“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 states4 ‐ “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