9 October 2017




“What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber” – Guillermo del Toro, The Devil’s Backbone (2011).
Follow me to the At Home with Monsters exhibition review! Photo courtesy of Julia Zungri.

Now that I have your attention, welcome back to Musings’ Exhibition Reviews! I previously wrote under the byline Walk of Fame but my passion for visiting and subsequently ranting and raving about exhibitions led me here. Coincidentally, one of my last Walk of Fame posts from February mentioned the then upcoming Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Well, folks, the time is here! The opening of the exhibit to the general public was September 30, 2017, which I will now remember as the day that I got to see one of my favourite exhibitions.
The introductory panel to At Home with Monsters. Photo courtesy of Julia Zungri.

The del Toro exhibit at the AGO is the only Canadian appearance and offers visitors a glimpse into the filmmaker’s mind and soul. The exhibition is based on the contents inside Bleak House (named after one of del Toro’s favourite Charles Dickens books). Bleak House is a residence just outside of Malibu, California where del Toro writes and creates, as well as houses his private collection.

The space is divided into seven different themes that can be seen throughout del Toro’s films and the house: “Childhood and Innocence,” “Victoriana,” “Rain Room,” “Magic, Alchemy, and the Occult,” “Movies, Comics and Pop Culture,” “Frankenstein and Horror,” “Outsiders”, and lastly “Death and the Afterlife.” Each theme and 'sub-theme' is introduced with a panel that is easy to understand and informative, effectively explaining how the theme connects to del Toro’s creative process and interests.

Some examples of the exhibition's section panels. Photo courtesy of Julia Zungri.
Due to the vast amount of objects displayed, the majority of objects only have ‘tombstone’ information instead of an interpretive label, which I actually appreciate. Thanks to the layout of the exhibit and the objects themselves, the themes they were associated with were quite obvious and in no need of didactics. This was refreshing, as I did not feel overwhelmed with information and pressure to read a lot, which would have deterred me from enjoying the objects proper and noticing smaller details of the space.

An example of framed works, numbered, in the exhibition with corresponding tombstone information to the right. Photo courtesy of Julia Zungri

These smaller details, such as the carpeting and objects placed above doorways made the exhibit feel like you are actually in the Bleak House.  Photo courtesy of Julia Zungri

Upon first walking into the space, I am presented with an introduction to Bleak House on my left and a television screen on my right with a loop of del Toro speaking. It would not be an exhibit about a filmmaker if there were no television sets throughout the space. For almost each theme explored, there is a television set showing clips from del Toro’s films that exemplify said theme. There was a handy guide to the right of the television citing which film each scene was from, which of course, prompted a desire to binge watch del Toro’s films all weekend. I could hear conversations around me between visitors about which films they have and haven't seen and which ones they were planning to watch that very night!

An example of how the TV screens and its corresponding labels
(right) were set up throughout the space. Photo courtesy of Julia Zungri.
As I look straight ahead, I am presented with a wall-sized image of the Bleak House. This was definitely a highlight for photographs.

It actually looks like I'm in the Bleak House! Photo courtesy of Julia Zungri.

Although I could talk about this exhibit for longer than my space on this blog post permits, I will share with you three highlights from my visit: my favourite theme and room, and the message throughout the exhibit.

Firstly, I am being a bit biased that the theme I want to explore here is related to one of my favourite del Toro films: Crimson Peak. The “Victoriana” theme pays particular attention to this film, with a wall-sized film still and a platform displaying objects used in the film, specifically the dresses worn by major characters. Although few objects have interpretive labels, the ones that do, such as these dresses, were much appreciated: for me, the interpretation seemed to jump in when I needed it and its scarcity did not over-contextualize the exhibit. The objects' interpretation helped me make connections that I would have otherwise missed - as it should - prompting me to ponder for quite some time after the exhibit these new-found connections and, of course, left me wanting to re-watch these films with a new mindset.

The section dedicated to Crimson Peak. I stood here for quite a while to get this image without any visitors!
Photo courtesy of Julia Zungri

This interpretive label explains how Lucille Sharpe's infamous
red dress represents the red colour and spine of the
ghosts in her mansion. Photo courtesy of Julia Zungri

Second, the Rain Room is indescribable – but I will try! This room is a recreation of an actual room in the Bleak House that del Toro created as a writing sanctuary for himself. The highlight of this room is a strikingly accurate figure of Edgar Allan Poe sitting in front of a window that is being splashed with digitally created raindrops: I can see the raindrops battling with the shadow of the blowing trees in the window, surrounded by soothing and eerie sounds of rain and thunder. I filmed a short video to give readers a glimpse into this room:

Lastly, the message throughout the exhibit redefines our perception of monsters. Throughout the exhibit, monsters are portrayed as the “other” and not necessarily something that we should be afraid of. In fact, these are not even the “real” monsters . . .

A still from an interview with del Toro, being looped on a TV screen. Photo courtesy of Julia Zungri.
Throughout del Toro’s films, most of the characters that are portrayed as monsters are relatable to its viewers. Even the characters that have inspired del Toro, such as Frankenstein, tend to garner some sympathy from people. The Frankenstein section in the exhibit made me melancholy for how society may negatively perceive characters deemed as ‘monsters.’

From the "Frankenstein & Horror" section.
Photos courtesy of Julia Zungri

An inspiring quote by del Toro featured above a collection of visitors' drawings and remarks about their ideas of monsters. On the floor, there is a table, paper, and drawing material available for visitors to participate. Photo courtesy of Julia Zungri.

The AGO uses a number of elements and aspects to drive this message home to its viewers. Although the objects and didactics throughout the exhibit illustrate this message, it is the atmosphere throughout the space that makes this message an experience. One of the first things I noticed walking into the exhibit is the piano music playing throughout the space. Little did I know that there was actually a piano player playing this music live.

An image of the pianist playing music during my visit. Outstanding performance! Photo courtesy of Julia Zungri.

A rush of feelings fell over me as the pianist played one of my favourites, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, while I experienced the sections dedicated to Crimson Peak and H.P. Lovecraft (see below). Now I am not only looking and reading, but I’m also hearing, thinking, and feeling.

More than a specific theme or room, the fact that my visit to this exhibition was overall an experience stood out to me the most. The endeavour to create an exhibition based on the contents of a house that represents an individual’s collective process, personal interests, and mind creates a particular atmosphere within the space that affected all of my senses. This review - and if I may argue, any review - will not do this exhibition justice because it must be felt.

This experience stayed with me moments after leaving the exhibit, until I was hit hard with a reality check that I was no longer at home with monsters. But maybe, they’re closer than we believe. And, just maybe, they’re more like us than we thought.

Closing remarks. Photo courtesy of Julia Zungri.

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