Christine Rebet

In 1911 the Dreamland fairground on Coney Island was completely destroyed by fire, a tragedy foreshadowed by the fear-inducing entertainment that had been the amusement park’s top draw: Fighting the Flames, a terrifying show in which hundreds of performers staged the elaborate rescue of more than a dozen people from the top of a burning six-story building. In her exhibition “Tiger Escape,” French artist Christine Rebet (who lives and works in New York) has returned the surreal details of this seaside nightmare to the status of spectacle in twenty-three colored ink drawings, a sound installation, and a five-and-a-half-minute 16-mm film.

Rebet’s background in stage design and choreography perhaps explains her attraction to carnival theatrics and informs the imaginative interpretation of the Dreamland disaster in her drawings. Composing her drawings in landscape format on thick 10 x 7–inch sheets of paper, Rebet leaves the majority of each page white and unmarked, allowing only glimpses of an unfolding drama in spots of dribbled ink and clumsy smudges. Ignoring the specifics of individual physiognomies, like details that slip away in dreams, Rebet renders (in rare flashes of vivid remembrance) the striking red feather plumes of Pain Brush Cardinal (all works 2006) and the billowing blue bonnets in I Sold You Mermaids. Her bright, flat, collagelike aesthetic evokes Peter Blake’s ’70s illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. And just like Alice’s passage to the other side of the mirror, each of Rebet’s drawings provides entry into a fantastical world.

With the animated film Tell Me About Your Dreams, Rebet attempts to spark her narrative, linking a series of images in a jittery recollection of the Dreamland saga. Two survivors of the Coney Island blaze—a girl with a modern bob and a figure that is half tiger, half man (and dressed in black trousers)—revisit the trauma in their new roles as patient and therapist. As electronic music builds to a frenzy and towering bookshelves wobble ominously, the tiger leers over his patient, stretched on a chaise longue, until the screen bleeds orange and bursts into flames. Making a strong visual link to Salvador Dalí’s iconic painting of a tiger leaping across a supine female, Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate, One Second Before Awakening, 1944, Rebet explicitly declares her affinity for the Surrealists and the theater of the unconscious. In Rebet’s work, as in Dalí’s, we discover the paradox that the creature, although in motion, is eternally stopped in its tracks.

In her use of sound, Rebet continues to subvert the impetus toward the authentic through the carnivalesque. Her re-creation of Fighting the Flames, a small sculpture of a fireman circling the top of a tiny plinth, as in a music box, follows the beat of a horse’s gallop—actually a repeated loop from the Tell Me About Your Dreams sound track. But like the tiger’s roar in that film’s final scene, this is not a recording of sounds made by a real animal but rather of an amusement-park approximation. It is the endless repetition of our own imaginations.

Lillian Davies