Drake helped rescue an art theme park. It should belong to the world.

LOS ANGELES — As you would expect at an amusement park, there is a cacophony of noise and music at Luna Luna, a 1987 carnival of art that has been partially revived in an old warehouse on the gritty edge of the city’s downtown arts district. Inside a brightly painted pavilion designed by David Hockney, the Berlin Philharmonic is playing a Strauss waltz, while nearby Philip Glass is wafting through the cavernous interior space. There are snippets of Beethoven in the air, and a song by Miles Davis emanates from a Ferris wheel covered in designs by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

End of carousel

The waltzes make the darkened space feel as if it is spinning in a circle, while the Philip Glass suggests motion constantly rising yet never ascending. Everything at Luna Luna, billed as “the world’s first art amusement park,” is magical, everything is fake, it’s a bit tawdry and shabby but it twinkles, just like the circus, miniature golf, fun fairs on a summer’s night and Las Vegas.

The original Luna Luna was created by André Heller, an Austrian artist, poet and impresario born in 1947, who enlisted more than 30 artists, including at least a dozen marquee names, to contribute rides, attractions, installations and pavilions to an outdoor carnival staged in Hamburg just before the end of the Cold War. It was a success with audiences, but took place mostly off the critical radar. Despite talk of restaging it in Vienna and San Diego’s Balboa Park, when the debut summer in Germany was over, Luna Luna was packed away and eventually forgotten.

Stored for decades in shipping containers left moldering in Texas, Luna Luna was purchased and partially restored by an entrepreneurial team that includes the mega-rich rapper Drake. Of the some 30 original attractions created by artists, 17 have been refurbished, and there is hope that more of them can be added to the spectacle for later iterations. It’s expensive: Tickets run close to $50 for peak hours and as much as $85 if you want the VIP “Moon Pass,” which allows admission to Salvador Dalí’s mirrored dome structure, a glass maze decorated by Roy Lichtenstein and the Hockney folly.

None of the rides, including Keith Haring’s painted carousel, Kenny Scharf’s flying chairs or the Basquiat Ferris wheel, are open to ride as they were in 1987, alas. Still, the whole thing exudes an energy of genuine fun and naughtiness that is a rarity in the art world, and the larger cultural sector, too. It’s also rare to see a collaborative project in which dozens of artists contributed to a larger, atmospheric whole without any one creator being the star of the show.

“André gave everyone a lot of freedom in terms of what subjects to pursue,” says Lumi Tan, the curatorial director of the revival project. The artists who participated not only spanned a wide age range, but came from different countries, cultures and political contexts. Sonia Delaunay (whose brightly colored abstract entrance gate is included in the current exhibition) and Erté (who designed a theater facade not on view) were both born in the 19th century. Other artists, like Joseph Beuys, who scribbled out a quasi-Marxist manifesto, and Dalí, had been born early enough in the 20th century to know the full enormity of Nazism, fascism and the Second World War. Others, like Haring, had not only lived their whole lives to that point during the Cold War, but were facing the excruciating carnage of the AIDS crisis, to which he succumbed in 1990.

Despite that range of backgrounds, there is a common sense of desperate fun underlying the different projects. Although the Cold War would soon be over, in 1987 it seemed a permanent affliction. The German and Austrian artists were also grappling with entrenched amnesia when it came to social complicity in the genocide and destruction of the Hitler years. American culture, saturated with hollow nostalgia, consumerism and the militarism of the Reagan administration, seemed a dead end for Europeans looking for an alternative to the political malaise of the late 1980s.

So, why not throw a party, a manic, crazy, dreamlike flight from reality into the pleasures of the body, transgression and forgetting? The Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, whose works began circulating in the West in the 1960s, offered a theory of the carnivalesque as a mode of human experience, with the power to subvert entrenched political, social and religious hierarchies (at least temporarily). And the aesthetic of the circus — captivating, grotesque and delightfully retro — had long precedent in the arts, as well, from Alexander Calder’s miniature circus models to the life-as-circus absurdism of the films of Federico Fellini.

Of course, this was escapism and during times of war, plague or political tyranny escapism has a different ethical value and purpose than it does as a merely reflexive response to the ordinary vicissitudes of life. The value of Luna Luna today isn’t so much in the art on display, which is often mere decoration on the outside of conventional circus equipment. Rather, the resuscitated amusement park is a period piece, capturing the spirit and emotions of a time artists still believed in the idea of revolution. It was a sad, nervous, fraught age, in which apocalypse felt imminent yet avoidable, as opposed to our current, nervous, fraught age, in which the march to apocalypse feels incremental and inevitable.

The revolution inherent in Luna Luna was both physical — rides that turn, wheels that rotate — and ideological. Among Heller’s contribution to his amusement park was a marriage booth, in which “anyone and everyone can marry what and whom they want.” Dalí’s Dalí Dome is an enclosure full of mirrors, replicating and fracturing reality into multiple perspectives. At another booth, dubbed the Palace of the Winds, classical music was parodied with a chorus of live flatulence.

It is endearing, and it is silly, and of course not much was really revolutionized. Artists like Nam June Paik had been working with technology and video for decades, and Paik’s 1984 televised extravaganza “Good Morning, Mr. Orwell,” offered up an international circuslike entertainment across three continents. But for the artists of Luna Luna, the summit of technology is some old-fashioned animatronic displays. Even the progress of sexual and bodily liberation is now being turned back in democratic and autocratic states alike. Much of the work commissioned by Heller would look naive and shabby today, more like the sets and costumes for a high school musical than the sort of thing that is marketed to billionaires at international art fairs.

But the relative simplicity of the art, its eager entertainment appeal, only underscores the sense that it emerged from a moment of rare hopefulness. The artists who took the project most seriously wanted an audience: They wanted to create a series of small encounters with innumerable anonymous and random visitors that would, in the aggregate, transform society for the better. They wanted to lessen the burden of life.

It’s a bit of a mystery why Luna Luna wasn’t more famous, why it disappeared so quickly and made relatively little impact on the discourse of art history. The date, 1987, was on the eve of some of the most momentous changes in world history. The aftermath of that change wasn’t utopia, or liberation, or genuine revolution, but a chaotic age of cynical retrenchment and new forms of technologically enhanced repression. No one would remember a band playing “Nearer My God to Thee” on the deck of the Titanic if the ship hadn’t actually sank, but merely muddled on through the icebergs.

Still, Luna Luna deserves wider renown, more visitors and new, nonprofit management. The last of these is critical. It costs too much to visit, which subverts the entire purpose of the park. The businessmen who revived it have done a public service. They can now do an even more substantial service by donating it, with a large endowment, to a public institution that can preserve it as an essential historical, cultural and artistic artifact.

Luna Luna: Forgotten Fantasy is on view in Los Angeles through May 12. www.lunaluna.com.


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