February 18, 2024

Photo Essay: Luna Luna, A Forgotten Fairground Fantasy That Spins Once Again

I love amusement parks. They absolutely fascinate me. 

Blame annual trips to the Great New York State Fair with my dad, the one trip to Marineland of Canada I barely remember, and school trips to Darien Lake (now Six Flags) in Buffalo, New York. 

But what I find absolutely irresistible is an amusement park that was locked away in storage for nearly 40 years (first in Vienna, then Texas)—and then later rediscovered and reassembled. 

Such is the case with Luna Luna, which was exhibited in Hamburg, Germany in Summer 1987 and then packed away in more than 40 shipping containers, possibly never to be seen again. 

Then rapper/singer/actor Drake caught wind of it and joined a consortium of investors to bring the thing back to life—and starting in November 2023, Angelenos have had the chance to experience it for the first time. 

Of course, from today's perspective, it's absolutely bonkers that a Keith Haring-decorated merry-go-round (with a rare self-portrait) even exists...

...much less still runs. 
A contemporary of Basquiat and Haring, Kenny Scharf is one of the few living artists represented at Luna Luna...

...and he posted on Instagram that he was happy to see his ride back after so many years, "even if it’s not exactly how it was before."

Yes, it still spins, though necessarily passenger-less (as all the Luna Luna attractions now are). Its color is a little more yellowy now, thanks to a varnish that had been applied back in '87 in order to protect it.
And at the recreated, reassembled Luna Luna, Scharf's three-dimensional fiberglass figures no longer sit at the top of the swing ride—but rather are now part of the floor displays.

Rough-hewn and unsettling, they're grotesque renditions of Scharf's pop surrealism usually seen in his aerosol art...

...too textured for fantasy, too animated for abstraction, too intimate for the streets.

In 1987, these were the most daring artists of the time—including David Hockney, whose cylindrical forest pavilion Enchanted Tree evoked scenes he'd painted for The Met's 1981 production of Stravinsky’s Triple Bill. It requires a Moon Pass upgrade, however, to experience it from the inside. 

Those with a Moon Pass can also step inside Salvador Dalí's Dalídom and enjoy an infinity room-like setting of the mirrored inside of a geodesic dome. 

Arik Brauer's carousel is a fairytale amusement that also spins at regular intervals at the recreated Luna Luna...

...though the fantastical creatures can no longer be climbed by children (nor anybody else). 

What once evoked horse-human hybrids and butterflies (in a uniquely constructed attraction, not just a repurposed amusement) is now riderless...

...too often static... 

...occasionally spinning without purpose, no faces poking out of the strategically placed holes in the beasts of the circular menagerie.

You can, however, watch a video and listen to the fart symphony at the Manfred Deix-designed façade of the Palace of the Winds, though live farters are no longer present beyond it.

The most exciting part for me was when the lights changed and, in one of the main two rooms, the Basquiat-painted ferris wheel began to spin... the tune of "Tutu," a funky song composed and arranged by Marcus Miller...

...and recorded by Miles Davis in 1986, then licensed for use in Luna Luna (reportedly at Basquiat's insistence).

The 1920s-era, wooden ferris wheel provides an eerie backdrop for the juggling clown and the bowler hat-wearing stilt walker...

...and the other performers who roam about the warehouse-like studio that now houses the reinstalled version of the park, Luna Luna: Forgotten Fantasy

On display today (and through May, at least) is just about half of the original layout—the rest of the artist-designed rides currently undergoing restoration. 

I look forward one day to being able to see the complete thing. 
Unfortunately, we'll probably never be able to enter Roy Lichtenstein's pavilion...

...but paint samples were recreated to try to get closer to its original color.

The aspect I was looking forward to seeing in person the most actually doesn't seem to belong at an amusement park at all—and certainly is not for children. The Mechanical Theater showed Jim Whiting's robotic pelvises and legs engaged in kinetic sex acts (although they simply hang flaccid now, labeled with "Porno Watching Man," "Couple in Bed," "Old Man at Bar," etc.).

Want to see something similar in action? Watch the music video to "Rockit" by Herbie Hancock, which also features Jim Whiting's figures, in the player above.

All of these artists were commissioned by Andre Heller to create these groundbreaking works of art—and today, some of them are considered among the biggest contemporary artists imaginable. So it seems inconceivable that such treasures were nearly forgotten inside shipping containers. 

It wasn't supposed to be that way. Luna Luna was supposed to find a permanent home (perhaps Vienna?) or at least go on tour after leaving Hamburg (maybe to San Diego's Balboa Park?). That's why everything was packed away, from souvenir T-shirts to staff uniforms (now on display in glass cases at the Forgotten Fantasy exhibit).

To visit Luna Luna today is to catch a glimpse of that thing we missed out on nearly 40 years ago—and it carries a bit of the mystique of the lost amusement parks of yore, be it Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica or The Pike in Long Beach or Venice of America or all the Luna Parks that have come and gone all over the world.

André Heller actually tried his hand at creating an artist-driven and -designed amusement park again. In 1995, he began commissioning more artists to contribute to the Kristallwelten theme park at the Swarovski headquarters in his native Austria. Miraculously, it's still open—and its Chamber of Wonders features works by Luna Luna luminaries (Dalí, Haring, Heller) as well as such other contemporary artists as Andy Warhol, Yayoi Kusama, James Turrell, Niki de Saint Phalle, and more.

Luna Luna, however, was the first fairground of its kind—the first art amusement park in the world. 

Being who I am, I find it almost too painful to be there and not be able to hop on the rides, which are now on display as museum pieces. Of course, they're too significant to risk the abuse from public use and exposure to the elements. 

But if all goes to plan, they'll finally head out on that tour that never happened. Some new attractions may be added, too. 

And yet I can't help but wonder: What other treasures are squirreled away somewhere, forgotten, lost, or just given up on?

What else lies in wait for rediscovery?

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