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The Frist's animation exhibit is both overwhelming and extraordinarily satisfying

Looney Toons


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"With animation, anything is possible," said Frist chief curator Mark Scala as he introduced the institution's latest — and perhaps its most ambitious — exhibit, Watch Me Move: The Animation Show. The exhibit, which was originally organized by the Barbican Centre in London, is a tour de force. From Eadweard Muybridge's galloping horse of 1887 to a selection from Pixar's 2004 feature The Incredibles, Watch Me Move spans the entire era of animated film from across the globe. Animation from the U.S., Spain, France, the Czech Republic, Japan, China, Canada, Germany, Poland, Sweden and New Zealand is included among the 86 films featured.

While the idea of animation might make you think of Saturday morning kid shows and Nickelodeon-type stuff, the show ventures well beyond just family-friendly cartoons, and much of the exhibition's content is geared toward adults. In addition to the popular animated worlds of Walt Disney and Pixar, Watch Me Move delivers highbrow post-Cubist art films, obscure cult flicks, and clips from shows like South Park and Futurama. Some films are subversive enough to be sectioned off into their own rooms with an "Adults Only" warning posted at the entrance. One such film is Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer's "Dimensions of a Dialogue," a sinister stop-motion short about the difficulties of human communication. In one scene, a humanoid couple is bickering — until one devours the other's head. So there's that.

What does it look like to have 86 films playing simultaneously in a gallery? That's a great question. When you first walk in, you might feel like you've entered the laser-tag/theater combo park of your tweenage dreams. The rooms are dark, some lit only with UVA lights so everyone's teeth and shirt lint are aglow as they stare at one of the myriad film projections. The shadowed walls are painted in bright colors, and dozens of V-shaped audio booth partitions are placed throughout the gallery, creating a labyrinthine layout that allows viewers to tuck away into corners of sound and veg out in front of the film of their choice.

But there's more organization at work than you might suspect. The exhibition is divided into seven categories: Scientific Precursors, Apparitions, Fables and Fragments, Structures, Characters, Contemporary Visions and Superhumans. Each category has a dedicated immersive room in the gallery. If you're interested in experiments with the materiality of film, head to the Structures room, where you'll find things like Stan Brakhage's hand-painted film strips and Ferdinand Léger's "Ballet Mécanique," a collaborative Dadaist film about eroticism and machinery.

The Contemporary Visions section houses films that challenge the PG-ness of animation and take on difficult subjects like war, sex and fragmentation in contemporary life. Works like Ryan Trecartin's "(Tommy Chat Just Emailed Me)" and Cao Fei's film about Second Life, "Live in RMB City," speak to the more disturbing aspects of humanity.

The Characters zone covers animated icons like Betty Boop, the Jetsons and Homer Simpson. Fables and Fragments contains early Disney movies and other archetypal narratives that cycle through generations. Apparitions presents film that blur the line between the real and the imaginary. The last section, Superhumans, showcases characters with extraordinary capabilities, a staple of post-World War II animation. There you'll find the otherworldly "Tron" room — an ultra-sleek private space with glossy white floors dedicated entirely to Steven Lisberger's 1982 sci-fi thriller.

Watch Me Move is a different kind of gallery experience altogether — which will be exciting to many, and disappointing to some. If you're looking for a peaceful, arty escape in a hushed environment, this is not the show for you. The dissonant noise of a dozen films playing at once is surreal, and the sheer amount of content presented here may be daunting to a lot of visitors. With more than 12 hours of animation, you just can't see it all. I've been twice, and still have the urge to go back and watch the rest of Tim Burton's 1982 stop-motion horror short, "Vincent." It's hard not to be blown away by the scale and ambition of it all.

The exhibition tackles an important quandary: Where and how does film and animation fit into the world of museums and art institutions? Not just conceptually, but technically. Museums have addressed this to a degree — countless films have been successfully integrated into museum exhibits over the decades — but most institutions haven't fully sunk their teeth into the growing dilemma that looms on their doorstep.

Our visual culture is becoming ever more animated. From GIFs to Vines to digital billboards, everything is moving and talking now. So how does that cultural progression translate inside the walls of the art museum? How does a major exhibition of audiovisual works fare in terms of achieving functional layout and the optimal viewer experience?

While noiseless art like painting, sculpture, photography and most installations will likely keep a strong hold on museum wall real estate, the presentation of audible art on a large scale is being reconsidered — as it must — in a more innovative, thoughtful way. A set of headphones dangling on a hook next to a screen doesn't cut it. Exhibit designer Hans Schmitt-Matzen and graphic designer Kristina Colucci were well aware of that, and they both deserve a hearty pat on the back here. It had to be one of the most challenging design projects in the Frist's history, and they pulled it off. While the audial and visual experience can be overwhelming at times, the presentation has order, and viewers can watch each film individually, headphone-less, and with undivided attention if they so choose. Watch Me Move is a leading example of how a major exhibition of film can be done.




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