The Marvel retrospective at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art explores the artistry behind the film and comic franchise, writes Philippa Hawker
Look at the filigree, says Amanda SlackSmith, pointing to a set of rings. No one really sees this, but it’s beautifully worked. It’s the same with a book she points to, an ancient leatherbound volume. These are movie props — the rings worn by the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, the Book of Yggdrasil from Thor: The Dark World — not created to be seen in close-up, if at all, and not necessarily built to endure. Yet they are made with painstaking attention to detail, and members of the conservation team at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art are handling them with scrupulous care, as if they were museum items.
They are part of a forthcoming display at GOMA, Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe, an exhibition about small detail and soaring ambition, focusing on a cultural phenomenon with a history that stretches back decades. It’s an enterprise that began with comic books and has become a storytelling juggernaut in every conceivable format.
Slack-Smith, the show’s curator, focuses on the films, drawing on a range of elements to illuminate and investigate the work of Marvel Studios. This is the largest art museum-based exhibition Marvel has supported, and the first of its kind in Australia.
There are 500 objects in the show, items large and small, familiar and unexpected. Thor’s imposing throne is so big the gallery front window had to be removed to get it inside; on a much smaller scale, there’s the original art for the first page of Spider-Man’s comic book debut, a prized exhibit coaxed from the Library of Congress in Washington.
These items — which include props, costumes, storyboards and examples of original concept art — are selected, arranged and contextualised, often with moving-image elements. One of the aims of the show, says Slack-Smith, is to give an active, engaging sense of process from pre to post-production, focusing not only on visuals but also on
sound and music. “It’s nice when there’s something that’s such a tight, polished mythology to be able to break it apart a little and look at the people behind the scenes, and the processes.” One of her favourites is a playful, interactive Ant-Man chase sequence that takes place on a toy train set — it allows the visitor to click between three stages of the scene’s creation.
Original content devised for the exhibition ranges from the handmade to the hi-tech. Local artist Wayne Nichols has produced a SpiderMan mural painted on the walls of the gallery, and GOMA has worked with Queensland University of Technology to produce 11 bespoke interactive features that allow visitors to dive deep into Marvel’s filmmaking process. A range of talks and activities will complement the show and, directly opposite the gallery, the GOMA cinematheque will screen Marvel Studios movies throughout the exhibition season.
Slack-Smith has devised a three-part conceptual and design framework that highlights key elements of the Marvel mythology and explores what underpins their creation. She and Michael O’Sullivan, head of exhibition design and installation, came up with inventive ways to present the narrative.
The entry point to the show — presided over by Nichols’s Spider-Man mural — presents the first comic book manifestations of key characters, alongside contemporary comics that have influenced the narratives of the films. This is where the original Spider-Man page will be on display: the August 1962 story by writer-editor Stan Lee and writer-artist Steve Ditko that saw high-school bookworm Peter Parker transformed by the bite of a radioactive arachnid. “It’s a cultural treasure, a really important artefact. We’re really excited to be able to bring that, and it’s beautiful,” says Slack-Smith.
The next stage is an introduction to The Avengers, the 2012 movie that assembled a group of superheroes from various backgrounds. They include a Norse god (Thor), a World War II veteran with enhanced powers (Captain America), a scientist with anger-management issues and shapeshifting problems (the Hulk) and a billionaire playboy inventor (Iron Man). All in the same story, on the same side — but with prickly, bickering interactions in the midst of moments of crisis.
Queensland Art Gallery/ GOMA director Chris Saines is well aware that some will look askance at the presence of a blockbuster behemoth in a gallery of modern art. Yet as far as he is concerned, such a show is well-suited to this space.
The idea for it was floated, Saines says, by Screen Queensland chief executive Tracey Vieira, and it was something she contemplated in the initial discussions around the film Thor: Ragnarok before the Marvel project came to Queensland to shoot at Village Roadshow Studio on the Gold Coast. “She spoke with me in late November 2015 and asked, is this something we would be interested in.”
The answer was yes. A Marvel show, according to Saines, “is a unique kind of project for a curator and for an institution of this kind. This is an exhibition that sits within the GOMA, an institution purpose-designed to deliver filmic experience and visual art experience.”
Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy; Captain America’s shield, inset