Through the Disney Portal: Jellyfish and Oil

The experience of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride at Orlando’s Walt Disney World is one burned permanently into my memory, despite having taken the fantastical journey only once. I recall the ornate, army green Nautilus, with its glaring fish eye windows, approaching slowly in the chlorinated lagoon. We were loaded aboard and seated on in a row of movie-style seats running the length of the half-submerged sub, each passenger assigned the smallest of porthole windows, providing an intimate viewing experience of the man-made, undersea world.  The booming narration of Captain Nemo, accompanied by organ notes for emphasis, began the journey, as sprays of bubbles blew past the windows, signifying the our sinking to greatest of depths.

I recall recognizing the bubbles as a special effect, having just spent an hour in line, watching the submarines circulating through the lagoon without ever going below the surface. Once the bubbles cleared  and plastic marine life was in view, I suspect every kid on the ship over the age of five knew that we were “pretending,” that none of what we were seeing were actual animals. Yet the theatrics of the ship, the tiny viewing hole, the voice of Captain Nemo himself guiding our viewing, provided all of the spectacle necessary to convince the 40 people aboard the Nautilus that everything through the window was extraordinary and full of wonder; there were things here that everyone wanted to see. The ride was discontinued in 1994 but has been memorialized on YouTube by devoted individuals who filmed the experience in full so that the artificial ocean could not be completely lost over time.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have an affinity for the Henry Art Gallery’s use of the elevator as a video installation location. As a freight elevator, entering its surprisingly large space evokes a sense of transport to elsewhere. During my most recent experience in the elevator, the grand silver doors opened to reveal a rectangular portal into the ocean of Kiki Smith’s Jewel, a video depicting a bloom of jellyfish floating hypnotically in tangled masses.  As the elevator shut and started moving in a slow descent, my memory of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea journey was triggered. Bubbles did not flood the screen but the isolated video within this vehicle brought attention to the wonder of the cnidarian in a way similar to the viewing of the Disney attraction’s underwater theatrical experience. In the elevator, there is only the viewer and the crystal jellyfish, the creatures’ forms and anatomies glowing with luminescence.

Typically, I suspect that entering the elevator and experiencing Jewel would lead to consideration of how the video relates to the other works by the artist in the larger exhibition at the Henry. However, in this instance, in the midst of having a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea moment of nostalgia, my mind kept wandering back to the question of what this video would look like if everything was drenched in oil; jellyfish were noted as one of the first casualties of the spill that has become central to the US collective consciousness over the past 40+ days. This past week, more images of the effected Gulf of Mexico sea life have emerged, but for the first month of the catastrophe, visual renditions had been limited to the aerial photos of orange streaks across the Gulf’s surface, which were ultimately more aesthetic than harrowing. While shock is far from the only way to convey information, since the oil spill began there had been an underlying sense that the visual impact of the disaster was being withheld. Consequently, I began seeking it elsewhere. In this context, Smith’s jellyfish appeared more surveillance-like, demonstrating the calm version of the ocean that no longer exists, playing on repeat, now more similar to the pleasantly artificial lagoon of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea than the disturbing reality reflected on the 24/7 surveillance camera of the spilling oil.

Jewels is not inherently about oil or environmental devastation. Yet I couldn’t avoid seeing it in these terms because of the oil spill’s physical drenching of the collective consciousness. It is a disaster that has caused a unique level of universal helplessness among the government, the Gulf coast residents and the American public.  Experiencing the images seems to provide the opportunity to interact with the situation on some level, albeit a superficial one; since the release of more graphic depictions of oil-soaked marine life, the proliferation of photographs across art and media online resources demonstrates a common desire to view and expose what had been discussed extensively but not seen until this point.  The images are now becoming something of a spectacle themselves, but there is some sense to this, considering how the American desire for excess and spectacle is ultimately linked to the consumption of oil. People have an innate desire to see what cannot be seen, including both the pleasantries of a constructed attraction’s excessive spectacle, as well as the very real consequences of living the excessive and spectacle-filled lifestyle reflected in the magical world of Disney.