Turn Back Time: A Century-Old Carousel Reveals New Insights through Memory

Kathryn Fanelli with “Vimoksha”
Kathryn Fanelli with “Vimoksha.” Photo courtesy of Kathryn Fanelli.

Coming across a full-size, antique carousel in a nearly vacant academic building will stop you in your tracks. But it’s the sound that gets you. “Vimoksha by Kathryn Fanelli ‘20MFA­—part of her thesis exhibition entitled “The Passing Show—is a site-specific installation of a century-old merry-go-round, which has been decked with mirrors and stripped of gilding and paint to reveal a bare, wooden platform and stark, metallic horses. It was originally intended to be interactive, experienced by students and others as they moved through the Studio Arts Building during their daily routines. Due to the building’s limited use resulting from restrictions put in place in response to COVID-19, “Vimoksha” can be experienced in small groups by appointment only.

Operating the manual carousel means throwing yourself into 7,000 pounds of steel, wood, glass, and cast aluminum, pressing your feet into the floor to gain traction, and slowly picking up momentum as the center pole and giant metal gears around it start to move. The rotation activates the jumping motion of the horses and powers the lights. The turning metal lets out a sparkling chorus of squeals and creaks that fills the room and bounces off the walls. It’s at once piercing and ambient, drowning out other noise and creating a disorienting yet meditative space.

This effect is fitting, though the sound component of the “Vimoksha experience is “unexpected yet intrinsic” according to Fanelli. “I knew the kinetics would make metallic sounds,” she says. “I had no idea what sounds would be like nor how loud. Visitors claim they hear a song.”

Her work “happens at the confluence between her autobiographical history, her Buddhist practice, and her concerns with environmental and ecological sustainability,” explains Shona Macdonald, professor and chair of the department of art, who served as Fanelli’s thesis advisor. With “The Passing Show,” Fanelli seeks to examine “the interface between contemplative practices and the destabilizing effect of the carnivalesque,” driven in part by her childhood.

“The carousel is a classic and beloved fixture on a carnival midway,” says Fanelli, who grew up in the business; her father owned the Fanelli Amusement Company. She remembers a life on the road. Seven months out of the year, Fanelli and her family would travel throughout the Northeast, setting up mechanical rides, games and concessions at a new location every week. “I grew up paying attention to the crowd, the human collective in the context of a traveling show,” Fanelli reveals, describing a perspective from which “Nothing ever stood still except for the whirring movement itself.”

Despite her familiarity with carousels and carnivals, Fanelli wasn’t an expert when it came to breathing life into “Vimoksha.”  “I didn't know how to put together a merry-go-round before, so it was very satisfying to actually have everything work,” she says.

The carousel, which was manufactured in 1924 by the W. F. Mangels Company, was purchased by her father from the New England Carousel Museum in Bristol, Connecticut in 2012. It was later inherited by her brother, who then gave it to her for this project. When Fanelli encountered it for the first time in 2017, the carousel was disassembled, its pieces thick with ages of paint. In order to attain her vision, Fanelli learned how to “assemble a vintage carousel without any knowledge.” She taught herself sandblasting, wiring, welding, metallurgy and laser cutting. Coordinating the installation required the cultivation of skills in “organization, funding, sourcing, and research.”

“Fabricating and installing a work of this scale took extensive planning,” says Macdonald. “Kathy worked with our building manager, Bob Woo, who helped her liaison with Campus Planning, the Physical Plant and Environmental Health and Safety.”

Fanelli had to learn as she built “Vimoksha,” a fact which imbues the work with the spirit of her artistic progress at UMass Amherst. She approached this project and the entirety of her graduate studies with the Buddhist concept of “beginner’s mind.” “Beginner’s mind liberates us to start anew in a state of unknowing,” says Fanelli, who sought “to abandon what I knew artistically and place myself in the position of starting with fresh intention.”

Having taken a few graduate level courses at UMass Amherst over the years in hopes of pursuing an MFA when life allowed it, Fanelli—a practicing artist based in Amherst—came into the art department already somewhat familiar with it. She decided to discontinue her practice as a painter “in favor of seeking answers to questions that went unanswered for a long time. The questions revolve around Contemplative Art inquiry. What it is, what it means, what it does, how it is, why and for whom.”

Beginners mind took Fanelli “back to the merry-go-round because it furnished an early identity” for her.

“It’s a circle,” she says. “The center pole holds all the weight like a centrifuge. The fact is, the carnivalesque is an aspect of life itself, as chaos, as illusion. I know it as a livelihood in its practical and unromantic form and when I wedded it to the contemplative, a chimeric reaction took hold of me.”

She hasn't kept an official count, but since “Vimoksha was erected at the start of the fall 2020 semester, Fanelli says she’s shown the work to around ten people per week through small, private showings (she limits groups to five people or less). This is a far cry from the buzzing, crowd-drawing, interactive exhibit she initially envisioned. But that’s ok. To Fanelli, the current nature of how the work is experienced serves to “underscore the absurd.”

Still, she estimates over 100 people have ridden “Vimoksha,”  ranging in ages from 5 to 87. “The youngest ones were empowered to ride several horses and showed fearlessness to explore the sculpture's structure. The eldest rode the chariot and wrote a poem about the installation,” Fanelli says. Art bloggers, radio stations and newspapers have featured the exhibit, and Fanelli has given several interviews.

“Vimoksha can be seen by appointment through December and will be disassembled in January. Any one person and groups up to five can visit the installation seven days a week. Visitors may text Fanelli directly at (413) 687-7591 to arrange an appointment, preferably a few days in advance.