Museum of World Wonders
Coney Island Circus Sideshow
Ladies and gentlemen, you’ll be astounded and bewildered at the out-and-out grit and gumption displayed in a single exhibition of artwork at Coney Island’s Sideshow by the Seashore, as artist Takeshi Yamada endeavors (with ample assistance from the freakshow’s performers), without fear or malice, to break every art-world commandment this side of the Atlantic.
Commandment: Thou shalt mount exhibits of art in galleries, museums, and similar establishments. Despite attempts in recent decades, to remove art from a formal gallery or museum environment, thereby removing artificial barriers created by tradition and convention, and opening up art experiences to a broader public, most artwork (for better or worse) is still displayed in such institutions.
Transgression: Takeshi Yamada’s Museum of World Wonders exhibition is located along the walls and in two vitrines down the sides of a small and confining, ill-lit exit corridor. The corridor is located at the rear of a grimy black box theater where bleacher seats perpetually fill and empty with audience members who have coughed up the admission price of $5.00 to see Coney Island’s Sideshow by the Seashore, the last circus-style freakshow operating in the United States.
Commandment: Thou shalt make art accessible. With membership discounts, free days, first Saturdays, third Fridays, free art tours, and large cafeterias, art institutions attempt to demystify a historically elite establishment.
Transgression: If you aren’t looking for (or aren’t in the know about) the “Strange and Curious Collection of Doctor Yamada,” as described colorfully in a fantastical sideshow banner by painter Marie Roberts, then you’re not going to find it until the Sideshow performers want you to find it. And even if you do, a theatrical velvet rope cordons off access, which more than implies an aura of aloofness.
Commandment: Thou shalt let the public know that they are communing with art. The institution (whatever it may be) provides the art viewer with ample forms of content and context. There are names and titles, benefactors and funders, informative descriptions in brochures and on walls, docents, curators, gallery directors, exhibition catalogues, and gift store memorabilia to remind the viewer at every turn of their sacred dialogue with the artwork.
Transgression: There is beauty in artifice. Little does the motley crowd of Coney Island weekenders cycling into the Sideshow know that after watching sword-swallowing, belly-dancing, snake charming, fire-eating, machete juggling, and other diversions, they will be presented with an exhibition of art. Nor do many realize it even after they have beheld the exhibition with their own eyes. Takeshi Yamada’s solo exhibit is presented as the “11th and final attraction” of the “10-in-one” sideshow. The sideshow barker, who earlier in the show demonstrates how to tenderly hammer a nail up the nasal canal, suggests that audience members intelligent enough to pony up an extra $1.00 on top of the fiver previously spent, will see “The Greatest Sideshow Artifacts the World Has Ever Seen.” Those so inclined are led behind the bleacher seats to the ill-lit corridor. The red-velvet rope is removed and sideshow-goers funnel into the exhibit, where they experience art, seemingly as only another freaky attraction to devour.
Commandment: Thou shalt let the viewer study and ruminate artwork on display. Quiet reflection is encouraged by timed-entry to maintain crowds, strategically placed benches, uncluttered walls and white space, and museum guards ready to give stink-eye (or voice distaste) to anyone daring enough to disturb the peace.
Transgression: The exhibition’s ill-lit corridor is also the egress to the outside world of carnival rides, hot dogs, arcades, bikinis, and other folly. Hungry for escape into the bright sunlight, art viewers funnel past the eleventh attraction in quick succession, pushed along hurriedly by a sideshow freak who would like to seal off and take a break before the show continues for a new group of unsuspecting art-goers. As the audience exits, they truly don’t know what has hit them.
Commandment: The creation of art is serious business. Humor and art are frequent foes. Even when artists are themselves imprinted with a sense of humor and attempt to communicate some form of it in their work, the exhibiting institution frequently scrubs comedic attempts down with words like “absurdist,” “nihilistic,” “dissatisfied,” and “derisive.” But rarely is anything allowed to be just plain funny.
Transgression: The ritualistic build-up to viewing Takeshi Yamada’s artwork lampoons an ongoing cultural fascination with experience and access to rare and exotic objects. Yamada’s work itself is a light-hearted ode to ephemera and curiosa in mankind’s ever-expanding Cabinet of Curiosity. It is also a song to the Sideshow “gaff,” an exhibit of man-made objects meant to confound and delight sideshow audiences.
Exquisite craftsmanship and detail lends each of Yamada’s artifacts the scent of reality, even though they are from a fantastical realm. The Scale of Sea Serpent, Skull of Sea Dragon, Three-Eyed Human Skull, Fossilized Fairy (Latin name: Nympha mixta), Canadian Furry Trout (circa 1780), and portrait of a six-fingered, two-headed alchemist, are mixed with more plausible creations, such as the Japanese Samurai Warrior Mask made of horseshoe crab, a six-fingered glove, scrimshaw on Sperm Whale tooth, and (one mustn’t forget) a shrunken head. The juxtaposition of artifacts lends believability to the more far-flung oddities. In addition, Yamada pays direct homage to his role in Coney Island’s history with faux-creations from the Coney Island Fire of 1911 such as signage from the Coney Island School of Wizardry and the Coney Island Anthropological Institute. The academically detailed artifact labels accompanying each piece add to the exhibit’s tongue-in-cheek ethos, as the labels provide the names, nicknames, Latin names, origins, collection dates, sizes, and full descriptions for each of the artifacts.