"Imitation of Life" - Mathias Poledna

Was it a Cole Porter song?

Nope. How about George Gershwin?

Damn. Nothing.

Rosie and I visited The Art Institute of Chicago last month and while slowly strolling the contemporary wing we happened upon a video installation. Rosie and I walked in and sat down on the tiny bench in a large dark room.

I was a bit hesitant. I've found that mostly those installations fly too far over my head. Or maybe they don't, who knows. Some guy breaking vases with a mini bat for the 2 minute running time, or a bee flying in a jar for a 3 minutes. I always remember something about appreciating art even if you don't understand it. I can dig that. I usually won't sit through 3 minutes of it though.

This was different.

The video starts and it's clear right from the start this is going to be a different experience. A blue watercolor sky sprinkled with brush strokes creating large fluffy clouds. The camera pans down in multi-plane form to an intricately painted forest landscape as a score that sounds out of 1932 swells.



We're introduced to a chipper Disney-esque blue bird as it descends through the forest cover and lands near a donkey resting on a log lazily floating down river. The donkey is dressed eerily similar to one Donald Duck and for the next 3 minutes the donkey sings and dances to "I've Got A Feelin' You're Foolin''. Written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown.

Not Cole Porter OR George Gershwin. 

No wonder my online searches tallied zero results.

In any event, when the animation was finished I was elated. Not only because it was incredibly nostalgic for me (I grew up schooled by classic Disney and Chuck Jones) but also because I appreciated the amount of dedication and time it took to create something of that scope. I left without writing down the artists name, or the name of the piece. Thinking my mind would remember. It didn't.

Mathias Poledna

Drove me mad for a few weeks until finally today I decided to call the museum. They informed me I'm indeed not crazy, it wasn't a figment of my imagination, the animation does in fact exist and it is titled "Imitation of Life" and was created by Mathias Poledna in 2013. The installation is too new to have been uploaded to the site.

So now I had the search terms to render me some information. Apparently the budget was a cool mil and Poledna executed the piece with some guidance from some of the original golden aged animators that still live in and around L.A. Not only that, Poledna had a new arrangement of "I've Got A Feelin' You're Foolin'" recorded with a full orchestra for the animation. And with over 5,000 drawings, sketches and watercolor backgrounds created in traditional form for the animation, you feel like you're watching something that was indeed created in the early 30's.

At face value, it's a wonderful animation with a catchy tune and a timeless looking main character that appears to be ripped directly out of the golden era of the form. After the immediate reaction of excitement over the fact someone had pulled it off, I started to ponder more about the piece. Finally one of these installations had spoken to me and got my feeble mind working. Just needed to speak to my language I suppose.

What I was able to take away from "Imitation of Life" is how ingrained in western culture the fancy-free world Walt Disney created has become. It came at a time when people yearned for an escape from the incredibly difficult world that surrounded them and it came in a form that was fresh and full of wonder. Colorful pieces of art coming to life right before your eyes. But none of it is real. It's too perfect, too utopian to be real. Yet for a brief moment in time you get an escape. 

Yet the film’s true nature is revealed in the use of traditional technologies. Imitation of Life is a time machine that takes us back to the dark years of a world with no resources or prospects, devastated by war. In this world, the only escape was to forget everyday life and become immersed in a fantastic world where donkeys dance and sing, birds ask trivial questions, and rabbits and squirrels move to a precise choreography. The parallel with today’s world is inevitable.
— Maria Cristina Didero (Domus)

Charles Bukowski apparently despised Mickey Mouse (esp. his 3 fingers). Hated the soullessness of what he represented. Of what he turned into. Big business aimed at crying children to get parents to buy coloring books and plush dolls. The fact he didn't prepare children for the reality that is life. One can't fault him for that. But Mathias Poledna reminds that while we live in a world of instant gratification where moving imagery constantly assaults our every turn, the art form itself had humble beginnings steeped in hard work, technique and collaboration. It served as a fantastical escape where worlds were created by pencil, pen & brush colliding with paper.

One just had to keep on the sunny side.

Mathias Poledna was born in Vienna in 1965 and now resides in Los Angeles.