Thursday, August 20, 2009

Zoe Beloff

Yesterday, I published a post on Zoe Beloff's "Dreamland" exhibit at the Coney Island Museum. Today, I follow up with an interview with the artist. (On 8/29 at 4:30, attend a discussion with Beloff at the Coney Island Museum.)

In the book that accompanies the show, you say you have a long-standing fascination with Freud and Coney. How do you see the two going together?

In many ways the entrepreneurs of Coney Island and the father of psychoanalysis were worlds apart. The amusement park owners and designers in Coney Island aimed to exploit or tap into the fears, desires, and lusts of the public for commercial gain. The fantastic rides and attractions of Dreamland, Luna Park, and Steeplechase clearly did this. From the Tunnel of Love, to the Insanitarium and Blow Hole Theater to Hellgate and Creation, even their names are richly evocative of primal urges repressed in daily life. Attractions like the Freak Show or “Burlesque by the Beach” continue this tradition.

Freud, on the other hand, was one of the great discoverers of what we call the unconscious. His goal was therapeutic--by helping people understand their inner lives, he aimed to cure their neuroses. I myself am interested in attempts to graphically manifest the unconscious. I see my project in a psychoanalytic light, as a way to make manifest the dreams and desires of several generations of New Yorkers who lived, worked, or played in Coney Island.

photo: Brad Paris

You clearly have a love for the found object. What it is about other people’s lost images and ephemera that inspires you?

I think of myself as someone who creates a dialog with the past through these things. To come back to psychoanalysis, long before I started this project, I collected old home movies. I see them a little like Freud understood dreams, jokes, and slips of the tongue—as an avenue into the unconscious. I think amateur movies often say much more than their makers ever intended and I want to bring that to light.

My interpretation is necessarily shaped by the fact that photographs and films have their own integrity. They speak. On the other hand, because so much is lost and unknown, they allow me a space to dream. Between the object and my interpretation is always, by necessity, a void. And in that void, I want the viewer to ask questions: Was that person really who I say they were? Did they have those thoughts and feelings? I hope people will ask themselves how much we can really know of others through the remains of their lives, through images and objects, cast off, lost and forgotten.

My husband, Eric, is always worried that I will be attacked by some stranger who has wandered into my exhibition and recognized a relative and feel that I have horribly misrepresented them: “My great aunt Mary was never a member of any psychoanalytic society, she was a church-going lady!”

photo: Brad Paris

I’d love to see Mr. Grass’ vision of Dreamland constructed as part of the future Coney. Do you think it is more or less possible in today’s New York than it was in Mr. Grass’ time?

Sadly, I don’t think Mr. Grass’ Freudian Dreamland is any more possible now than it was in 1930, much as I would love to see a 50-foot-high “Libido” pavilion in the form of a naked prepubescent girl, looking out to sea. Grass failed because he couldn’t attract capital. In some ways our culture is more repressed than it was in Grass’ day. Remember that the Fleisher Brothers’ marvelous Betty Boop, the very essence of Brooklyn’s libido, was ultimately done in by Walt Disney’s Snow White. Walt was both anti-Semitic and deeply puritanical (read family values) and it was his culture that triumphed. Grass didn’t stand a chance.

To my mind, the closest thing that came to be realized along the lines of Grass’ vision was Dali’s “Dream of Venus” at the 1939 World’s Fair. Whether Dali knew of Grass’ plan is of course an unanswered question.

Dali actually created his pavilion for the Amusement Zone of the Fair. I think it was the most amazing thing he ever did and it was here he found his true calling as a designer of amusements. It was weird, beautiful, funny, and very racy, with topless young women, “The Liquid Ladies,” swimming around in giant tanks in a surreal underwater landscape. But it was not cheap. Julian Levy, his gallery owner in New York, had to work very hard to find private sponsorship. He finally got money from a rubber manufacture in Pittsburgh who kept trying to persuade Dali to make all the women wear rubber mermaid tails.

photo: courtesy of Zoe Beloff

With all the many designs for a future Coney, what would you most like to see in its redevelopment? What is your “Dreamland”?

I think it is important to remember that the great amusement parks of Coney Island were for-profit ventures funded by major capitalists of the day. To my mind what made them so wonderful was that there were no road maps, so the designers were free to dream up the most fantastic structures, which were in many ways an embryonic version of the skyscrapers of Manhattan (Rem Koolhaas in his book “Delirious New York” describes this well).

