When Jeff Gillette was a kid, he thought that Disneyland is the happiest place on earth. After visiting the iconic amusement park for the first time at the age of 32, he realized that the façade was a charade, and detested it for its utopian artificiality.
Through his art practice, this Detroit-born artist examines the aesthetic structures and visual patterns of human settlements, specifically that of shantytown style slums, juxtaposing them with Disney logos and pop icons from consumer culture. In these landscapes of urban blight, post-apocalyptic debris fields, landfills, and detritus-cluttered deserts, these elements stand as symbols of the western cultural privilege and oblivion.
Inspiration for these slumscapes, as Gillette describes them, came from first-hand experience traveling. In the late 1980s, he spent two years in the Peace Corps in Nepal and visited every major city in India during this period, exploring the huge slums found there. On his later travels, he would often return to India and explore the vast poverty-stricken fringes of its vast megalopolises. While the economic disparities are obscenely extreme in these places, Jeff also found the universality of the human spirit and a strange beauty that comes out of the necessity and raw honesty of the will to survive.
We had a chat with Jeff Gillette to learn more about his practice. In an exclusive Widewalls interview, the artist talks about Disneyland as a subject, his experiences traveling, socio-political concerns, his collaboration with Banksy and much more.
Widewalls: Your work takes a different look at the magical kingdom of Disneyland, turning its concept of magical perfection on its head. What are your thoughts on Disneyland as a subject now, all those years after you first tackled it?
Jeff Gillette: Disney is a worldwide paradigm of visuals, thought and emotion. It seems impossible to avoid it anywhere on earth, especially as an impressionable young person. I can’t think of any un-jaded person not appreciating the idea of a ‘Magic Kingdom” that they are welcome to enter. But at some point, I think the overall narrative becomes a bit simplistic, Pollyanna, and Didactic; it's then that the Magic wears off.
Disneyland has now gotten bigger in the psyche of the entertainment-seeking masses with its acquisition of Star Wars, which opens up a whole galaxy of material for satire, becoming vulnerable to the Dark Side of the Force
Widewalls: The Disney motifs are juxtaposed with the imagery of settlements, shanties and refugee camps. You traveled extensively and visited many of the similar sites around the world, could you tell us some of your experiences and how these affected your work?
JG: I was in the Peace Corps in Nepal and lived for less than $1/day in a rural shack (the top of a goat barn) with a mud floor and a thatched grass roof without electricity or running water for a year and loved it.
Five years before that, my first trip to Nepal and India was in 1983. I went on a Calcutta City tour, that went through some major slum settlements in-between the tourist sites. I was much more fascinated by the blighted environments than the cultural gems to be found and Third World Slums have been my muse since. The architecture is as visually stunning as the “Combine Paintings” of my favorite Modernist artist, Robert Rauschenberg.
I’ve seen third world shacks evolve from dark hovels, to having a glow of black and white TVs inside them, to having color TVs, to seeing Satellite Dishes sprout from the roofs, and now the slum inhabitants are hanging around outside the shacks (now multi-storied) with their faces buried in phones.
The access to slums has changed too. Since I most often travel alone, I used to just hire a taxi and bop around the "bastis" of Calcutta. Then Slum Tourism came along and it soon became an industry. I’ve done Slum Tours in Delhi, Mumbai, Manila, Rio de Janeiro, Sau Paulo and Detroit. Sometimes I just ask a kid to escort me into slum areas or even wander into them on my own... Lately, I was downtown Los Angeles bicycling around Skid Row for two days. A vagrant snatched my camera from me, and I immediately got surrounded by some pissed-off homeless guys, one even had a mask on! I caught them off guard by offering to buy my camera back. They stopped yelling at me, and we negotiated a price and I got it back for $80. Later, the same guy invited me back to show me around.
Widewalls: What kind of narrative are you looking to convey through these post-apocalyptic scenes?
JG: I’ve read Schopenhauer, Malthus and Nietzsche extensively, so I’ve become quite the Pessimistic Thinker. I used to think that my massive slumscapes were depressing, but I realized, just like in the real world, the existence of such extensive extreme poverty is a testament to mankind’s perseverance and success surviving and perpetuating the species (without any reflection on its quality of life, by the way). The Post-Apocalyptic landscape is not as hopeful as a Slumscape, and frankly, I feel it is an inevitable outcome.
My artist wife Laurie Hassold believes, nature will take us all out naturally. (It's lots of Fun around the Gillette household!) Populations fighting over resources will lead to Nuclear Annihilation, or some nasty antibiotic-resistant Plague will take us out more slowly, not with a bang, but a whimper.
The only thing that will survive will be remnants of the Happiest Place on Earth. In that way I guess, I’m not anti-Disney!
Widewalls: Your work has a lot of socio-political undertones. Which issues concern you the most?
JG: Growing up in the 60s, we heard the Population Explosion was going to cause all sorts of calamities by the turn of the century. Since then, the population has only tripled… Having seen first-hand the biggest Megapolises on this planet points to only one culprit to the most pressing of issues.
All other horrors have one antecedent: People. People having Babies. Those Babies growing up and having Babies etc. which will lead to an Earth-crushing critical mass. I don’t think any social or political system can stand up to that one, unrefutable fact, nor be able to do anything about it effectively.
We are spiraling out of control with accelerated, exponential growth. It is, as Oppenheimer called the creation and the eventual proliferation of the Atom Bomb: “An Organic Necessity.”
In other words, we are (literally) fucking doomed. Sorry…
Widewalls: You were invited by Banksy to participate in Dismaland. How did this collaboration come to be?
JG: Banksy or his people must have seen my work somewhere... Maybe my Los Angeles show Dismayland in 2010? Or online, or in Juxtapoz Magazine? I’m not sure, never got to ask him. I just got an invite on Facebook and they paid for me to come out and show my work in the gallery and used my Minnie Mouse Post-Apocalyptic Landscape as the Dismaland Poster.
My wife and I got there early, so they put us to work making the Mickey Mouse ears that everyone wore... for me it was very appropriate! I feel a lot of gratitude to Banksy for the opportunity he gave me.
Widewalls: Your works are very intricate and complex, revealing a great attention to detail. Could you tell us something about your working process?
JG: I’ve thought about this lately. I have to admit, that being a high school art teacher for the past 28 years has taught ME a lot about art-making and processes with materials. The same critiques I give to my students one-on-one about their artwork, I hear in my own head as I’m grappling with making adjustments to my own work to create convincing, representational imagery.
Another big thing is the work ethic I got from my dad: him always being busy fixing something in the house or garage when he was not working.
Lastly is the perseverance I gained from practicing meditation during an 11-day stint of 10 hours a day in Kathmandu. This trained me to be able to stay still and concentrate for the extended time necessary to make the meticulous details in my work and allow me to go back in a refine more and more until it tightens up to where I want it to be.
Widewalls: What is next for you?
JG: After having a booth at the LA Art Show with Bert Green Fine Art in February, I will be heading to Japan again. I’ll be repairing some of my work of a collector who suffered some damage due to some powerful storms that affected his property last year. Later, some of my work will be in a ‘Yohood’ Culture/Fashion and Art convention in Beijing in the spring.
In June, I plan on returning to Nepal where I lived in the Peace Corps. Hopefully, I will have a chance to do some street art projects in Kathmandu. On the way there, I’m planning on stopping and visiting the folks at Addicted Art Gallery in Singapore who show my work. Not much else on the horizon, but stuff always pops up!
Featured image: Jeff Gillette - Mickey Billboard Plastic Landfill, 2019. All images courtesy Addicted Art Gallery.
By Appointment Only, Singapore