Sabrina Tarasoff on “Barbe à Papa”

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Perhaps the most conceptual of treats, cotton candy is a beautiful deception—all surface, textural fluff, and the taste of sweet nothings. Lending its name, en Français, to “Barbe à Papa,” an exhibition curated by Cedric Fauq, it functions as the show’s metonymic brain center: a sentimental icon for the carnival’s sticky, provisional materiality and unstable forms. True to form, the fairy-floss thread is a bit of a ruse, leading to speculative trifles such as: How is an idea spun into substance? How much fluff to expect? How far will the concept go before it collapses on its own structure? Fauq halts the mind’s drift by indexing the show’s fifty-plus artists into five composite categories: “Gravity,” “Feast,” “Carrousel,” “Lanterns,” and “1893,” the year marking the historical debut of the Ferris wheel at the Chicago World’s Fair.

Funfairs, in their explosive candy-coated anarchy, are quintessentially profane spaces, Poptimistic pleasure grounds enticing the “uncultured.” From Fauq’s premise, aligned with the funfair (as opposed to more contained attractions, such as the pleasure garden or the theme park), one might expect a higher degree of the indecorous. Freaky encounters are rare, as are mésalliances between artworks, and many pieces on show remain politely referential. Consider, to that end, Bertille Bak’s Le berceau du chaos (Cradle of Chaos), 2022, a nostalgic, slowed-down carousel that periodically speeds up wildly, or Thomas Liu Le Lann’s Training Part 2: Melograno, 2021, a perfectly prop-like lollipop that appears to have been dropped on the floor: a shiny mishap with no mess. Some works, such as Ericka Beckman’s theme-park photographs of lit-up rides caught in a diurnal blur and spinning with euphoric momentum, are wicked fun. Others remain banal, overproduced, and self-reflexive, with none of the fair’s disorienting momentum. Case in point: Eliza Douglas’s Mickey, 2022, which, despite its nod to the iconic mouse, sparks very little magic.

That art institutions default to bourgeois standards of organization, as vested in the pedagogical reproduction of high culture, makes Fauq’s subject tricky to execute. Thus the internal confusion of the exhibition: a more or less classic group show lost in the distinction between the theme park’s immersiveness and the fun fair’s open-air chaos. This matters, sort of, as it changes the cultural conditions of the experience. To focus on the “vibe” of attractions nevertheless seems like a solid strategy, and some works really lift the mood. Seeing Mathis Collins crawling on the floor at the opening as he set up a barrel organ programmed to play Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre every half hour felt delicious improper, exciting—an illusionistic summoning of Death to dance for us. Inside a control booth draped in a deflated parachute, as if fallen from the sky, Mara Wohnhaas took over role of ride operator in her sculpture performance, Rekommandeur I, 2021, delivering a mind-melting poem using amped-up sound effects familiar to fairground riders. Kevin Desbouis’s installation We Dream More Than You, 2022, includes a set of machines programmed to blow soap bubbles into the exhibition’s atmosphere—a Romantic gesture providing the exhibition’s only true mess: It is mesmerizing to watch children chasing bubbles, visitors slipping on the soap-coated floor, and soap slicking the surface of Lutz Bacher’s cinematic stage-flat masterpiece, The Alps, 2015. Other highlights include spectacle-scene setters, such as Arash Nassiri’s suspended installation TEEEEEHRAN MALEEEEEH MANEEEEEH, 2021; AA Bronson’s fantasyland-esque Oracle booth Cabine (in collaboration with Scott Treleaven), 2008; and Ghislaine Leung’s balloon portals Arches, 2021. Anders Dickson’s tabletop sculptures are a total treat, too—edible, almost—but the real temptation is his cake-shaped piñata, disclosure for a happy ending, 2022, patiently waiting to be smashed.

A funfair should collect moments of contamination, polyphony, and mésalliance, per the great theorist of the carnivalesque Mikhail Bakhtin. He had pointed to the fair’s liberating clashes of social conditions. Miriam Laura Leonardi’s Hypocritical One Percent – Club, 2021, a PCB-paneled portal to the main exhibition space, spells out the work’s title in LED lights. Something about LEDs inspires an instant desire for selfies, never mind the frame of reference. This is the delirium of the fairground at its best: people frenzied into inevitable faux pas, finding release in the guilty pleasure of bad form.

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