However, today we live in an age of transnational corporations where everything is standardized. So what I, and many people, fear is that desperately needed renewal will bring with it the drabbest of corporate culture. As a small example, there used to be a wonderful old candy store at the entrance to the Stillwell Avenue subway. It had all kinds of quirky concoctions. My favorite was chocolate-covered frozen bananas. After the subway station was rebuilt it was replaced by a Dunkin Donuts.

I would like to see the City thinking much bigger. I wrote letters to my elected representatives suggesting, for example, that they hire a major architect or artist to design some great visionary amusement park rides. Koolhaas himself would be an excellent candidate. Something like this would make Coney Island once more an essential tourist destination, especially for the international art scene. It would be great if they could take a ferry to Coney Island (just like one could in 1900) to see something amazing.

It would, I think, generate all kinds of business in Coney Island, from high-end seafood restaurants on the boardwalk to freak shows and other more visceral attractions. Low and high culture should be all mixed up, just the way it was a hundred years ago when Coney Island hosted visiting dignitaries and poor people who could enjoy a hot dog for a nickel.

photo: courtesy of Zoe Beloff

At the end of your book you include two photos of the Trumps surveying their parcel of Coney. The photos stand out because they are not part of the psychoanalytic society project. What are you saying to readers with the inclusion of these photos?

I specifically chose to put this picture next to the acknowledgments page. It was meant as a big “No thanks to…” or rather if you read the caption, “thanks to Fred Trump, Steeplechase Park was destroyed.” The weird thing is that Fred is wearing a large necktie with big polka dots. It makes him look like a clown. So here is this “clown” destroying the “Palace of Fun.” Psychoanalytically, I thought it was interesting.

Since launching your project, have you found additional materials from the Society? Do you think more Dream Films will ever turn up?

Yes, I am working on additional material. After it became clear in the in the late 1930’s that his Dreamland Amusement Park would not be built, Albert Grass tried a new way of fusing his love of psychoanalysis and popular culture, another venture. I will be publishing this new work in an issue of Cabinet Magazine that will come out next year, probably the spring.


EV Grieve said...

I may have said this before, but thanks for all your Coney Island coverage. I'm particularly fascinated by the "Dreamland" exhibit.

And she nailed it here:

"However, today we live in an age of transnational corporations where everything is standardized. So what I, and many people, fear is that desperately needed renewal will bring with it the drabbest of corporate culture."

Anonymous said...

The new Coney Island will just be another corporate franchised chain mall with every store that already exist in Time Square.

WHY, some tell me WHY, is this interesting? Bloomberg: Why is cloning so fascinating to you?

What happened to uniqueness and originality?


Damn it. Damn this new Coney Island. I know it will be a corporate, cold, cloned, boring disaster with glass bullshit right and left. Bloomberg is OBSESSED WITH GLASS! What is wrong with this lunatic?

Anonymous said...

A good example of corporate takeover is the end of the movie "Casino" with Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesce.

When the corporations bought out Las Vegas and turned into a giant frat house party for middle America people. Gone are the days of top notch service and originality.

JakeGould said...

The problem is the cost of real estate in NYC makes it too expensive for folks to just open a store to just open a store.

For example, I collect some vintage Japanese toys. Many of the first ones I got were from a shop that used to exist on Bleecker Street. The owner of that store opened his store when someone suggested that instead of getting a bigger apartment, he should just open a shop. So the store was not a "business plan" but an extension of a life and passion.

So in my case, if rents were lower and I could score a small space I'd happily open a shop similar to that. But nowadays, if you're paying $5,000+ (at least) in retail rent, you had better be moving merchandise.

Also add another factor: Online shopping. I know my UPS guy as well as I used to know some local store owners.

I'm not too sure Bloomberg can be blamed for everything, but he can be blamed for dismissing the concerns of folks who live here and still love this city.

Will say this: Someone somwhere needs to spearhead the concept of building small 2-3 story brick buildings with a storefront on the ground floor like they did in the past. Do that in economically depressed areas, encourage family ownership and store ownership and watch the neighborhoods come back to life.

Coney would be perfect for this since that is what it has been for years. Just needs a new paint job and new building stock.

sarah ziebell said...

thanks for your article about the exhibit + this wonderful interview with zoe!