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Child’s play – why artists are looking to childhood for inspiration

30 May 2022

From the June 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

memorable video at this year’s Venice Biennale – Children’s Game #29: La roue (2021) – shows a boy patiently pushing a tyre up a mountain of dark slag before curling his body inside and pitching himself downhill. A camera inside the wheel captures his face flickering between glee and terror as he descends at speed, careening and bouncing until the tyre topples. He leaps out, without a wobble, then starts the process again.

It demands extraordinary effort for a brief thrill ride, in which the dutiful expression of pleasure is tempered by dread. Some may consider this never-ending Sisyphean cycle a useful metaphor for the Biennale itself. In fact, it forms part of The Nature of the Game (2022) by Francis Alÿs in the Belgian Pavilion: a labyrinth of screens showing children around the world engaged in play. There is rope jumping, a game of pandemic-era ‘contagion’ tag and a group humming to summon mosquitoes. 

Alÿs’s installation argues for play as a creative response to circumstance. While some games require basic equipment (a skipping rope, paint to mark racing snails, paper and string for a kite), all evolve as an inventive exploitation of the given environment. Watching a girl hop and leap as she avoids cracks in the pavement, we also take in the density of buildings and traffic surrounding her in Hong Kong. La roue was filmed in Lubumbashi; the vast black mountain up which the boy pushes his tyre is a waste heap from the Etoile Mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Other artists have explored the instinct to play manifesting in the most forbidding circumstances. In 2016, photographer Mark Neville’s project Child’s Play documented children making space for games in extreme environments, including the Shamattawa First Nation in Manitoba, Helmand Province in Afghanistan and Luhansk in East Ukraine. Play is a coping mechanism; a learning tool for survival, offering the realm of the imagination as private space or temporary escape.

Alÿs proposes these games as ephemeral cultural artefacts that merit preservation. He is not alone in the desire to archive the creative products of childhood. In the UK, between the 1950s and ’90s, folklorists Iona and Peter Opie gathered songs, games and lore in volumes such as Children’s Games in Street and Playground (1969). In San Francisco, psychologist and educator Rhoda Kellogg amassed around one million drawings by children (an archive of 8,000 was published in 1967.) Art critic Herbert Read studied them and was fascinated to observe how infants intuitively progressed through similar patterns of mark making. 

Francis Alÿs’s Children’s Game #29: La roue (2021)

Production photograph, taken on location in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, during filming for Francis Alÿs’s Children’s Game #29: La roue (2021). Image: Douglas Masamuna

Rather than publishing a scholarly volume, Alÿs essentially curated an exhibition of creative play and presented it at the world’s most prestigious art event – a radical gesture in itself. Other artists interested in play have shown at the Biennale in the past. In 1986, Isamu Noguchi installed Slide Mantra – a cylindrical white marble sculpture – in the courtyard of the US pavilion. As he tested it in front of his assistants in Querceta, Italy, he declared: ‘Art is something to be felt through a child’s buttocks.’

For the grown-ups, play became an unspoken sub-theme at this year’s Biennale. The women of Surrealism – whose interest in monsters, machines and bodily functions underpins the main exhibition – were partial to cadavre exquis (the drawing game also known as ‘consequences’). Frida Kahlo’s contributions were invariably filthy. For the Surrealists, the unpredictability of improvised play was an escape from the regimented world of industry and warfare: leave reliability to the machines. 

Representing the Netherlands, melanie bonajo’s When the body says Yes (2022) explores the use of games to break through taboos surrounding touch and intimacy. Six months of group workshops culminate in sessions in a shallow pool of oil. Participants take turns gliding across one another’s naked bodies, as if riding a rather more pleasurable version of the skeleton in the Winter Olympics. 

Sonia Boyce’s Feeling Her Way (2022) for the British Pavilion started by inviting five singers to improvise. Play here is the obverse of professionalism. After decades working to produce pleasing vocals, the five Black women in Boyce’s films were invited to become vocally monstrous; to release themselves through play. In awarding Boyce the Golden Lion, the Biennale jury specifically praised this focus on a free space of creative expression.

As I write, design collective Assemble are at Nottingham Contemporary installing play sculptures based on an unrealised 1968 scheme by architect Lina Bo Bardi. Assemble have a long interest in the social value of play spaces, designing a community adventure ground in Glasgow ahead of their 2015 Turner Prize win. Here, they go a step further, constructing art to be explored with the body and imagination.

In the wider museum world, there is tension around playful behaviour. Carsten Höller has been accused of turning galleries into playgrounds with his snaking silver slides (a pair were installed last year at LUMA in Arles), ditto Olafur Eliasson with works such as the light projection Your uncertain shadow (colour) (2010). While such entertaining, immersive projects may have paved the way for emptier spectacle, there is a crucial distinction to be made between Instagram-friendly fluff and art that creates space in the gallery for what Eliasson calls ‘unlearning’. If we want our museums to be sites of scholarship and big ideas, play should be considered an essential component. 

From the June 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.