The challenge was simple: find the entrance. Compared with some of the other tasks we’d been set, it should have been laughably easy. We’d been sent into Croatian supermarkets in search of sour cream. We’d arrived at Czech tourist attractions and been told to find out the opening hours on public holidays. At the Dali Museum, however, all we had to do was find the front door. Simple, right?
This was maybe six or seven years ago, when I was on a “fact-finding” trip before beginning work with a European tour company. Rather than just be given the information that was already in our trainers’ possession, the idea was that we would develop the skills necessary to find these things out for ourselves, in case of emergency.
So there we were in Figueres, Spain, 35 guileless tour-leading trainees, not trying to find out how much museum entry cost, or its opening hours, or how many artworks were stored inside. All we needed was a way to get in.
It must have been like watching monkeys trying to get the cap off a bottle. We started so confidently, striding around the gaudily decorated exterior, before becoming confused and then annoyed. Eventually, someone pointed uncertainly at a couple of arched doorways below absolutely no sign at all: “Um, is that it?”
That was it. We never did go inside – fact-finding doesn’t include sightseeing – so all I remember of the Dali Museum was the difficulty we had in finding a way in. Jump to the present, and little has changed.
Once again, I can’t find the entrance. Maybe it’s a trick, a way to put you in a surrealistic mood akin to the artist the place is there to honour. Here’s a world-famous museum dedicated to one of Spain’s finest painters and there’s no discernible way to get in. You feel as though the clocks have started dripping off the walls as you wander the building’s circumference trapped in a time warp and doomed for eternity to search for something that doesn’t exist.
It is there, of course, and there is actually a sign, a gold-plated “Teatro Museo Dali” set high at sky level. Like Dali’s works, meaning is there if you look hard enough.
Inside, the experience is just as discombobulating. What am I looking at, you wonder. What am I even doing here?
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Some of my most memorable museum visits have been to the spectacularly bad, rather than the spectacularly good. I enjoy a half-arsed museum, if only for comedy.
The Addis Ababa Museum in the Ethiopian capital fits the bill, with its collection of, well, old stuff. I had a guided tour and was treated to such gems as, “This telephone … This is an old telephone.”
It sure was. And what about the Zia Memorial Museum in Chittagong, Bangladesh, where the main attraction is the section of wall covered in Plexiglas to protect the spatterings of blood behind it? Yep, that would be General Zia’s blood. That’s where he was assassinated.
No such gore at the Dali Museum, which has to be one of the few public monuments designed by the person to which it’s dedicated. How nice to have the confidence to design one’s own tribute.
Maybe Salvador Dali is laughing somewhere about the confusion his largest creation must cause.
The museum, housed in an old theatre all but destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, has no discernible pattern or chronology. It twists and winds through semicircular floors and open spaces, through paintings and sketches and sculptures.
Over there is a work from 1928, hung next to a painting from 1976. And there is a group of amazing prints that turn out to be the work of another artist entirely, which would have been much easier to work out were there a sign.
The works’ poor labels are hilarious. Some have the title written in Spanish, French, English and Italian, some are just in Spanish, some just in French, and some don’t have a title at all.
There’s a room dedicated to an abstract sculpture of Mae West’s face, which can be viewed from atop a camel. Of course, the only way you can know it’s Mae West’s face is if you already knew.
Towards the end of the museum, I overhear a tour guide providing a detailed explanation of a particular painting to her group. Fantastic. Why not put it on a sign that everyone can read? (There is an audio guide available.)
Regardless of these eccentricities – or maybe because of them – the Dali Museum is fascinating, an artwork in itself.
You’ll appreciate it, too. If you can find your way in.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.