Friday, November 23, 2007

For Further Study, #1

Hello! Welcome to a new feature here at Passport since I decided I didn't have nearly enough silly categorizations for topics like Park Mysteries, Vanishing Walt Disney World, Adventures in Master Planning, etc. So here's another one and this time I'll be exploring books, media, music, or whatever it is that doesn't directly relate to Disney but is useful/essential to understanding Disney product.

It is my genuine, firm belief that if all you ever do to expose yourself to culture is that culture approved of by Disney, then your world view will be far narrower than any shared by any of the artists who created the Disney product we all know and love.
Disney isn't high culture, but it isn't low culture either (something I've been trying to establish here for over a year now) and as such I genuinely hope to point the receptive spectator in the direction of related but challenging, exciting art which will significantly broaden the richness of the experience Disney offers.


Sven Kirsten received much attention for his now semi-classic 2000 book The Book of Tiki, a huge celebration of all things Tiki Style in just 288 pages with a big, puffy cover. In it, he intelligently makes an argument for the 50's tiki revival being an inevitable and interesting part of American popular culture, despite being manhandled out of existence by a variety of factors. As such, what could come off as a chintzy exercise in cultural colonialism becomes an honest alternative to all the sour postmodernism, the sea of irony in which we float today. Tiki may have been silly, but he was all about fun and wouldn't slap your wrist for letting yourself believe in it for a while.

Well Kirsten's next book has come out, Tiki Modern And The Wild World of Witco, and it's even better. Although many of the same concepts have translated over, they're articulated a good deal better and with a great deal less irony than his previous work, pushing the tome in the direction in more a direction of serious study (albeit this is this author's bias which will be self evident). The tome is also much more narrowed in its' focus, not only delving specifically into aspects of popular culture which Tiki used in its' march through hearts and minds, but specifically addressing midcentury modern art manufacturer Witco, which used the revival of primitivism to transform these simple shapes of declasse Gods into beautiful, complex, yet always slightly gaudy flowing expressions of Modern art.

When you look at prime examples of the Witco style, the best probably being the numerous bars which sometimes came complete with faux tiger hide furs, a sense that you're looking at something undeniably great but still cheap immediately comes to mind. And my God, the faces! If you thought the Haunted Mansion went overboard of the faces, wait 'till you see a Witco installation in glorious 60's Chintzy Color with an ocher shag rug floor - everywhere there's an unoccupied square inch of wood grain they carved a face right on it.

Ultimately the book traces the entire evolution of the style, from the original South Seas gods to the Tiki revival of the past few years. He spends much time dwelling on the modernist transformations of Tikis from ugly, sneering wooden phalluses to flowing, comic, irreverent images of fun and whimsy that fans of Rolly Crump's Tiki Gardens Tikis will find much in common with.

Ultimately this book is like a field guide to Disney's Adventureland style, a bizzare riot of authentic touches placed upon an architectural style gone totally amuck. Anybody who's spent a balmy summer evening in the Polynesian knows that the romance of the Tiki Torch is still very much alive there, and this book would be a perfect companion if it weren't so large and so beautiful you'd be afraid to leave the house with it!

One of Kirsten's more revelatory asides is that the Tiki Temples (his name for a tiki bar) were often entered by crossing a footbridge as a symbolic way of crossing water and entering a fantasyland. Well guess what folks, in Orlando you not only cross a bridge to enter the Polynesian, but also a far smaller one to enter the Enchanted Tiki Room, a detail which the Disney designers probably repeated instinctually because it was so culturally ingrained.

Reading the book and then visiting one of Disney's oasises not only makes you appreciate how rapidly Tiki subsided, how Disney built these Orlando installations in literary the last gasp of Tiki's hold on popular culture, how and why the Adventureland Style does what it does, and how rapidly later generations would corrupt it with more politically correct but less pure and innocent cultural styles such as Middle Eastern, a la Aladdin in Orlando's Magic Carpets and the bulwark of Paris' Adventureland.

It's a beautiful book and if you're a long time admirer of mid century American primitivism like me, then it's a veritable pleasure cruise.

The book, by the way, is published by the kings of graphical coffeetable style Taschen, and if you have interests in anything they probably have something they'd love to sell you. Taschen is like a big feast of wonderful, so be warned to imbide in moderation when you start looking through their site and adding books to your cart at $40 a pop.


Brad Gravett said...

Great article. I like this new feature, there's a lot of potential material you could write from, all of it fascinating.

Even though the Tiki style could be considered a fad, it finds an excellent middle road between a crass pandering to pop tastes and real world application of high art concepts. More importantly, I believe it captures something that both "low" and "high" art don't often address - it's simply fun.

I think this attitude of whimsy and fantasy is what helped take a and arguably shallow, imitative style and make an indelible imprint on the mass consciousness. It fits well in Disney's palette of visual styles to pull from.

Cory Gross said...

Thank you for the recommendation! Unfortunately, it's a taunting one, since I look at these nice big books of Tiki and then look at the price, then look over at the shelf of Tiki mugs and things that I can add to my "Enchanted Tiki Kitchen"... Working at a kiosk one Christmas that sold Indonesian imports - including a 4' long Tiki mask that is now mine, mine mine - was a Godsend... Of course, now you just sparked the idea of making a little bridge to enter my kitchen by...

I haven't done much theorizing about my attraction to Tiki though. I know it frankly does owe a lot to Disney, but otherwise... I guess it depends on how one defines postmodernism, because if I was going to apply the term as it floats around in religious studies, then I might argue that the current Tiki fad is quite postmodern. That is, it embraces aspects of the past and integrates them with the present in non-ironic ways. Irony is something I've never associated with postmodernism. At least, I know I'm not meaning to be ironic when I light candles, burn incense and chant mediaeval hymns at church.

It might be to access the kitsch experience of the mid-century... At the time it may have been the romantic fantasy of the South Seas and the primitivist counterpoint to Googie futurism, but now it is part of a kitsch nexus that speaks not only to a time and place, but an attitude... Whatever the sense was of the mid-century that makes us want to appeal to it and indulge wistfully in it at the beginning of this one.

I suppose I should leave that exact stream up to others though... I've noticed that Tiki seems to be part of a larger kitsch frame that includes Rockabilly and Vegas, lounge style. The rest of it isn't so much my thing (I would count my other kitsches as Japanophelia, National Parks Rustic, Victoriana and Scientific Romanticism, and the big one, Goth and Monster Kitsch) and maybe those with a greater attraction to the mid-century American experience could chime in.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the new series, Chris.

Any chance of showing us an image of the bridge in the Enchanted Tiki Room?

Has the image of Adventureland been overtaken by the Tiki Gods since we really have no other uncharted realm left to us? Or is it simply that the original Enchanted Tiki Room was such an amazing place? Everything that came after needed to identify with the theme?

Anyway...looking for more great articles in the series!

Jeffrey Pepper said...

Thanks for the heads up on the new book, Chris. The Book of Tiki is an amazing volume and one I've treasured. I have long been enraptured by 50s/modern/retro designs, and the book actually inspired our decorating of a guest room in a distinctly Hawaiian retro look.

In a related vein, have you seen the book Southern California in the 50s by Charles Phoenix? It includes chapters on both Tiki and Disneyland. Great content throughout!