IN SEPTEMBER 1909, Sigmund Freud visited Coney Island. Little is known about what the father of psychoanalysis made of New York City’s pleasure ground, though he seemed unimpressed with the United States in general and, after his first visit, never returned
Zoe Beloff: A History of Dreams Remains to be Written
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Serge Charchoune: The Exhibition is Open
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Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh
But artist Zoe Beloff excavates a deep seam of connection between the ideas of Freud and Coney Island’s array of amusement parks, circuses and freak shows, its tawdry, semi-illicit expressions of dreams and desires. Beloff grew up in Scotland, trained at Edinburgh College of Art and moved to New York in 1980 to do an MFA in film at Columbia University.
She has lived in the city ever since, developing an art practice which includes film, historical investigation, drawing and performance. Her Coney Island work – made in 2009, the centenary of Freud’s visit – occupies the entire lower floor of Talbot Rice. Coney Island was in its heyday at the time of Freud’s visit, with three of the world’s first amusement parks. Her photographs, panels, films and artefacts celebrate it, from its early fairground rides to its tawdry waxwork museum.
Her unique take on its history is the Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society, whom she claims to have discovered while browsing through early home movies in a New York fleamarket. Whether real or fictional, they seem plausible enough, a group of enthusiastic amateurs, drawn together by their passion for the ideas of Freud, using early home-movie technology to create films of their dreams, which were then discussed, analysed, and entered in an annual competition. For them, drawn from a mixture of backgrounds, Freud represented a kind of radical freedom – as Coney Island itself did – from the restrictions of early 20th century society.
Their founder, Albert Grass, discovered the ideas of Freud when he was posted to Europe during the First World War, where he also worked as a cameraman. His 1920s home-movie camera is part of the exhibition, as are “restored and presented” films made by members of the society. When Coney Island’s appropriately named Dreamland amusement park burned down in 1911, Grass proposed a new park on the site, “the first amusement park ever devoted to the elucidation of dreams in accordance with the discoveries of Dr Sigmund Freud”. Attractions included the Dome of the Unconscious and the Train of Thought, but centred around Libido, a building shaped like the giant idealised form of a naked child. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he failed to find backers for his plans, but they remain framed in a kind of idealistic innocence, a determination to bring Freudian ideas to the masses packaged as popular entertainment.
Beloff has clearly gone to a lot of trouble – and probably had a lot of fun – “finding” or creating of archives of the Society’s correspondence, Grass’s sketches and scale models for his theme park, and his prototype for a Freud-themed comic book. What is less clear is what she is drawing out from all this. Perhaps she is holding up a mirror to our own fascination – because this is fascinating. Perhaps like Coney Island, its best just to dive in and enjoy. Upstairs, she engages with a more serious chapter of history, the Paris Commune – the three-month period in 1871 when the citizens took over the city, before being brutally, violently crushed. Beloff restaged Brecht’s play, The Days of the Commune, last spring in New York with a cast of academics, activists and performers associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement. A film of the performance – which was made over three months, following the story of the Commune in real-time – forms the centre of the exhibition, surrounded by Beloff’s costumes, props and documentation. Again, it is a substantial body of work, suggesting parallels between past and present, not just the obvious ones, a movement of ordinary people challenging the powerful, but also the more nuanced: the ongoing debate, for example, among revolutionaries about the ethics of protest, violent or nonviolent.
One can guess at the poignancy and energy the project had in New York last year, but this seems to have dissipated somewhat over time and distance. Watching it feels like watching a historical re-enactment rather than a politically relevant statement. A series of sketches done by Beloff during the Occupy protest in the Round Room have more immediacy. Here, the First Aid Tent, the food stop, the people’s library are documented, with the energy of history unfolding as we watch.
Meanwhile, the Georgian Gallery hosts a rare show of work by Russian artist Serge Charchoune, a man who should be a headliner in a discussion of Modernism, but seems to have moved through its history leaving almost no trace. Charchoune was a fully-fledged Dadaist who flirted with Cubism and embraced Purism; mixed Picabia, Ernst, Man Ray and Duchamp; might have been the first to drip paint – 30 years before Jackson Pollock; and conceived monochrome abstracts decades before Ryman and Reinhardt.
Yet he refused to fly the flag for any movement. This body of work stretching from the 1920s to the 60s, curated by the Glasgow-based artist Merlin James, shows a constantly shifting style, abstracts sitting side by side with strange, muted landscapes, symbolist figures rubbing shoulders with geometrics in bright colours. So effective was Charchoune at resisting being pinned down, he also made his work hard for galleries to package, which partially accounts for his obscurity today. “I lie low, and have a lot of freedom”, he once said. He seems to have valued that freedom, but acknowledged it came at a cost.
There is a deftness of line in his work which suggests a confidence in visual experimentation, yet his wilful diversity seems to indicate continual questioning of genres and styles. He may have even revelled in this. Certainly, he seems to have held ideas with a light touch, not confining his expression to painting but working in poetry and music too.
Even after this moderately sized show, we are left in no doubt that James is excavating a fascinating figure from the shadows. Charchoune’s life seems as varied as his art, continually travelling, as reluctant to be rooted physically as he was artistically. In his eighties he was to be found in the Galapagos islands painting the landscape and wildlife. I hope that he and his story will further emerge into a realm of rediscovery.
• Both until 16 February