Whitehot Magazine

Luna Luna: The Forgotten Art Carnival Featuring the Great Art Titans of the ‘80s

Credit: Jeff McLane.

By LITA BARRIE January 22, 2024 

The backstory to Luna Luna: Forgotten Fantasy is like a fairy tale, and begins with the vision of an Austrian multimedia artist, Andre Heller, in the 1970s. He dreamed of an art amusement park, featuring the greatest artists of his era, that would merge high and low art and attract a larger audience by making art more accessible - and fun. He found some vintage art amusements from the 1920s and 1930s (carousels, swings, a merry-go-round, and a Ferris wheel), secured a $500,000 grant from a German magazine, and approached 16 superstar artists to decorate them: Salvador Dali, David Hockney, Joseph Beuys, Roy Lichtenstein and rising stars Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, who have since become superstars. The European artists, many of them Jewish, had lost their childhoods during World War II, so they understood Heller’s dream and got to work, having great fun doing it because they were reliving the childhoods they lost in a traumatic period. The exuberant playfulness in their art process is intoxicating.

More than 30,000 people visited the original Luna Luna in Hamburg in 1987, and it was written up in Life and The New York Times. However, it never found a forever home (Vienna was one city that turned it down), and never went on world tour as planned, even though it was the first art amusement park with an historic art-star cluster. Luna Luna was soon forgotten without ever becoming part of the art historical canon. How could this happen? Sadly, it was held back by litigation and lack of funding. In 2007, Luna Luna was purchased by the Birch Foundation, but they were also plagued by lawsuits, so it remained in the 44 shipping containers that would be stored beside the side of a road in the Texas prairie.

A performer entertains visitors in front of Kenny Scharf’s painted chair swing ride. Luna Luna, Hamburg, Germany, 1987. Photo: © Sabina Sarnitz. Courtesy Luna Luna, LLC.

The trajectory  of Luna Luna suddenly changed in 2022 when a group of art world partners sought investors to buy the extravaganza in its entirety. They pitched their plans to hip-hop superstar Drake, who came to the rescue with his entertainment firm, DreamCrew, and purchased and restored the artworks for $100 million. Miraculously, when they opened the containers, the artworks were in fairly good condition, so they moved Luna Luna to an L.A. studio in preparation for display on a soundstage near the Sixth Street Viaduct in Boyle Heights. 

These days, visitors cannot ride the attractions because they are not up to current safety codes. Instead, they are presented as if they were in a museum, and fitted with timers that activate them into motion with the original commissioned musical compositions by Miles Davis and Philip Glass to make this jubilee a completely sensorial, immersive experience. The exhibition is skillfully curated by Helen Molesworth and curatorial director Lumi Tan, with historical archival footage and photographic documentation. 

Credit: Joshua White

When entering Luna Luna, Heller’s inflatable, walk-through Dream Station is the first artwork we see in the neon-colored extravaganza. Once inside, we observe a painted 1930s chair swing ride, with freestanding sculptures by Kenny Scharf timed to light up and spin. Most of the attractions incorporate music, illuminate or animate in the course of our visit: Keith Haring’s hand-painted carousel and industrially-fabricated tarps where curved creations come alive like toys; Arik Brauer’s face-in-hole painted merry-go-round; and Manfred Deix’s Palace of the Wind façade which has a soundtrack incorporating both violins and farts. We can even watch farting footage from the original theatre in Hamburg where bare bugle bottoms are lined up in front of microphones.

Credit: Joshua White

Next, we walk underneath Sonia Delaunay’s entrance archway with its Luna Luna sign to enter a second cavernous space. At one end, we see a 1920s Ferris wheel painted with Basquiat’s signature motifs: anatomical and musical drawings, words, and a baboon’s ass. We also see Roy Lichtenstein’s exquisite glass pavilion composed of triangular panels. At another end of the space is Heller’s wedding chapel, where we can marry whomever or whatever we like (I married my menagerie) and receive a Polaroid photograph and a marriage certificate that can be voided by ripping it up. A humorous (and practical) addition to this space is Daniel Spoerri’s anti-fascist Crap Chancellery. Using a replica of Nazi headquarters with columns topped with piles of poop, it doubles as a real bathroom for guests and a gallery of digestion. 

