Sword-swallowers, fire-eaters, art critics, magicians and graduate students met under the same tent at the Yale School of Art last night.
The School of Art opened its 2015 season with the exhibition “Side Show,” a mixture of authentic sideshow artifacts and the work of contemporary artists interested in carnival culture. The installation, which opened last night, featured over 30 artists, with items on loan from various private collections and from the Yale Medical School Library and Yale University Art Gallery. The show focused on those marginalized by society because of a physical disability, a deformity or a bizarre talent. Magician Todd Robbins, who lent several of his pieces to the exhibition, noted the outlandish talent present in many traditional side show performances.
“It’s like stepping into a netherworld when you go into a side show,” Robbins said. “You see strange and unusual people doing remarkable things — there’s so much character there.”
One piece that Robbins contributed to the exhibit is called the “Feejee Mermaid,” one of 10 replicas that were made by sewing together the head and torso of a taxidermied monkey with the tail of a fish. Works by American photographer Diane Argus, painter and printmaker Otto Dix and cult-film director John Waters were also featured in the exhibition.
The show was curated by Director of Undergraduate Studies in Art Lisa Kereszi ART ’00. Kereszi said that while she does not have any previous experience working with sideshows, much of her photographic work deals with escapism, fantasy and recreational spaces.
Kereszi said the popularity of sideshows comes from the notion that when disabled individuals are put on a stage the public has unspoken permission to stare at them. She noted that such behavior is not socially acceptable while walking down the street.
Kereszi said she thinks that “Side Show” is in many ways itself a sideshow. The exhibit’s location in the School of Art’s 32 Edgewood Ave. Gallery makes it out of the way for most Yale students.
“In a way [students] are leaving the circus of New Haven and Yale and coming into the side show,” said Kereszi. She added that she thinks the arcane, provocative and often explicit subject of the show will attract a crowd of visitors very different from the kind the gallery normally receives. Associate Dean of the Yale School of Art Sam Messer said he hoped both the show and renowned artist-magician Ricky Jay’s lecture on Tuesday would foster curiosity and provoke questions about normality and social progress. Messer himself lent two items to the show, including a taxidermied two-headed calf.
Visitors expressed appreciation for the uniqueness of the show. Sam Davis ART ’16 said he felt the show effectively brought together contemporary art with historical objects around the theme of sideshows.
Robbins explained that although the sideshow — once a minor accompaniment to many travelling circuses and carnivals — has since been replaced by television and the internet, all of these mediums serve to break the boredom of everyday life. He added that he thinks sideshows have a universal appeal because of how mysterious and dangerous they often appear to audiences.
“It’s a wild place filled with strange people,” Robbins said.
“Side Show” runs through March 20.
Correction, Jan. 14: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the number of artists featured in “Side Show.”