This year is the centenary of Freud’s single, brief visit to the United States in 1909. During his stay Freud made a stop at Coney Island, which was then in its heyday. His notes suggest he found it disappointing and coarse, but the anniversary prompted the tiny Coney Island Museum to invite New York-based artist Zoe Beloff to devise a show commemorating the visit. Beloff’s work has often referenced the history of psychology in multimedia installations that conflate historical fact and fiction. Given access to the archives of the museum, she came up with a group of artifacts—some repurposed, others entirely invented—relating to a purported organization called the Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society. It is a brilliant conceit, and very persuasively executed. Given how seamlessly Beloff merges reality and invention, the show would seem a risky initiative by a historical museum—even one devoted to such a fantastic subject.
According to Beloff, the society was founded in 1926 by one Albert Grass, a fictive amusement park designer, and she has developed elaborate backstories for him and several other members. These unfold in the show with the aid of snapshots and diverse ephemera in vitrines—entirely in the manner of a local historical museum—and are developed further in the substantial catalogue. A series of short silent films with intertitles, supposedly created by members of the society, forms a major component of the show. Typical is The Lonely Chicken Dream, which seems to employ found home-movie footage in black and white, including shots of Coney Island, and is said to have been “authored” by Brooklyn housewife Beverly d’Angelo (named for the actress?) in 1954. In it, d’Angelo dreams of returning to the rides she enjoyed as a child, only to wake to the reality that her husband is cheating on her. Her marriage, the film suggests, is a roller coaster.
One major component of the show relates to Grass’s idea of rebuilding Dreamland (which really did burn down in 1911) as “the first amusement park ever devoted to the elucidation of dreams.” A tabletop maquette of the proposed pavilions shows one representing consciousness, with a revolving head and staring eyes, and another, standing for the libido, taking the form of a prepubescent girl. Beloff displays Grass’s cartoonlike sketches for the park; plans and mock-ups for the attractions, including a bumper car ride illustrating Freud’s concept of the mind; funhouse mirrors labeled “Ego,” “Super-Ego” and “Id”; and Grass’s “correspondence” with Edward Tilyou, a genuine historical figure who managed the Steeplechase Park amusements. Beloff reinvents him as a skeptic who rejected Grass’s ideas as “prurient.”
A spectacularization of the unconscious could no longer be considered the point at Coney Island after the disappearance of the earliest outlandish attractions. This was some time before Beloff’s Grass would have formed his society. Her aim, however, is to imagine what might have arisen to replace the psychic release provided by the old Coney Island rather than to question why the earlier amusements might have lost their purpose.
Photo: View of Zoe Beloff’s exhibition “Dreamland: The Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society and their Circle, 1926-1972,” 2009; at the Coney Island Museum.