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Alice steals hearts at ACMI

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

Alice in Wonderland has enticed young and old for generations and is the subject of this year’s headline exhibition at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Moving Image (ACMI) showing until 7 October 2018. The exhibition, titled “Wonderland,” has been curated by ACMI’s Jessica Bram, Emma McRae and Sarah Tutton, and put together with an expert team of specialists in theatrical, digital, lighting and sound design. Together they have created an interactive experience designed to entertain all ages.

Alice in Wonderland as a theme for ACMI is ingenious. The long history of Lewis Carroll’s novel being adapted to screen fits in well with a museum dedicated to moving image. Further, the rich layers of imagery in Carroll’s novel provides a fertile base on which a visually stimulating exhibition can be built. Most importantly however, the immense popularity of Alice that ensures ACMI’s exhibition is an overwhelming commercial success.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely,

“and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

The exhibition charts the evolution of Alice from the written page, to theatre, film and animation, highlighting cinematic technological advancements along the way. The exhibition is separated into rooms based loosely on the well-known chapters of Carroll’s book, giving visitors a familiar script to follow. Film shorts are dispersed chronologically throughout the exhibition and are displayed in creative ways, appearing in opening drawers, fake windows and magical mirrors. In one instance, there are multiple clips playing in the same room. The first film on view is the original film adaption by Cecil Hepworth. The silent, black and white film, Alice in Wonderland (1903) is appropriately shown in a vintage mini theatrette. Further along, Alice is bestowed a voice for the first time with the introduction of sound, in Bud Pollard’s Alice in Wonderland (1931). On and so forth it goes, past a mid-century mini cinema dedicated to Disney’s animation (1951) and ending with Tim Burton’s version from 2010. The retrospective is expansive; the team even recovered a little-known film that was almost lost called Alice au pays des Merveilles (1949). It had the misfortune of being released ahead of Disney’s famous animation and got lost in the furore. In total more than 40 Alice films have been produced and whilst this exhibition does not purport to show them all, it definitely highlights that there have been many iterations of Alice apart from Disney’s most recognisable version.

Whist most rooms are assembled altars dedicated to Alice, others exist primarily to provide an interactive experience. After five rooms crowded with artefacts and film clips, visitors are ushered into the Mad Hatters Tea Party. The earlier rooms feel like a warm up for this main act that has little to do with the history of Alice and more to do with creating a dramatic experience that will excite the senses. A restricted number of visitors are guided into a room and invited to sit around a large table, set with white tableware. What transpires is a four minute, state of the art, CGI moving projection with sound, that envelopes the audience, creating a world of magical forests, appetising tea parties, flying clocks and collapsing walls. The all-encompassing animation feels short and sweet, much like a good dessert that leaves you satisfied, yet wanting more. From here you are released into the Queen’s Croquet Ground where you can obtain the obligatory “selfie” moment. Like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, in which the Hatter is decidedly absent, there is no sign of the Queen of Hearts here. Bram states “we knew what we were creating had to be wondrous, and that’s why there had to be pockets in the gallery where people are literally whisked away from the scaffolds of real life.” These rooms are more about providing an emotional experience for visitors, rather than adding further insight to the world and themes of Alice in Wonderland.

Small door entry to ACMI wonderland exhibition

The whole exhibition is designed for dramatic effect, starting with the entry point, where you are invited to crawl through a small door (or walk through a normal sized one if you prefer). Before entering you receive an interactive map titled Lost Map of Wonderland, capable of unlocking enchanting little animations at certain points along the way. Upon entering the small door you are presented with a selection of further doors, one of which you must choose to enter. This theatrical entrance feels entirely like a stage set, complete with thin walls and exposed wall struts.

The exhibition is purposely contrived to be overwhelming and disorienting. The rooms are darkly lit, punctuated by spot lighting. As you move throughout the exhibition there are over 300 unique objects, including photos, film clips, puppets, costumes, cinematic slides, props and drawings. There are also oversized tables and chairs, some of which are ascendable, providing visitors with a sense of shrinking. Walls are covered with memorabilia, behind the scenes photos, art works and information plaques, whilst sound effects and voices wash over you. It’s a marked difference from the typical exhibition where everything is spaced out and well-lit; each artwork is clearly delineated from the other. Here there is no breathing space. Even the map presented on arrival is more of the conceptual map rather than an actual floorplan which further adds to the disorientation. Visitors end up leaving wondering if they missed something, unsure if they saw the exhibition in its entirety. However, careful consideration has been given to the way the crowd moves through the space to ensure that no area is missed. The chaos is carefully constructed.

“We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat,

or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Oversized table at key at ACMI's wonderland exhibition

The downside of all this stimulation is that visitors are at risk of overload. The subtexts are lost and there is little room for quiet contemplation. The entry point, which is based on Carroll’s drawing room, goes unnoticed by excited guests surveying the miniature doorway and absorbing instructions on the use of their interactive map. Information on film producers and leading actors are easily missed amongst the dark lighting and distracting sound effects. A collection of illustrations from 2006 by Jan Svankmajer and Eva Svankmajerova are double hung, their frames almost touching. The impact is impressive, but the intricacy of the individual works is difficult to digest. However, it’s a small price to pay for the wondrously overwhelming experience of Wonderland.

Let’s not forget that there is a price to be paid for all this extravagance. This blockbuster exhibition is highly choreographed, incorporating advanced technology and requiring a specialist team of experts to assemble. It’s an expensive exhibition and ACMI have spent the money, confident of a commercial success. Designed to appeal to a wide audience, “Wonderland” is an immersive and also expensive experience for everyone who enters. Tickets range from $15 to $25 and the exhibition catalogue, a 230 page large hardcover book, will set you back $65. There is also a plethora of exhibition merchandise available from the ACMI store and a smaller selection available as you exit the exhibition. With punters outlaying this amount of money, the curators have gone to great lengths to ensure that visitors get what they bargained for.

The final room is the climax of the exhibition and my personal favourite. Titled Alice’s Evidence, the room consists of 18 large screens arranged in a semicircle, displaying a mash up of Alice in all her incarnations. We see her not only depicted authentically in film and TV, as shown earlier in the exhibition, but also as an icon that has been adopted by popular culture. We see her in TV commercials, music videos and videogames. She is referenced in everything from The Matrix, to Westworld and Star Trek. The entire clip runs for approximately five minutes and is as captivating as a well-produced hit music video. It’s a celebration of more than 150 years of Alice and an acknowledgement of her pervasive influence. You leave feeling your connection with Alice is strengthened and your understanding of her unchallenged. Visitors leave on a high, as they exit past the gift shop.

Alice's Evidence, final room at ACMI's wonderland exhibition

Overall “Wonderland” is a well-crafted exhibition that will thrill Alice fans of all ages. The curators have created a Wonderland experience designed to overwhelm and excite audiences. There is something in it for everyone, ensuring commercial success for ACMI and a memorable experience for each person that visits.

About the author

Leah Mariani is a financial professional turned artist and mother of two. Apart from writing this blog, she creates artwork about fashion, feminism and family. Sign up for artist e-news here or follow her on Facebook and Instagram @leahmarianiartspace.

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