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Poetics of Play

“Art projects the space and time of fantasy, and identifies with childhood’s
ideal freedom. Regaining the child’s spontaneous imaginative play
has never been as central to artists’ enterprise as it is today –
not even in the heyday of surrealism’s quest for
a return to unfettered imagination”.
(Marina  Warner  ‘Game  On’ link here).

How  contemporary  art  can  be  understood  to  draw  on  the  image  and experience  of  childhood  play

The above quote from Marina Warner’s article ‘Game  On’ references Surrealist art in relation to childhood play, specifically to the  way  in which  it  freed  the  artist  of  conscious,  rational  control  and  instead  aimed  to  explore, uninhibited  dreams,  visions  and  imaginings.  It expanded  art  into  a  realm  of  cognitive  creation,  much  like  the  way  in  which  a child  might  transform  “knives,  forks,  and  spoons  into mountaineers  and  acrobats”1,  there  are  limitless  possibilities  to what  may  be  created.  Numerous  contemporary  artists  are  intrigued  with  the idea  of  childhood  play.  Peter  Fischli  and  David  Weiss are  often  mentioned  as  being  examples  of  artists  who  use  in  their  work  the  joyful, comedic  and  imaginative  values  that  come  to mind  when  pondering  the  creativity  of  a  child.  Artworks  such  as  The  Way  Things  Go  (1985-­7)  and  In  The  Carpet Shop  (1979)  draw  on  the  image  and  experience  of  childhood play  in  different  ways.  Another  such  art  work  is  Test Site (2006) by Carsten  Holler,  in which  slides  are  used  to  examine  the  value  of  childhood  experience,  through  those who participate  in  sliding,  as  well  as  those  viewing  it.

The  Way  Things  Go  is  a  film  lasting  29  minutes  and  45  seconds  by  Peter  Fischli  and  David  Weiss.  It  was a  moving  installation  spanning the  length  of  a  100ft  long  warehouse  and  incorporated  a  manner  of  everyday  materials,  such  as tires,  ladders,  bin  bags,  old  shoes,  water, and  gasoline.  These  everyday  objects  were  animated  as  though  they  had  a  will  of their own,  being  made  to  crash,  slide,  fly,  and  explode  to create  a  chain  reaction.  They  were  utilised  in  a  way  that  had  little  to do  with  their  original  intent.  This  kind  of  creativity -­ altering  the functionality  of  an  object -­  is  something  that  comes naturally to  children,  “rather  than  accepting  the given  means  of  things,  children  got  to  know  objects  by  laying  hold  of  them,  and using them  creatively,  releasing  from  them  new  possibilities  of  meaning”2.

The  way  in  which  Fischli  and  Weiss  give  life  to  these  inert  objects  in  The  Way  Things  Go  is  a  large factor  of  the  inherent  appeal  of  the work,  creating  humorous,  surprising  and  playful  elements.  However  enjoyable  and  seemingly synonymous  with  play  the  piece  is,  it  cannot be  argued  that  a  large  amount  of  time  and  effort  went  into  making  the  work ­‐  it would  have  taken  months  to  construct,  test,  run  and re-run.  The  relationship  between  work  and  play  is  something  that  this  piece seems  to  call  into  question.  In  Work  Ethic  By  Helen  Molesworth, she  references  Johan  Huizinga,  saying  that  “true  play contains  elements  of  chance  and  non-­seriousness;  most  important,  play  is  completely voluntary.  Play  can  never  be  a  task  or  a duty. Huizinga  describes  play  as  released  from  these  societal  motivators,  as  a  pure  instance  of freedom”.  It  is  likely  that  financial factors  may  have  turned  The  Way  Things  Go,  by  Huizinga’s  standards, into  something  other  than  play. Fischli  and  Weiss  may have  been  funded  to  undergo  such  a  lengthy  and  complex  project,  giving  the  whole  enterprise  necessity  rather  than freedom.  Car producers,  Honda,  commissioned  an  advert3  in  2003  in  a  very  similar  style  to  The  Way  Things  Go.  In  the advert, only  car parts  are  used  and  the  whole  piece  has  a  very  sleek,  finished,  corporate  look  to  it,  with  a  distinct  lack  of spontaneous  play.  This  is  in direct  contrast  to  The  Way  Things  Go,  which  has  the  feel  of  a  home  movie  and  is  decidedly  playful and  unglamorous.

In  The  Ambiguity  of  Play  by  Brian  Sutton  Smith,  he  references  a  number  of  specialists  in  an  attempt  to define  what  ‘play’  actually  is.  For example,  “Geoffrey  Bateson  (1955),  biologist,  suggests  that  play  is  a  paradox  because  it  both is  and  is  not  what  it  appears  to  be”.  Fischli and  Weiss  adhere  to  this  proposition,  not  only  in  The  Way  Things  Go -­ where  the  objects  are  familiar  and  every  day,  yet  are seemingly given  a  life  of  their  own,  but  also  in  an  array  of  their  other work.  One  of  their  first  collaborative  pieces,  In  The  Carpet  Shop,  is another  example  that  draws  heavily  on  the experience of  childhood  play.  In  The  Carpet  Shop  is  a  display  of  cold  meat  cuts,  laid  out  as though  it  were  a  carpet  shop  with, as  Arthur  Danto  noted,  “small  vertical  objects,  like  cigarette  butts”.  This  piece  almost  seems  to  have more  of  a  relationship with the  image  and  experience  of  childhood  play  than  The  Way  Things  Go  does,  due  to  its  simplistic  nature.  It could  hardly bare  a  stronger  similarity  to  the  way  that  a  child  might  play  with  their  dinner,  picking  up  bits  of  food  and  imbuing  them with characteristics  or  giving  them  a  completely  new  function.  Another  specialist’s  opinion  that  Sutton  Smith  mentions  is  that  of Victor Turner – “the  anthropologist,  calls  play  “liminal”  or  “liminoid”,  meaning  that  it  occupies  a  threshold  between reality  and  unreality, as  if,  for example,  it  were  on  a  beach  between  land  and  sea.”  This  is  another  definition  of  what  play  is,  that  seems  to  fit directly  with  the  work  of Fischli  and  Weiss.  Their  work  being  fairly  straight  forward  in  terms  of  the  concept  and  materials  used ­‐ and  yet  the  objects  are  instilled with  a  different  function.  Therefore,  they  are  still  what  they  were  originally,  yet  have  been given  a  new  life  and  ulterior  purpose  or meaning.  For  example,  the  reality  of  a  tire  is  that  it  should roll  (which  it  does  in The  Way  Things  Go)  and  yet  it  is  not  fulfilling  its original  purpose as a tire,  which  would  be  to  become  the  wheel  of  a car.

