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"The Circus as a Parallel Universe:" The Playful Sphere Where Art and Life Come Together


With an excellent archive of images and a unique perspective on art, this book is a treasure trove of eccentricity.

Long ago, the world’s first visual spectacles stirred crowds old and young. Chinoiserie first came to Europe in the 17th century, and ever since then Western culture has been fascinated with fabricating illusions. Even before the circus was an established form of entertainment, people were determined to perform great physical feats that could amaze a crowd, excite them and make them laugh. Fine arts began as magic rituals performed inside a cave or figurines fashioned for symbolic purposes. Before art became art, it was a human necessity.

The exhibition The Circus as a Parallel Universe explores the relationship between visual art and the magic of the circus. A book by the same title has been published to collect an impressive array of images from the exhibition alongside fascinating essays and interviews on the subject. Its pages contain portraits of extraordinary characters as seen from photographer Diane Arbus unique perspective, as well as Anthony Quinn stills taken from Fellini’s La Strada, and some of artist Matthew Barney’s delirious visions. Visually, the book’s 312 pages are solid gold.

Exhibit curators Gerald Matt and Verena Konrad also edited the book, adding thought-provoking text to stunning visual wealth. Interviews with the likes of Peter Blake, famous for his album cover design for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and iconic German filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger round off this gem of the bizarre and carnivalesque.

The exposition opened May 4 through September 2, 2012 in the Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna’s premier contemporary art gallery. The exhibits’ outstanding success is proof that the circus is an art form loved by all. The metaphor of the circus as a parallel universe portrays the sphere of artistic activity as a world apart from reality, where freaks thrive and act out a spectacle of ordinary life. As some of the book’s essays suggest, the world of art, like the circus world, is also turbulent, plagued by inconsistencies and not as cheerful as one might think.

Building on this metaphor, the book weaves together undeniable connections among diverse artistic manifestations. It is a must-have for not only for circus lovers, but for film and visual arts lovers as well.

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