Taking its name, Dream City, from an amusement park in Iraq, photographer Anoek Steketee and writer Eefje Blankevoort’s new book, reflects on the “universal and timeless human need to escape from daily reality” and our collective need to have fun. In Iraq, it came as a surprise that such a park would exist, let alone be peacefully populated by groups who, beyond its walls, were at war with one another. Between 2006 and 2010, the photographer and writer ventured to Iraq, Rwanda, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Columbia, Indonesia, China, Turkmenistan and the USA in search of the homogenised spaces where candyfloss is sold and Ferris wheels turn. It might seem a trivial, even whimsical subject against a backdrop of war, political instability, and The Global Financial Crisis; but Dream City presents the struggles of our times in a disarming way.

Chimelong, China

Blankevoort’s text begins: “From the Ferris wheel the whole of Duhok is visible. Below, the amusement park’s exuberant lights twinkle and families with ice creams, popcorn, and soft drinks look like a swarm of ants.” The tableau brings to mind the iconic Ferris wheel scene in Orson Welles’ film noir, The Third Man, where inside war-torn Vienna, the protagonists meet on the Wiener Riesenrad in the Prater amusement park. Looking down on the people below, the character Lime compares them to dots, and suddenly their carefree wanderings take a sinister turn. Steketee’s pictures simmer with equal tension.

Lunapark, Lebanon

Space Gun, a ride in the Iraqi park, glows in a nocturnal scene. It’s a giant pendulum, poised to swing people to the threshold of danger and fun – an axis of escape. Kurds, Arabs, and American Soldiers, Christians and Muslims, Shi’ites and Sunnis all visit the park as a welcome moratorium to real life. Blankevoort continues, “for many of them, this city is a dream that contrasts starkly with their daily reality. They live in a state of anarchy and lawlessness in a country where terrorism is no longer just political or ideological, but has become an industry, a way to make a quick buck.”

Dream City, Iraq

Thirty years ago, Dunia Fantasia in Indonesia was a swamp but now the park’s visitors are pictured spinning over a pond in inflatable plastic balls, enjoying the luxury of leisure time and a better economic outlook. The financial buoyancy of each park varies, and with it, the visual idyll it purports. The Kigali City Park in Rwanda was meant to “heal the wounds in people’s hearts, which were inflicted during the civil war and the genocide.” But now, motionless plastic unicorns, imported from China, rest in a forlorn landscape, rusting before they have ever been used.  

Dunia Fantasia, Indonesia

Steketee’s dark-hued photographs counter the lustrous aesthetic we might associate with these landscapes of mass culture and consumerism. The book’s exquisite design balances out the weight of the images with pink edges you could almost lick. Surprisingly, the pictures lack animation. Spot lit subjects surface from the shadows as though characters on a stage, yet the scenes are of such low drama they often verge on the spectral. A man sweeping leaves, a boy sleeping on a bench, and an elderly lady standing; looking; waiting. These could be the playgrounds of ghosts enjoying the pretence of being alive, rather than the pleasures of rides on rollercoasters. At their best, the photographs lull us into a twilight wonderland, in which figures shelter within inconsequential moments, at the tipping point of dream and reality.

Dollywood, USA

The staging might look indulgent, but the symbiotic relationship between words and images invites a cerebral interpretation of economic, political and social forces at play. While the words convey the facts, the images are free to lift the imagination, or vice-versa. In this context, the formal group portraits seem less successful: the direct gaze of the subject, a confrontation that wakes the dream. Blankevoort interviews visitors and park attendants, highlighting individual struggles, which touch upon wider concerns. She recounts how “a large Turkmen leans against a plastic bear. ‘Do you know George Orwell’s Animal Farm?’ he shouts … ‘that book is applicable to Turkmenistan in every respect.’” Pairing artifice against authenticity, fact against fiction, the book gives us both contrasts and the places where they merge. The extraordinary story of Columbia’s most notorious criminal, Pablo Escobar, has already been recounted in films and books, but the re-telling of the tale as it is re-told in the Hacienda Nápoles amusement park, creates a fascinating mise-en-abîme.

Jaime Duque, Colombia

In David Octavius Hill’s photographs of the 1800s, the critic Walter Benjamin was taken by the way in which the “light struggles out of darkness”: the notion could be attributed to these pictures and the stories they attempt to re-tell. In Lebanon the sandbags and high wall of a military base conceal a rickety, colourful Ferris wheel; it could be a rainbow over a thunderous sky. The small amusement park stayed open, even during the bloody civil war. “Believe me, the wheel is solid as a rock” says the park’s owner, implying a more comprehendible hazard.  

It isn’t until we reach Blankevoort’s texts at the back of the book that one park is really distinguished from another. Images are not arranged by geography and the consistent light and oddly prevalent, dark foliage, creates an illusion of being in a single location in an alien season. Abandoned unicorns in Kigali City Park, Rwanda, could be backroom props for the rides in Dollywood, United States. It’s a curious device that seems to discourage comparison between one place and another. Even if Disneyland itself doesn’t feature, it is the Disney lyrics to the attraction ‘It’s a Small World’, written in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, that frame the book.

It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears
It’s a world of hopes, it’s a world of fears
there’s so much that we share
that it’s time we’re aware
it’s a small world after all.

Dream City evokes a world haunted and humbled by the real and the imagined. In capturing these idealised, self-contained spaces, we are reminded of the innocence of childhood and our desire to return to that state, no matter how irrevocable its loss might be.

Eleanor Farmer

Dream-City-coverDream City
by Anoek Steketee and Eefje Blankevoort
168 pages
Kehrer Verlag, 2011