I took in ACMI’s Wonderland exhibit. It had inklings of a classic Sherlock Holmes-like escape room vibe, but that receded. What replaced it was a journey. There were rooms featuring original illustrations, footage from the oldest filmed versions of Alice in Wonderland. There were rooms for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson ephemera, as well as for magic lanterns, art, costumes and an interactive area where visitors inserted their absurdist cut and paste contributions into the Mad Hatter’s world. It ended in the dark, confronted by a montage of pop culture references to Alice from Star Trek to Wonder Woman. When Wonderland is the world Alice is everywhere.
It is the nature of looking glasses that they invite you to peer harder. And I looked and thought about depths, surfaces and illusion. The psychedelic colours and lights lit up walls, floors and a digital tea party, and it was bright and interesting. However, while I didn’t know what I expected from this exhibit, I’m not sure I got it. For a book that pushed Victorian readers into contemplating questions of logic and assumed social mores, this felt too tame. Despite the large furniture, small doorways, and odd artistic interpretations, it wasn’t uncanny enough. I suspect Alice’s dream is too familiar, or possibly what I find uncanny has moved on from rabbits with pocket watches and poisoned milliners. Is there wonder left in Wonderland? Is it all too obviously Freudian and inversely grammatical?
The exhibit enabled me to think about the book and its iterations as the most profound and important works of psychological insight, or the blandest attempts to mystify the most average of prosaic experiences. I believe both these notions at once, as is traditional in Wonderland.
Mostly though I thought about falling. I am falling. I don’t know where I’m going, nor what to do about it. Around me in real life, familiar circumstances present opportunities, but success is illusive. From the outside, everyone else seems to navigate the world with little resistance, regardless if they are ‘running late’. Meanwhile, I don’t know where I am or who I am meant to be, or how to fit in, and every decision or non-decision leaves me further from being able to do what I need to, to get anywhere. For Alice, it was either a weird dream, or a revelation regarding her fears of incipient adulthood. Or both.
Wonderland speaks to my obvious fears about my future. But who doesn’t have some fear about the future? This is what I mean. No matter the version, Alice in Wonderland seems profound, because it layers skewed perspectives, weird language, and bright colours over mundane psychology. It’s clever literary fireworks, and the colours are pretty, but they fade as they explode and the lines left when you blink are mostly indecipherable squiggles. And I can’t say this strongly enough: indecipherable is not a sign of a message from the gods.
Wonderland’s truths are contingent and situational, not metaphysical. I’ve been searching for something through art and exhibits like this, and insights like ‘I fear for my future’ are peripheral in my quest, and not that revelatory.
I want an encounter that immerses me in an experience of the numinous instead of casting me further into contemplating my own psychology. I want to transcend the personal and psychological.
I’m asking too much from Wonderland and probably all art. (This is worth a post on its own). In meme speak, these aren’t the droids I’m looking for. But I will continue the search like I will continue falling. Who can fight gravity?
Anyway, ignore my personal ideas about this exhibition, because they no measure of its worth, entertainment or any other value, or even what it offers to those who love the books and films. In fact, Alice in Wonderland is a perfectly brillig text for this kind of exhibit precisely because of it’s long popularity with children and adults, and because of the constancy of interpretation. Go see it, and work out if Alice has anything to reveal in you too.