Two of the high points in Luna Luna are David Hockney’s beautiful Enchanted Tree and Salvador Dali’s Delidom. In the first room, Hockney’s abstraction of green tree shapes can be entered, and we find ourselves wandering in a circular maze of elongated forms seen in skewered perspectives, set to a soundtrack of a Strauss waltz. In the second room, Dali’s dizzying hot pink mirrored glass is like entering a disorientating funhouse. (Hockney and Dali’s beautiful abstraction pieces can only be entered by guests with VIP Moon passes.) As we leave, we can browse the gift store which has memorabilia, original posters from the first art amusement park in Hamburg, and an impressive reprint by Phaidon of the original hardbound book on Luna Luna.

Credit: Sarah Mathison.

I left on a high, as though I had just experienced a fairy tale that came to life. Everything about the aesthetic experience was magical. Even the backstory of this jubilee has a fairytale quality. There are plans for an extended iteration to tour, as this first stop only contains half of the artworks. It is my wish that the final extended iteration finds its forever home here in Los Angeles - the city of dreams - because it is a more artistic counterbalance to Disney’s larger and more commercial amusement park. After all its trials and tribulations, Luna Luna could live happily-ever-after in the location where art has always been ahead of its time, yet interconnected with the dream machine of Hollywood. There are also plans to bring in a new generation of artists who share the grand vision, so the fairy tale could live on and cultivate intergenerational fun. As Molesworth says, “You can tap into whatever it is in you that you locked up, whether it’s your childhood or sense of adventure or desire to be scared or desire to be bamboozled.” 

Like Disney, Luna Luna has no age barriers and is fun for everybody, which is an antidote to cynical art which takes itself too seriously. Serendipitously, it coincides with the release of Wim Wender’s brilliant documentary, Kiefer, which is a more profound but much heavier response to the childhood trauma of growing up in postwar Germany. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Heller has written that Luna Luna is “a life-saving assertion of the imagination against the sum of what threatens me and causes me despair.” Sounds like good medicine for the troubled wartime we live in now, right? The fantastical artworks in Luna Luna live again, thanks to Drake and his team, which makes this jubilant extravaganza the must-see exhibition of the L.A. art fair season. Luna Luna: Forgotten Fantasy remains on view at Ace Mission Studios, Boyle Heights, Los Angeles from December 15, 2023 through Spring 2024. WM


Lita Barrie

Lita Barrie is a freelance art critic based in Los Angeles. Her writing appears in Hyperallergic, Riot Material, Apricota Journal, Painter’s Table, ArtnowLA, HuffPost, Painter’s Table, Artweek.L.A, art ltd and Art Agenda. In the 90s Barrie wrote for Artspace, Art Issues, Artweek, Visions andVernacular. She was born in New Zealand where she wrote a weekly newspaper art column for the New Zealand National Business Review and contributed to The Listener, Art New Zealand, AGMANZ, ANTIC, Sites and Landfall. She also conducted live interviews with artists for Radio New Zealand’s Access Radio. Barrie has written numerous essays for art gallery and museum catalogs including: Barbara Kruger (National Art Gallery New Zealand) and Roland Reiss ( Cal State University Fullerton). Barrie taught aesthetic philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, Art Center and Otis School of Art and Design. In New Zealand, Barrie was awarded three Queen Elizabeth 11 Arts Council grants and a Harkness grant for art criticism. Her feminist interventions are discussed in The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and an archive of her writing is held in The New Zealand National Library, Te Puna Matauranga Aotearoa.

view all articles from this author