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HELL 2023072 3X Afresh
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Sophie von Hellermann, 3x Afresh (2023).
Courtesy the artist and Pilar Corrias

Last day
in dreamland

Last Day in Dreamland is one of a televised trilogy of plays broadcast on the BBC in 1959. It is set in a seaside amusement arcade, an environment that represents the commercial degradation of popular taste given name by John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger and the subsequent period, known as “Anger and After,” that characterised British drama of the late 1950s. Last Day in Dreamland, and that period in general, is an early example of the growing recognition of dilapidation within the UK’s fairs, festivals, attractions and amusements – a society in miniature going wrong.

The fairground has often been called upon in literature to represent something of life’s frenetic ecstasy and inexorable decay, but the immersive entertainment experience appears to have taken up the role of providing a site for the shared public pleasure that fairground attractions once promised. Whether on the road or permanently stationed, the carnival offers overloaded immersion in sensory experience. It’s giddying, with an inbuilt sensual memory that can be heightened by a nostalgic link to the freedom of childish play. “You can’t buy a thrill”, Steely Dan claimed in 1972, but the urge to commodify experience, reaction and emotion persists.

Artists have looked to the machinery of the fairground to invite a kind of wrong-sizeness: miniature trains, steel horses, tiny bumper cars. The Merry-Go-World or Begat By Chance and The Wonder Horse Trigger, from 1992, was one of the last tableaux made by Edward and Nancy Kienholz, artists known for their interrogations of the human condition – society’s inexorable failures of racism, misogyny, war, economic victimisation, political corruption, religious bankruptcy and the power of mass media. Appearing as a richly detailed carousel, The Merry-Go-World is accompanied by music and flashing lights, and circled by brightly coloured animal figures. The viewer is invited to spin a segmented wheel of fortune and enter the tableau’s dark inner chamber, only to be immersed in one of eight “identities” representing a span of cultural and socioeconomic realities. In this literal slicing of the social pie, the artists determined that “if you divided the world into eighths by monetary considerations, you would end up with one section wealthy, two parts middle-class and five sections poor or extremely poor.” Each character of the carousel represents the fortunes of the individuals in the tableau. Just beneath the charming kaleidoscopic details, noisy gaiety and sense of play lies a critical meditation on self-awareness and personal responsibility. The work asks you to recognise your own randomly-allocated place in a world governed equally by miracle and injustice.

 

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Edward & Nancy Reddin Kienholz, The Merry-Go-World or Begat By Chance and the Wonder Horse Trigger (1988-1992). © Estate of Nancy Reddin Kienholz. Courtesy of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA

Charles Ray’s Revolution Counter-Revolution (1990) stages a manipulation of one’s concept of art-world reality. For decades, carousels have been admired for their detailed artisanship and aesthetic beauty, and here, the artist builds the ultimate amusement ride – only, his carousel is designed so that its platform spins in one direction, while the horses travel very slowly in the opposite direction. The symbol is subverted from one of onwards progression into one of futility. Its literal revolution is contradicted by counter-revolution. As Russell Ferguson and Stephanie Emerson write in their book on the artist, “Ray forces us to reflect on an apprehension of the strangeness in the familiar that is the hallmark of his art … the simple becomes complex; the obvious becomes mysterious; the closed becomes open-ended; the literal becomes metaphorical.”

Carsten Höller also makes sculpture of the cold stimulation of funfair structure. Looking to social spaces outside the museum, Höller created Amusement Park (2006), a collection of five large funfair rides made of a series of physically ambitious rides such as his pre-existing Mirror Carousel, and added in twisters, to be shown at MASS MoCA. The ride looks ordinary – garish, brightly illuminated – but it moves at a barely perceptible speed. The near-static velocity creates a kind of drag, the promise of release with none of the payoff.

Sturtevant’s House of Horrors (2010), one of her last exhibited works, was an operational ghost train that carried visitors through an intricate labyrinth built in the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris. The horrors were variously familiar to funfair aesthetics (Frankenstein’s monster) and not (mannequins in the poses of tortured figures at Abu Ghraib prison). A cheap Madame Tussauds-like thrill grabbed the visitor’s attention through shock and awe, and the physicality of veering around sharp corners, cyan-tinted lights flashing to reveal figures in the dark, transformed this ominous amusement-park tunnel into a parallel of both art experience and funfair schlock horror.

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Carsten Höller, Amusement Park, (2006).
Photograph by Attilio Maranzano. Courtesy the artist

Sophie von Hellermann has described the process of her paintings as “projections” that must be quickly and deftly applied; they are “an idea projected from my mind and executed quickly”. Functioning like the opposite of entertainment companies who use well-known paintings to ethereal (so-called immersive) effect, she compresses moments of movement into the static. In a solo booth with Pilar Corrias at Frieze London 2023, von Hellermann found herself in a strangely apt setting. In a single morning before the fair opened, the German-born artist (whose studio is based in Margate), took to the walls of the booth, filling white surfaces with colourful brushy swathes erected atop a specially designed carpet, a backdrop for a series of nine paintings inspired by Dreamland, the century-old amusement park in Margate. Paintings, dotted with people riding Ferris wheels, swings and enjoying charms of the seaside town, convey the artist’s characteristic ethereal lightness and offer hints of von Hellermann’s historical inspirations, including Turner’s watery styles – another artist enchanted by Margate’s seaside charm.

 

HELL 2023089 Unguarded Moment

Sophie von Hellermann, Unguarded Moment (2023).
Courtesy the artist and Pilar Corrias

Mark Leckey also tackled both Margate’s beach and its infamous promenade fairground. He said of his recent group show, In The Offing (2023), that “when planning the exhibition’s structure, I likened it to a fairground dark ride, travelling through a loop of changing videos, sounds and lights”, which builds to a pervasive mood of dread illuminating the exhibition’s conjuring of class and capital. Looking out to sea is a characteristically seaside activity but one that, Leckey reminds us, is “quite anxiety-inducing.” His work consistently bridges technology and pop culture to explore memory, nostalgia and class, and his video DAZZLEDDARK exists in the classic fairground space where kitsch shades into horror. A toy unicorn and pony sit next to each other on Margate beach; the video begins to spin vertiginously. Dawn finds the toys lying on the beach, evacuated of life. “It’s always been between the bright lights of the amusement park and going to the edge of the sea at night, and looking out into the abyss,” Leckey says of his experience of living in Margate. “Now, that kind of anxiety, that sense of being at the seaside and recognising the fairground behind you, with all its promise of pleasure and joy, is a threat to that sea. A fairground ride melts glaciers. Pleasures that are so corrosive and destructive.” As Frieze put it, “these cloying, hauntological motifs” of the seaside fairground gain an additional and disturbing resonance in the context of climate collapse.

If contemporary art and amusement parks have much to say to each other, it might just be this, as Jack Skelley writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books: “in our post-structuralist, intertextual age, the theme park and art industries have separately evolved the mechanisms of ‘amusement’, overlapping in the concept of the interactive art installation.” Artists singling out funfair events for scrutiny bring into focus the need for reflection, albeit in a hall of mirrors – showcasing vanity to the point of destruction, short-sightedness in the shadow of a tsunami of information, and the way the frenetic sugar high of consumption slides into the hangover of annihilation. The objects and structures of the fairground are imbued with the vibes of cultural memory, and return our wonky gaze, with a shrill thrill of warning. ◉

Mark Leckey Image 5
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Mark Leckey, DAZZLEDDARK (2023). Courtesy Cabinet, London, Galerie Buchholz Berlin/Cologne/New York and Gladstone Gallery, New York. © Mark Leckey