THE TIM BURTON ACTIVITY GUIDE
by Adam Benedetto
The girls had hitchhiked from Michigan to see the show. They’d found me on Couchsurfiing.com and called to ask if they could stay with me as they were on their way. “Were at a truck stop now. If things go well we’ll get there around one.” And so seven hours later they were in New York.
I’ve used Couchsurfing.com a lot. I enjoy the random way of meeting people that is guided by references posted by other people involved with the site. Because they have references you can generally trust the people you invite into your home but at the same time you don’t know who will walk through the door.
Samantha and Erin showed up tired and excited. At twenty years old they had hitchhiked across half of America in sixteen hours tempting fate to see an art show in the Big Apple. I met them at a bagel place in Brooklyn at two in the morning. Together we found the spirit of Tim Burton in our Taxi cab driver on the way to my apartment. He said, “I’m from Romania.” And I said, “Are you from Cluj Napocca?” and he said “YES!” and laughed and gave me his phone number. “If you come to Cluj this summer call me,” he said. He was both crude and loveable which is about as Tim Burton as anyone can be.
On the way to the show we rode the JMZ Subway into Manhattan and I took their photo for their “Michigan girls in the big city” portrait as we went over the Williamsburg Bridge. I forgot how much girls giggle when they’re excited. They had an inside joke, a song, or just something funny to say for every minute of the trip to the MoMA Museum. They had a number of great stories that involved them accidentally slapping a stranger on the ass or dancing up on someone in a bus when they thought it was their friend. I got the impression that they were always dancing with each other or slapping each other on the ass if they accidentally got so many random people involved in it. And so the mood was light and exactly the way I like to go see art—with enthusiasm, laughter, and with friends.
Entering the museum a woman handed me a pamphlet that said, “MoMA Kids Ages seven and up Family Activity Guide: Begin-if you dare- by stepping into the mouth of a giant monster. Tiptoe onto its tongue and down its spiraled throat. Imagine yourself on a journey into the belly of the beast. TIM BURTON”. I don’t know why she handed me the Family Activity Guide but I greatly enjoyed having it as it gave me a series of projects and things to do while walking through the show; A great idea as I’m one who generally believes that art should do something and the idea of handing out an activity book to go with the show was absolutely brilliant. The woman also told me that the show was on the third floor and so we began our walk up to it.
On the second floor there were a great series of lights and a large crowd. Marina Abramović (Марина Абрамовић) had just begun her new show. The show consists of her sitting on a wood chair, in front of a wood table, with another wood chair across from her. Anyone can go and sit in the chair across from her but you’re not allowed to talk to her. You just look at her and she looks at you. The whole thing is taped and photographed and recorded very precisely. The show is called, “The Artist is Present” and she really is present. She is going to be present for every hour the museum is open for the next three months. In total that’s over six hundred hours she’s going to be holding still, sitting in a chair and looking strangers in the eye. This made me and the girls giggle.
I also commented that seeing how she’s going to be sitting there for the next three months with no expression on her face I probably won’t get the book I lent to her back anytime soon.
About a week ago I met her at a dinner party and I lent her “The Passport” by Herta Müller. It’s a fine novel and pertained to some Eastern European things we were talking about as Marina is from Serbia and the book is about Romania in 1989. I happened to have it on me and so I lent it to her and she promised she’d return it. I believe she will but knowing she’s going to be holding still for the next three months I’m pretty sure I’m not going to get it back anytime soon. It’s just not going to be at the top of her to do list. Still I wonder if I go and sit in front of her if she’ll remember me and her borrowing my book. That would be a terrible way to feel deep inside and not be able to say anything. If I were her I couldn’t take it as I love to tell people that “Yes, I will get you your book back. Sorry to have borrowed it for so long but I was really enjoying it.” If I sat across from her and that thought went though her mind and she couldn’t say a word… well now, that definitely is art then. As the old phrase goes, “The key to all great art is restraint.” There you have why she is an artist, and I am who I am.
And so it was time to go to the third floor. Watching people stare into Marina’s eyes and watching her stare into theirs wasn’t that compelling to me even if I tried to imagine the physical and psychological exhaustion that will set in after days and days of holding still and beating strangers in a staring competition. “I’d break into hysterics after twenty minutes,” I said to Erin and Samantha and the two of them giggled away at the idea of trying to do it.
On the third floor we entered a giant mouth with big teeth all around us. One of the very first rooms was filled with acrylic paintings of monsters and space ships and stuff like that. Erin said, “I like this one, the skeletons are in love.” And what made the paintings pop out was that they were on black velvet with a black light illuminating them. Visually it was stunning and it was a great way to enter into the entangling and engaging mind of Mr. Burton.
The show was packed with people. Kids, adults, really tall people with a lot of hair, short people, wheelchair people, people holding hands with other people, serious thoughtful people, tired people who’d spent too much time in a museum and even people like my friends Erin and Samantha who were laughing out loud as they enjoyed every bit of the show. What I liked about it was that there was art everywhere. They just piled his art on the wall, and set his sculptures everywhere– Frame after frame of drawings, paintings, sculptures, hand written notes about plots and movies projecting onto walls. There were so many things that I quickly realized you could spend days taking in all of the detail and understanding the clutteringly prolific method to his madness.
At this point I turned to my Family Activity Guide for help. It said to, “Look on the walls and in the glass cases for characters with exaggerated features. Share what you find with a friend or family member and list your favorite features here.” 1. Big eyes. 2. Big teeth. 3. Wild hair. 4. Stripes. 5. Many eyes.
Then there was a space to draw and make up your own character. I drew Samantha and Erin sitting and watching a short film. It was a surreal remake of Hansel and Gretel. That seemed appropriate because when you hitchhike, as Samantha and Erin did, you have no breadcrumbs to help you find your way back home. Erin had big pig-tails in and Samantha kind of looks like the drawings of the Winona Ryder character Burton did for Beetle Juice.
Putting their journey into a mythic perspective helped me understand the show. Tim Burton came from Burbank, California, where he developed his idea of society being suffocating in its normalcy. It’s the 1950s uniformity that always serves as a backdrop to his stories and where his unique and interesting characters spring from, i.e. Edward Scissorhands. And so Samantha and Erin had taken to an adventure in the same spirit of rebellion. And like Hansel and Gretel, and like Tim Burton’s many other characters, they had managed to be come lost, alienated, and alien. I drew them as puppets with big hairy pigtails, giant thumbs, wearing laughter as they came stepping out of the stars with their many protruding eyeballss ready for a stare down with whomever pulled over between Michigan and the MoMA.