Rada Dada: Sideshow Banners…

by Amy Kingsley


I’m standing in an exhibition space at the Green Hill Center. It’s after hours, and I’m weighing in both hands a stuffed pheasant bolted to a wooden mount.


Pleasant Pheasant, whose acquaintance I’ve just made, is a handsome specimen with a regal red-brown comb. Slightly worse for wear, one of her wings is patched with camouflage tape. I notice all this as I slowly rock the bird back and forth.


Now Pleasant Pheasant is sailing through the short space between me and fellow with a thatch of orange hair, an inky villain’s mustache and a prominent beauty mark. He informs me that I’m the 1,093rd person to have completed this unexceptional trick – Flying Bad Taxidermy. Max rada dada, the artist on the receiving end of the stunt, has replaced Pleasant Pheasant on her pedestal and is dashing across the gallery space to find a marker so I can record this event on a wooden oar already covered with names.

Rada Dada is giving me a personal tour of his exhibition, Sideshow Banners, Polaroids & Objects. This sideshow has toured the country, popping up in flea markets and homes, featuring work by both rada dada and others and is currently on display at Green Hill. The artist travels with promotional banners he painted himself, and a body of work that ranges from large-format Polaroids to sculptures collected from the grill of his van. Other artists have added to his collection items that include a herd of hair-growing rocks and a trousseau for Siamese twins.

“When I travel around, I get many people who want to give me their mementos,” rada dada says. “Here’s a sweet one. A woman gave me the 1944 love notes her father sent to her mother. Only the first one has ever been read.”

The notes are arranged under glass alongside a collection of rada dada’s hair. Next to that display are jewelry boxes stuffed with rusty wire and dirty rope.

“That’s my collection of ‘rope in the road,'” rada dada says. “When you start looking for things like that you start realizing how much of it is out there.”

In the adjacent room, rada dada has arranged his collection. A stack of paper plates hangs from the ceiling, each one scrawled with poems. Another display includes a cardinal and a chunk of pumice encased in gold leaf.

“Sometimes I hear about people,” he says. “And other times friends of mine will meet someone and tell them to get in touch with me. I say no to nothing.”

The bulk of the exhibition is given over to rada dada’s Polaroids, which he shoots with a 20×24 camera, a contraption roughly the size of a refrigerator. The photos are visual art versions of the kinds of tricks rada dada performs in his one-man show.

“You know Cirque du Soleil?” he asks. “I’m the opposite of that. My tricks are unexceptional.”

Rada dada has been curating his sideshow for more than 30 years. The Durham-based artist started taking large-format photographs about 20 years ago.

“Simple is good,” he says of his art. “The concept is playful. I want to show people that art doesn’t have to be this death and dying sort of thing.”

Which brings us back to Pleasant Pheasant, who sits in a room devoted to the props rada dada will use in his Friday evening performance at the Green Hill Center. There are about a dozen modified board games, “Greenback Bunny” and a stage constructed from two sawhorses and an ironing board. Rada dada says he found Pleasant Pheasant in a musty antique shop and decided she needed to see the world.

“She’s been tossed by two senators and a congressman,” rada dada says. “She’s been in a huge circle toss of more than 20 people. She’s had a fun life.”

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