Q & A: Pamela Joseph, Sideshow of the Absurd

Recently the “Sideshow of the Absurd” exhibition by Pamela Joseph opened at the Fine Arts Center as part of a community-wide collaboration called Gods and Monsters, incorporating cross creations of 2013.
Different art institutions in the Colorado Springs community have come together to create shows that demonstrate different perspectives and understandings of looking at the theme of Gods and Monsters. Pamela Joseph’s show at the Fine Arts Center (FAC), open through Jan. 12, 2014, is looking at issues of gender equality, and representations of women in modern day society.
FAC Assistant Curator, Joy Armstrong, describes “Sideshow of the Absurd” as fitting into the theme of Gods and Monsters because of the same dichotomy of terms that are associated with women.

“Pamela’s representations and her discussions of looking at the way women in our society are revered, put on a pedestal, or made into some sort of object of adoration, but they are also reviled and subjugated to a lower status in society,” she said. “So I found the relation in the difference of the words God and Monster, and I also saw Pamela’s work looking at women as a God or Monster depending on their place in society.”

This interactive installation is something new for the FAC but also very different in the art community.
“There is a quality to the exhibit that is unusual, not just to our institution but for art museums in general,” sad Armstrong. “There is an invitation with this exhibit to be involved and to interact with it.”
The FAC hopes that the “funky, freaky, and fascinating” installation will bring something new and different to the Colorado Springs community.  “I think it will be something that people haven’t seen here before and hopefully something they’ll get really excited about,” said Armstrong. “I just hope people have a really good time with it and enjoy the experience.”

What was your process for creating this installation? Where did your inspiration come from, and what message are you trying to get across to your audience?

My work has long been associated with women and social commentary. In 1998, when I first began to conceive the concept of a Sideshow about the power of women, the idea came from a variety of factors. For a number of years, I had been doing installations of paintings and sculptures for public art locations. I see the carnival as an early form of public art. I liked the idea of an interactive environment that the general public could go to and be exposed to art without the intimidation they might feel in a museum. Growing up, I had spent a lot of time on my grandparents’ farm where they rented out the land to circuses, sideshows, and even donkey baseball; it was part of my cultural history. Finally, the conceit of creating numerous exhibits gave me the opportunity not only to explore ideas but also to use a wide variety of materials in the process, something that I especially enjoy.

I remember going into the sideshows and seeing people that were different than me: they were called Freaks. As a child, being in an audience, looking up at these individuals, I was so impressed by their dignity and stature. I thought they were so much more powerful than the people around me. The very notion of a sideshow implies difference and otherness. One underlying theme of the exhibition is tolerance, presenting viewers with difference as a source of power, strength and understanding, rather than fear. Further themes are the elements of fate and chance in our lives and the violence behind facades. Also I hope people may develop an awareness of our dying planet, the extinction of animals and the fragility of our world and lives.

What is your message about woman in “The Sideshow of the Absurd”?

I come from a strong matriarchal background. My mother and grandmother often told me that a woman could do anything that a man can do but probably better. Society makes so many conflicting demands on being a woman, a mother, a nurturer, a worker, and a sex symbol; how do women reconcile all these rolls while they are still marginalized and actually abused. In “The Sideshow of the Absurd,” the women are in dangerous situations, but they have the strength and dignity to overcome these perils. The women, who are having knives thrown at them or being sawed in half, stand there with a smile on their face and know they are going to survive and that everything will be OK. My favorite phrase in the show is on one of the cutting boards, “The knives are short and sharp. See how they shine. She shows she is not afraid.”

How did you come up with the title of your exhibition?

I’m not really sure how the exact title happened. I explained earlier my fascination and proximity to a carnival atmosphere and how it affected my life. Besides, it’s at the sideshow, not on the main stage where most of what is important and interesting happens. I have a deep sense of the absurdity of life. We struggle so hard in our lives and yet those lives are so precious to us. Life is Absurd. Einstein said that if an idea at first is not absurd, then there was no use pursuing it. We have to approach it all with a sense of humor and trust.

Why did you want to do the Gods and Monsters exhibition with the Fine Arts Center? How does that theme connect to the theme of “The Sideshow of the Absurd?”

That could be an alternative title for the Sideshow of the Absurd although maybe it should be Goddesses and Monsters. There are so many characters in the exhibition that could be viewed as monstrous, but there is beauty and dignity in the grotesque. I hope people feel a bit of the monstrousness and mystery inherent in the traveling sideshow. All these women are goddesses but human. I can better describe the God aspect by discussing a new banner that I am making for the show at FAC. My yoga teacher brought me back from her stay in India a wonderful little image of Chamunda, the Mother Goddess and the Horrific Destroyer of Evil. I have taken the context of her fearless stance and substituted my alter ego Pussy Marshmallow on the charging lion. She is the ultimate avenger and symbol of strength and righteousness.

On your website, it reports that this interactive installation has record-breaking attendance and reviews at its exhibition sites. What do you believe draws people into the show, that they can relate to or that they feel passionate about?

At the turn of the century, people feared the future and flocked to Coney Island to find diversion and release. Before television, in small towns all over the United States, the carnivals would bring elements of excitement into the mundane lives of townspeople. The experiences for children were often more frightening rather than joyful. However, there is still a strange pull to revisit these past memories that provided not only thrills but also the sense of experiencing a world where excitement and fun prevails. We all need that in our lives I think.

The only other thought I would add is that I first began the Sideshow of the Absurd 15 years ago. The show has grown as it travels, with new pieces being added at most venues. What interests me is that the ideas that I developed then are still relevant to me today. I had tried to focus on universal concepts, and I fear that, as a society, we still have not resolved the issues that the show presents.

Maria Gebelein, Guest Writer

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