Multi-media artist and Queens College Professor Zoe Beloff, right, with student Amanda Aller, takes an unorthodox approach to interpreting historical fact by creating thought-provoking installations which blur the line between truth and fiction. Her work is inspired by such curiosities as Sigmund Freud’s one-time visit to Coney Island and the work of a turn-of-the-20th-century spiritual medium.
In 1909, on his first visit to American shores, Sigmund Freud appeared at Clark University in Massachusetts, where he famously introduced psychoanalysis to the U.S. What few know is that en route to Clark, Freud stopped off at Coney Island for a day.
Zoe Beloff knows. A prolific and imaginative filmmaker and multimedia artist, Beloff accepted an invitation a few years ago from the Coney Island Museum—“overlooking the Cyclone and upstairs from the freak show,” she says—to create an exhibit marking the centennial of Freud’s visit.
The result was Dreamland: The Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society and its Circles, 1926-1972, a meticulously curated collection of old photos, films, drawings, letters, ephemera, and artifacts, including a model of a Freudian theme park.
No, there was never any such society, at least not in reality, Beloff admits. “Those of us in the sideshow business aren’t typically interested in literal history,” she says. Her real agenda was to use her art to “to make the unconscious graphically manifest.” Those who missed the Coney Island exhibit can experience it through Beloff’s 2009 companion book, or see the exhibit when it is shown later this year in Holland. A related volume, The Adventures of a Dreamer, purports to be the comic-book dream journals of society founder Albert Grass. Grass too is fictitious, but the dreams are Beloff’s, carefully recorded over the course of a year.
Beloff, who grew up in the United Kingdom, holds degrees in art and film production. “Only later did I realize I didn’t have to choose between the two,” she says. Over the past three decades her work has been featured in international exhibitions and screenings and at such venues as the Whitney Museum of American Art and MOMA in New York, and the Pompidou Center in Paris. Her numerous awards, honors, and grants include a 2003 Guggenheim. At QC she teaches courses in multimedia, sound, filmmaking, and video installation; this fall she will offer her first course in drawing.
Beloff’s work, which she variously describes as surreal, humorous, and subversive, “seeks to create a dialogue with the past—but also looks toward the future.” She’s also not above pulling the occasional fast one on her audiences.
“The director of the Coney Island Museum told me that visitors often had shouting arguments about whether the psychoanalytic society was real,” she says. “I took that to be a compliment.”
Favorite book: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. “I first read it a long time ago and it got under my skin,” she says. “Pynchon’s work is fantastic, smart and funny and based on a tremendous amount of historical research—all things I really admire.”
Favorite music: “I haunt flea markets and am constantly buying up old 78s. I especially like novelty jazz from the 1920s.”
Surprising fact: “I like a game of Ping-Pong, although I’m not very good at it. I got into it recently and decided it was my sport.”