All the fun of the fair: Zoe Beloff’s Dreamland at Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool

Emma Sumner

This Grundy Art Gallery exhibition tells a tale of the Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytical Society – but what’s real, and what is not?

Visitors who enter the Grundy Art Gallery this autumn are immediately confronted with candy coloured walls and display cases crammed with ticket stubs, badges and old fairground signs. Supposedly taken from the Coney Island amusement park, it at first appears to be genuine memorabilia. Yet the pieces are all part of a fictional – if convincing – world created by New York-based artist, Zoe Beloff.

Beloff has gone to enormous lengths to ensure that visitors to the exhibition, called Dreamland, are unsure as to whether they’re looking at genuine historic objects or brand-new artwork. The star of Dreamland is, for example, the Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytical Society and its founder, Albert Grass. Beloff presents Grass as a retired army cameraman who established the society in 1926 to educate members on Freudian dream theory. His back story is convincing, while the setting – at the Grundy itself – lends it weight. This small but perfectly formed Edwardian building on the edge of Blackpool reflects both its seaside heritage and its place in present-day culture; it is a mix of funfair kitsch and contemporary art that perfectly suits Beloff’s imaginary Amateur Psychoanalytical Society.

The exhibition is a series of consciously collected items and convincingly forged letters brought together to form a fully-realised “life” for society members and its founder. Working with film, projection and performance, Beloff sees herself as a “medium between the real and the imaginary”.  At the far side of the exhibition’s first room, for example, a slide show of Coney Island’s World of Wax clicks on every thirty seconds, while a film showing modern day Coney Island shows on the opposite wall. Flicking through bizarre scenes and faces created in wax, it’s hard to believe that anyone ever paid to visit this fairground attraction, but by placing the images within a gallery space, Beloff turns the grotesque figures back into an amusement.

Beloff sees herself as a medium between the real and the imaginary

Dreamland first appeared at the Coney Island Museum in 2009 and has been touring ever since, but for every showing Beloff creates a site-specific version. So here at the Grundy, the artist has taken inspiration from Freud’s visits to Blackpool in 1875 and 1908 – and simultaneously acknowledged British seaside tradition – via a series of childlike documents, scrawled in coloured pencil, that analyse the use of sexual innuendos in “saucy seaside” postcards. Elsewhere, a selection of films runs (from the Society’s annual dream film competition, Beloff would have us believe). In front of the screens, two suitably placed deck chairs act as gallery seating, but with three films running at the same time it’s a bombardment of noise and images, perhaps in homage to another British seaside tradition, the Punch and Judy show.

The main focus of the exhibition is a model of Grass’ “Dreamland” itself, a theme park designed to illustrate Freud’s theory of dream formation. We know by this point that Grass has been made up by the artist, and Dreamland too, yet the model and surrounding sketches are so convincingly detailed that for a moment it is hard to work out where Beloff ends and Grass begins. Fact and fiction blur against the neon lights and gaudy paints of the funfair, and much like the fairground itself, Dreamland is an exhibition where nothing is to be taken at face value.

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