Culture

Sex and the Carnival: What the Museum of Sex Misses About the Erotic History of the Fairground

"Funland," an exhibit about the sexual subtext of carnivals, is heavy on nudity but light on substance.

"Jump for Joy," one of the attractions at MoSex's "Funland" exhibit.

If you walk up the stairs of the Museum of Sex, past the gift shop stocked with latex masks, herbal aphrodisiacs and condoms of every imaginable color and flavor, you’ll enter a red-lit room strung with strands of twinkling Christmas lights. Loud, bass-driven music punctuated by moans pulsates through the speakers, and a fog machine emits wisps of white smoke into the air.

Sensory overload is an integral part of “Funland,” the special exhibit currently on view at New York City's MoSex that explores the intersection of the carnal and the carnivalesque. As the promotional text puts it, viewers are supposed to take advantage of the immersive environment to “contemplate the sexual subtext of carnivals.” Yet the exhibit is entirely devoid of subtext, subtlety or innuendo. Instead of exploring the historical context of the fairground as a site where taboo behaviors could be explored—where the sexual was couched in the unusual and the “foreign”—“Funland” offers a playful, explicit, but fundamentally shallow introduction to this multilayered subject.

Designed by London-based conceptual artists Sam Bombas and Harry Parr, the exhibit is centered around five reimagined fairground games. These include the "Tunnel of Love,” a dissociating mirror maze that eventually leads you to an odd lumpy wax model of a woman’s G-spot; “Foreplay Derby,” a version of skeeball where players race golden penises to the finish line; and “Grope Mountain,” a climbing wall made up of life-size sculptures of certain human body parts (an open mouth, breasts, phalluses, and the like). The main event, “Jump for Joy,” is a bouncy castle composed of enormous plastic breasts that is, according to the wall text, supposed to “increase awareness of the body and to create the thrilling possibility of physical contact between strangers.”

These snippets of text, which provide the only framework for the attractions on display, seem to be an afterthought, and few of the visitors walking through the exhibit on a recent Thursday afternoon were paying them any attention. If the curators intended the games as a silly, lighthearted way to loosen visitors up and encourage them to participate in the interactive environment they created, they succeeded. But it seems like a stretch to think that jumping around in a cube of inflatable boobs is going to provoke any increased awareness of the body, or any meaningful contemplation of the subject matter at hand.

The one shining point of the exhibit is a reel of silent film footage of British fairs compiled in collaboration with the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield in England. Here, we see concrete evidence of the carnival as a classless, bacchanalian space where social norms no longer applied. As the wall text reads, “In its pre-industrial days, the fairground was viewed as a venue for the pursuit of pleasure—a carnival in which all aspects of society could mingle and participate in a multitude of vices and experiences.”

In one clip, a couple clings to each other on a rollercoaster, the girl shrieking with fear as the boy holds her close and laughs. “American Strip Tease” features men (and a few of their girlfriends) lining up to peer at nude women standing stock-still behind curtained booths. The most strikingly explicit footage, for its time, is a DIY porn film of a ringmaster cavorting with a naked showgirl in the carnival grass.

These images vividly evoke the sexual undertones of the fairground. In an era when premarital sex was frowned upon and social mores were stricter, the carnival was a site of excitement and intimacy, adrenaline and pleasure. 

As Kyle Palazzolo, one of the two gregarious, red-caped ushers assigned to guide guests around the exhibit, said, “Carnivals have always been an escape from the restraints of the regular world. Even the word carnival is linked to the word carnal—it refers to base desires, our animalistic nature.” (“Carnival” comes from the Latin words carne vale, meaning “farewell to the flesh;” it originally referred to the celebratory day of feasting and celebration before the Catholic season of Lent began.)

Unfortunately, "Funland" devotes little attention to the historical background or redeeming social value of the sideshow. As A.W. Stencell points out in “Girl Show,” a book on traveling adult entertainment, carnivals “provided white America with a grand opportunity for a subliminal journey into the recesses of its own repressed desires and fantasies.” But there is no information on the burlesque shows or sexploitation films that were commonly found at rural carnivals in ‘30s and ‘40s America. There is no exploration of how the showrunners used the female dancers as sexually available, mute props for the pleasure of their male audience. The fascinating, grotesque history of how carnivals exalted “low” culture, reinforced the concept of the Other as exotic and desirable, and played on racial stereotypes to lure curious customers to burlesque shows is left unexamined.

It’s not that “Funland” isn’t fun. It just seems like a missed opportunity to explore genuinely interesting, complicated material. The other museum exhibits, including a permanent display about animal sex and a temporary exhibit on ‘70s porn star Linda Lovelace, treat their subjects with gravity, offering almost dry, educational descriptions of bonobo mating patterns and Lovelace’s storied career. But in the era of YouPorn and celebrity sex tapes, “Funland”’s goofy attractions neither scandalize nor inform. If the premise of the Museum of Sex is that sex is worth learning about in an educational context, “Funland” undermines that mission. 

Allegra Kirkland is AlterNet's associate managing editor. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Salon, Daily Serving and The Nation.

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