The  functionality  of  objects  remains  the  same  in  Test  Site  (2006)  by  Carsten  Holler  where  the  gallery becomes  an  active,  participatory area. Test  Site  was  an  experiment  set  up  in  the  Turbine  Hall  in  Tate  Modern,  filling  the space  with  a number  of  large  slides.  The  intent  of  the piece  was  to  investigate  the  possible  effects  of  sliding,  both  on  the viewers  and  on  the  one  doing  the  sliding.  Slides have immediate associations  with  playgrounds,  and  therefore  with  fun,  laughter  and childhood  joy.  The  difference  here  is  that  people of  any  age were welcome  to  use  these  slides  and  the  audience  participation  was one  of  jubilation  as  people  felt  the  release  that  comes  from  sliding.  Those observing  the  sliding  were  engaging  in  a  somewhat passive  form  of  play ­‐ watching  something  for  their  own  amusement,  not  for  necessity. This  is  similar  to  the  way  in  which watching television  is  described  as  a  form  of  play  by  Brian  Sutton  Smith  in  The  Ambiguity  of  Play ‐ “watching  television  can  be watching  and  identifying  with  other  people  at  play,  whether  in  fiction  or  in  real  life…viewers  can  control  their  involvement just  as  if  the  “play”  belongs  to  them”.

This  statement  seems  highly  relevant  in  this  case  as  one  is  experiencing  the  same joyous  emotions  watching  those who are  sliding  as  one would  feel  by  actively  participating  in  the  sliding.  Both  actions  of  watching  and  participating  in  the  sliding are  non-­productive,  non-permanent  and  non-­serious. These  seem  to be crucial  factors  in  identifying  play  as  Johan  Huizinga states‐ “the  activity  is  free,  undertaken voluntarily;  it  is  experienced  outside  the  realm  of  ordinary  life,  in  a fictive  dimension  of  experience,  which  does  not  aim  at  any  utility  or necessity  of  survival,  and  does  not  meet  needs   and appetites  such  as  warmth  and  hunger  but  thrives  independently  of  them”.

There  are  numerous  reasons  why  artists  have  become  intrigued  with  the  idea  of  childhood  play  and  chosen  to  draw on the  image  and experience  of  it.  Perhaps  because,  in  our  society,  play  becomes  such  a  novelty  after  reaching  adulthood ­‐ “Playing really  is  sinning….  We live by  a  scarcity  mentality  in  a  potentially  surplus  economy.  With  time  on  our  hands  that  we  cannot infuse  into  our  personal  lives,  we damn ourselves,  as  we’ve  been  taught,  for  wasting  time.”5  Perhaps  it  is  because  the will  to  create  is  something  that  children  and  artists have  in common,  and  both  have  the  ability  to  personify  inanimate  objects (like  in  The  Way  Things  Go)  or  indeed  to  do  the  opposite – ­“The  child plays  at  being  not  only  a  shopkeeper  or  teacher, but  also  a  windmill  and  a  train”6.  It  could  be  the  effect  of  childhood  on others that  artists find so  intriguing,  like in  the  experimental  work  Test  Site  by  Carsten  Holler.  Fischli  and Weiss  utilise  ideas  from  childhood  play, using  an array of  discarded  items  and  re-­animating  them.  The  way  in  which  the  aforementioned  artists  draw  on  the  image  and  experience of childhood  play,  varies  from  observation  to  interaction.  They  raise questions  regarding  what  play  actually  is,  and  how  we  can simulate  the experience of  a  child.

1  Arthur  Danto,  ‘Play  Things’,  p97
2  Susan  Buck-­‐Morss,  The  Dialects  of  Seeing  
3  “The  Cog”,  a  commercial  made  by  Honda  to  showcase  the  Honda  Accord  ,  2003  
4  Homo  Ludens,  1938    
5  Alan  Kaprow,  Essays  on  the  Blurring  of  Art  and  Life  
6  Walter  Benjamin

Buck, Susan. "Morss  The  Dialectics  of  Seeing.  Walter  Benjamin  and  the  Arcades  Project". 
MIT  Press: Cambridge.  Massachussetts.  1989. pp262-­265. Print
Sutton-Smith, Brian. "The  Ambiguity  of  Play  Cambridge", 
Mass:  London: Harvard  University  Press. 1997. Print
Kaprow, Alan;  "Education  of  the  unartist/part  2  Essays  on  the  Blurring  of  Art  and  Life". 
Berkeley:  University  of  California  Press.  1996. Print
Huizinga, J. "Homo  Ludens.  A  Study  of  the  Play-­Element  in  Culture".  
Boston:  Beacon  Press. 1985. Print
Lowry, J. "Work,  Play  and  the  Unmaking  of  Things"  in  D  Green.  
ed.  Makeshift  Brighton: Brighton  College  of  Art.  2001. Print