His characters may be reassuringly unambiguous, yet the man himself was anything but. So what is the social and cultural impact of Walt Disney’s legacy? In this exhibition, on show at Het Nieuwe Instituut from September 2021, curator Saskia van Stein examines the influence of Disney’s films and thinking on today’s built environment and sense of identity.
Walt Disney’s fantasies have grown from temporary distractions on the cinema screen into defining influences on global pop culture. The cartoonist, along with the empire he founded, has won both praise – for his technological innovations and the apparent simplicity and recognisability of his storytelling – and notoriety. The ingenuity with which he seamlessly entwines fairy tales and reality is accompanied by a compelling and one-sided conception of what the resulting wonderful worlds – and their inhabitants – should look like.
Walter Elias Disney (1901–1966) created on- and off-screen fantasy worlds in which viewers and visitors can temporarily escape everyday reality. His “wonderful world” had a modest beginning in the 1930s with cartoons and animated shorts but, with the creation of full-length films, theme parks, resorts and cruise vacations, it mushroomed into a global media empire over the following decades. The staging of an alternative reality was not confined to the movies and the Disneyland parks. With every step in the development of the company, the image of Walt, and his Walt Disney Company, has been carefully cultivated and expanded.
That constructed impression – of Disney as a carefree genius, the “father of the middle class”, whose company produces feel-good environments for the whole world – has a downside. With a blend of nostalgia, utopianism, simplification and cuteness, Walt Disney entices his audiences to immerse themselves in a world where reality and fiction merge. Inspired by European literature and architecture, Disney, known as the embodiment and champion of the American Dream, underlies a highly specific and limited type of cultural production. This propagates a largely uniform identity, with the traditional white family at its heart. The animated characters and storylines affirm and reinforce gender roles and racial stereotypes, helping to normalise discrimination and the exclusion of everyone who is “different”. As part of this project, Het Nieuwe Instituut and the curator are actively committed – including by providing work assignments – to making room for voices and perspectives that are insufficiently represented, or deliberately marginalised, in Disney’s oeuvre and legacy.
In her research, Van Stein approaches Disney from different angles, creating divergent storylines. These range from the personality cult surrounding Walt Disney himself, to the problematic “heroes” in his work; from the multimedia experiences that connect cartoons, amusement parks and living rooms, to the time- and location-less architecture of Disneyfied suburbs; and from the performance of a 1960s utopia in the Epcot Center, to the manipulation of the worldview of generations of children. The complexity of the self-proclaimed sorcerer’s apprentice becomes clear through these interpretations of the constant interactions between Disney and the outside world.
The exhibition design is by spatial designer Frédérique Albert-Bordenave. Graphic designer Irene Stracuzzi is responsible for the project’s graphic identity.
The Architecture of Staged Realities presents contributions by theorists, architects, artists and other designers like Khalid Amakran, Bas van Beek, Ashok Bhalotra, Piet Blom, Koos Breen, Persijn Broersen & Margit Lukács, Jo Coenen, Carlos Diniz, Benjamin Earl, Pete Ho Ching Fung, Adam Nathaniel Furman, FAT Architects i.s.m. Crimson Architectural Historians, Jord den Hollander i.s.m. MMX Architecten, Oskar Johanson, Rob Krier, Clara Lezla, Alessandro Mendini, Donna van Milligen Bielke, Monadnock, MVRDV, OMA, Mariske Pemmelaar-Groot, Aldo Rossi, Mart van Schijndel, Lara Schrijver, Ghita Skali, Helmut Smits, Sjoerd Soeters, Jaakko van ’t Spijker, Léa-Catherine Szacka, Studio Ossidiana, Pilvi Takala, Simon Wald-Lasowksi, WAM Architecten, Kem Weber en Marga Weimans.
Saskia van Stein
Curator Saskia van Stein is currently leading The Critical Inquiry Lab master’s programme at Design Academy Eindhoven. She was previously the artistic director of Bureau Europa, Platform for Architecture and Design in Maastricht, and curator at the Netherlands Architecture Institute. Her practice is characterised by a transdisciplinary approach in which contemporary social issues give rise to questions about analysis, imagination and representation, and how these manifest themselves in the designed environment. From her deep-rooted interest in the “politics of curating” and curating exhibitions, Van Stein explores the possibilities of different exhibition formats and methods of knowledge production, in which the performativity of cultural production is central.
Spatial designer Frédérique Albert-Bordenave is a visual artist and art director at Random Studio. She graduated from the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in 2017, having studied architectural design. Her work has been exhibited in De Koepel in Haarlem (2018) and Foam in Amsterdam (2020). Her book “[read: quotation mark] was presented at Foam Editions. Albert-Bordenave was selected by the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts (AFK) for the 3Package Deal programme 2018/2019.
Graphic designer Irene Stracuzzi lives and works in Amsterdam. She teaches at Design Academy Eindhoven, where she is affiliated with the master’s department as a design tutor. Stracuzzi specialises in graphic design, art direction and information design. She works independently as well as in a team for clients in the field of art and culture. In her research practice, Stracuzzi is concerned with the translation of complicated findings into accessible visual formats, reflecting her views on the role of design as a critical tool for the sharing and propagation of knowledge.
Het Nieuwe Instituut
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Tuesday — Sunday
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