An Escape From Dreams

An Escape From Dreams

A new exhibition at Rosphoto looks at amusement parks around the world and finds a melancholic poetry.

Published: May 8, 2013 (Issue # 1758)

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The Jaime Duque Park in Colombia aims to bring some of the wonders of the world to a forgotten part of Colombia.

The trees are barren, the roads dusty, the soil dry and amusement park attractions worn out in the images that Dutch photographer Anoek Steketee and writer Eefie Blankevoort have brought together in a display with the escapist title “Dream City.”

Now on view at the Rosphoto exhibition center until June 16, the exhibition is a thrilling account of a journey through amusement parks in downtrodden areas of Iraq, Rwanda, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Colombia, Indonesia, China, Turkmenistan and the USA.

One look at the faces of the people who inhabit these photos, and their shared emotional weariness becomes apparent: wrinkles are severe, smiles slight, lips pursed and eyes filled with deep sadness. The subjects live thousands of miles away from each other, yet the images are united by their shared “middle of nowhere” feel.

The project’s curators have further enhanced this sense of a collective community by juxtaposing the images: Rwandese photographs hang side-by-side with those from China, and Colombian alongside Palestinian, emphasizing the universal theme — the need for a moment of joy, whatever the circumstances.

Entertainment often becomes a form of escapism, especially if hardship lingers and reality is difficult to face.

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A forlorn corner of Kigali City Park in the Republic of Rwanda.

Yet the visitors to these amusement parks, who were born in war-torn, poverty-stricken and far-flung places, appear to take a trip to these improvised dream lands as a hard-earned bit of fun, where they value every moment.

The Jaime Duque Park in Colombia, for example, was founded by a former pilot who said that his goal was to brighten the lives of his countrymen and bring the wonders of the world closer to where they lived.

While the theme is one of fun and entertainment, the exhibition itself is a sobering experience. None of the images on display show prosperity. Even the generosity of nature — be it in China, Colombia or Israel — is suppressed by the angles chosen by the photographers, while many images contain ominous overtones of the oppressive forces of authority.

One of the exhibition’s most striking images is the tall, bright Space Gun amusement park attraction that looms out of the woods in Iraq’s Dream Land park in the town of Duhok, near the border with Turkey and Syria. This lone tower appears stunningly alien in the somewhat abandoned wooded landscape, and it is rather hard to brush off the chilling echo of war that reverberates from this false weapon, created for children’s fun.

“Until 1991, Dream City was a military base for Saddam Hussein’s troops,” reads the note next to the image. Hundreds of Kurds were imprisoned and executed on the base, and nobody was allowed near it.

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Chinese entertainers.

Those who venture on a trip to the Mukhmas Funland amusement park on the West Bank need to be aware of the fact that, as they enjoy a breathtaking panorama over Jerusalem from atop the Ferris wheel, they will be closely watched by officers from the nearby military base.

“Do you know George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’?” wonders a seemingly innocuous quote from an anonymous visitor to Turkmenistan’s World of Fairy Tales, a vast amusement park that features more than fifty rides of all sorts, inspired by the country’s folk tales, legends and history.

One of the exhibition’s strongest points is that it allows real life to pierce through the image at all times, avoiding kitschy and flashy images of the folksy amusements. About the only ethnic elements revealing the Turkmen origins of the World of Fairy Tales images, for example, are the striped, multi-colored dresses worn by the female visitors to the park. A run-down, ages-old, green Soviet car parked outside the Turkmen park offers a revealing insight into the daily struggles of ordinary Turkmens, and is enough to belie the large accompanying quotation from Turkmenistan’s leader, Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenbashi): “Children of the Golden Age Live Happily in This Country.”

The photos also offer a look at just how starkly the world of amusement parks differs from the average lives of their patrons. One photograph from Rwanda, for example, reveals that a ticket to one of the rides is equal to a quarter of the average monthly rent for an apartment.

“Dream City” is set in regions that differ ethnically, culturally and politically, and where the discrepancy in wealth is often enormous. Yet the exhibition is very much about equality. The humanity of the images, and their shared sense of spontaneous joy, like at the sight of a sudden rainbow, create a conciliatory atmosphere in this documentary project.

Cotton candy in Turkmenistan.

For Steketee and Blankenvoort, the journey into the world of “dream cities” began in Duhok, where they realized that the amusement park was not a unique enterprise, but part of a whole breed of venues and areas all designed with the intention of bringing a sense of fun into joyless routines.

Some of the people who work at such parks see them as spiritual refuges. They even speak of their little kingdoms as if they inhabit them, creating a virtual challenge to the outside world, just as those who live on an island might talk about the residents of the mainland.

“Here, the old standards still apply; biblical values are honored. Out there, that is no longer the case,” said Truman, an employee of the Dollywood amusement park in the U.S., in one of the quotes accompanying a photo of the park.

No doubt, Truman feels lucky to be on board.

Dream City can be seen until June 16, 2013 at the Rosphoto exhibition center at 35 Malaya Morskaya Ulitsa. Tickets are 100 rubles. For more information, visit

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