvement in the show, and the gallery’s attempts at ‘Burtoning-it-up’ to the max – someone has once again attempted to fit his fantastic brand of crazy into neat, mainstream boxes. It’s like seeing an imagination laid out on a medical table; everything clinically dissected, labeled, in its place. In other words there was in the curation none of the vibrancy and nonconformity so vital to the work it was trying to display. I know that in part successful curating is about making work easily accessible, readable, etc.; but brilliant curation should do that while working with the art in question, not just around it. I don’t think the lackluster presentation should dissuade anyone from seeing the show, but I certainly found it disappointing.
Replica’s of Jack’s heads from The Nightmare Before Christmas, photo by Mark Gambino, 2010.
All in all, though, I’m very glad I saw it. It left me with a great creative high and a swathe of ideas and inspirations. In short, if you get the chance, I recommend taking a look. Tim Burton is, after all, some sort of genius in many visual ways, and if you block out the sterility of the gallery environment, this show is a lot like being gifted with a couple of hours to sneak around in his imagination. I don’t really think that’s something on which, given the option, one should miss out.