Art Trumps Amusement at LA’s ‘Luna Luna: Forgotten Fantasy’

Don’t visit expecting to recreate the archival photos of kids clinging to Haring’s coyote carousel seats.

The Kenny Scharf painted chair swing ride in motion at “Luna Luna: Forgotten Fantasy.” Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP

Hidden away in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles is a ferris wheel designed by beloved neo-expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The large ride, painted bright white, is scrawled with Basquiat’s signature stick figures and text that reference African dynasties and Jim Crow laws. On the back of the ferris wheel, larger than life, is a full portrait of a baboon’s bald ass. While it rotates, Miles Davis’s 1986 song “Tutu” fills the room. There are no passengers on this ferris wheel, and there never will be.

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A carousel by artist Arik Brauer. Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP

Basquiat has one of the most memorable contributions to “Luna Luna: Forgotten Fantasy,” the highly anticipated revival of the art park that was briefly opened to revelers in Hamburg, Germany in 1987. For about $35, visitors to the park in 2024 can look at Basquiat’s ferris wheel and other attractions, peruse extensive archival documents, study blueprints, watch documentary footage of the restoration process inside a rusty shipping container and buy souvenir t-shirts. What they can’t do is ride the rides. Luna Luna, a feat of historic preservation, is now only for looking.

That wasn’t always the case. The original amusement park was the brainchild of curator André Heller, an Austrian multimedia artist. He gave thirty-seven artists the opportunity to create the working fairground of their dreams. Contributions came from some of the most prominent artists of the twentieth century, including a swing ride by Kenny Scharf, a carousel by Keith Haring and a magical forest pavilion by David Hockney.

A man in a tan trenchcoat stands holding the orange support bars of a colortful carousel
Andre Heller stands on Luna Luna’s Keith Haring-designed carousel in 1987. Werner Baum/Picture Alliance via Getty Image

In addition to the rides, artists contributed hand-sewn banners, grandiose archways and photo stand-ins. Heller himself built a wedding chapel for spontaneous fairgoers. The carnival atmosphere was completed by an unintentionally inspirational, fantastical musical score by none other than Philip Glass.

An overhead shot of a colorful amusement park in a grassy field
An aerial view of Luna Luna in Moorweide Park. Hamburg, Germany, 1987. © Sabina Sarnitz. Courtesy Luna Luna, LLC André Heller, Dream Station. Luna Luna, Hamburg, Germany, 1987. Photo: © Sabina Sarnitz. Courtesy Luna Luna, LLC

The fair was supposed to go on a world tour, but changes in ownership, financing difficulties and bureaucracy derailed Luna Luna’s travel plans. The rides and set pieces eventually ended up in a warehouse in Texas, where they’ve been collecting dust for nearly forty years. In 2022, rapper Drake announced that he, through his production company DreamCrew, had invested more than $100 million to re-stage the carnival, and in December, Luna Luna reopened, albeit in a different form, for a limited engagement in Los Angeles.

Visiting Luna Luna in 2024

Scarcely a day goes by without my seeing an advertisement for “Luna Luna: Forgotten Fantasy” on a billboard, bus bench or Instagram. In my Stories, influencers twirl their way through the fairgrounds, their faces infinite in the reflection of Dalí’s geodesic hall of mirrors, which requires an $85 VIP Moon Pass to access.

The “Dalidom” by Salvador Dali. Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP

Those who don’t splurge drift through the fairgrounds solely as onlookers. This is because, in addition to the sensitivity around historic preservation, the artsy carnival rides operate on outdated technology that doesn’t comply with modern safety standards. With no seatbelts, handrails or safety bars in sight, the operators of Luna Luna have decided it’s unwise to let lawsuit-hungry audiences hop onto the delicate rides.

The Moon Pass did allow me to marry myself at Heller’s wedding chapel. I was given a bouquet and a veil, then posed for a Polaroid while an officiant gave passersby the chance to object to the union before signing my marriage certificate. The performance was my favorite part of the experience—likely because it was the closest I got to being at a real amusement park, where carnies heckle and harangue, luring people toward interactive games, tents and attractions.

Visitors experience the “Wedding Chapel” by artist Andre Heller. Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP

Audiences spoiled by immersive cultural happenings and hands-on “museums” might find a trip to Luna Luna a letdown. The experience economy has conditioned people to expect pools full of sprinkles and life-sized reproductions of Squid Game and enveloping A.I.-generated environments. The traditional museum exhibition—which is what “Luna Luna” is—now struggles to compete with contemporary attention-grabbing imitators that eschew historical treasures in favor of spectacles designed to rake in as much cash and social media engagement as possible. Though “Luna Luna” makes a valiant effort to entertain weekend audiences with jugglers, stilt walkers and puppeteers from the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, its lack of intensely engaging experiences (at least as modern audiences define it) may get in the way of its staying power.

The Painted Ferris Wheel by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP

Frankly, both the exhibition and the amusement park deserve better. It is truly inspiring to see what has been restored so far (only sixteen of twenty-nine works from the original 1987 fair are on display, but there are plans to finish the job). Though the restoration team prioritized works by the most well-known artists, some of the best pieces come from artists Americans may not recognize. For example, Rebecca Horn’s Love Thermometer let couples cup its dry bulb, their body heat translating to emotions like “wandering” or “madness.” And Monika GilSing’s series of Wind Images, intricate flags sewn into the shape of birds and spirits, hang from the rafters, rounding out the overall cheerful atmosphere of the art park.

“Luna Luna” is actually quite impressive but don’t visit expecting to recreate the archival photos of kids clinging to Haring’s coyote carousel seats. Today, it is an amusement park that can only be experienced through sight, sound and memory. And that is the true magic of “Luna Luna”—it’s art for art’s sake.

Luna Luna: Forgotten Fantasy” is open at 1601 East 6th Street, Los Angeles, through Spring of 2024.

Art Trumps Amusement at LA’s ‘Luna Luna: Forgotten Fantasy’