“Dali Dance and Beyond” is a surreal experience. Curator Frederique Joseph-Lowery, a Dali specialist, has constructed a labyrinth inside the Godwin-Ternbach Museum and uses this maze to present dance set designs and works by Dali long overlooked by scholars.
Dance proves to be an insightful, if overwhelmingly kaleidoscopic lens by which to view the artist. As the curator explained, “It gives us a different way of anchoring him in space and culture.” The Catalan painter, whose bizarre symbolism and fluid forms brand his work, is a “metisse,” a product of diverse cultures beyond his Spanish heritage.
From 1939 to 1962, Dali collaborated with several choreographers on the libretti and set designs of three ballets presented abroad at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and La Fenice Theater in Venice.
The productions are documented photographically and on film and are on loan from archives in Venice, Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels, and the New York Public Library. The curator has arranged it so that these images as if by chance, find their complement, in artifacts donated to the museum.
The gallery layout is meant to evoke a flea market and is as obscure and disorienting as Dali’s work.
With little exposition on the walls to guide you through the maze, “Dali Dance and Beyond” demands imaginative participation.
“The viewer is asked to make a connection,” Joseph-Lowery said. However, at times, these connections are hard to make.
In one area of the gallery, Tamara Kostianovsky’s “Second Skin,” a fabric cow carcass suspended from a meat hook, hangs near a photograph of a carcass from the set of Dali’s ballet, “Mad Tristan.” The third carcass, lurking but only in reference, is Rembrandt’s canvass, “Carcass of Beef,” to which Dali’s work alludes.
The context for Dali’s work that Joseph-Lowery attempts to provide is inaccessible to anyone less than thoroughly versed in the dialectic of art academia and the annals of Dali’s life.
Here, spectators of Dali’s symbolic universe must already work to decipher its logic. It seems unreasonable to expect that visitors to analyze the exhibit’s difficult categorical reasoning too.
Ultimately, the curator proves that Dali’s world of cultural reference was wide, his sexuality ambiguous and his political affiliations with fascism perhaps weaker than previously speculated.
It is Dali’s love for German composer Richard Wagner — whose music is used in his ballets and whose mythological tropes he adopted as his own — and his identification with Bavarian King Ludwig II that lead viewers to the exhibition’s elusive conclusions.
How well you grasp them depends wholly on how much time and energy you’re willing to invest.
With or without exposition, there are never-before-displayed photographs of Dali’s dance productions for perusal, the set imagery of which — swans whose insides have exploded, eyes with clocks as pupils and elephants perched on slim, stilt legs — is so thought-provokingly odd, it should inspire anyone’s curiosity.
Also of note are digitally manipulated images by contemporary photographer William Phipps, presenting clever riffs on Dali’s motifs. The pictures are clearly introspective and far more self-explanatory than the rest of the exhibition.
Dali Dance and Beyond
When: Until June 12
Where: 65-30 Kissena Blvd, 405 Klapper Hall, Queens College
(718) 997 4747
Ticket price: Free