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Since when did art galleries become playgrounds?

20 July 2015

‘Londoners’, began David Clack in an article for Time Out London this week, ‘stop acting like giant infants and grow up gracefully’. He was complaining about the creeping (and creepy) infantalisation of the city’s young and youngish professionals, who after a day’s work seem to want nothing more than to don a onesie and bounce around in a giant ball pit, or if giant ball pits are in short supply, on an orange space hopper. ‘You’re old!’ he reminded us. ‘Which means you’re in absolute prime position to enjoy the very best bits of the best city in the world. Blockbuster art shows, exhibitions of centuries-old treasures, enough music festivals to make an entire sleeve out of wristbands.’

Sound advice, but there’s a catch to that first suggestion. People always say art imitates life, and it’s doing it now. At the Barbican’s blockbuster exhibition ‘Digital Revolution’ last year visitors were invited to ‘Interact with a three-dimensional laser light field, meet giant robotic snakes…[and] revisit classic video games’. The Hayward Gallery is currently holding a Carsten Höller retrospective called ‘Decision’. Decisions include whether to head first to the robotic moving beds or the giant revolving mushrooms, and when to start queuing for the enormous outdoors slides. At RIBA at the moment, you can play in a full-scale Brutalist playground, reconstructed by the Turner Prize nominated architecture collective Assemble in pastel-coloured soft foam (safety first!). I don’t think a trip to the gallery is going to have quite the effect David Clack desires. Last year an actual child mistook a Donald Judd sculpture for a climbing frame, and really, who can blame him?

Meanwhile, real Brutalist playgrounds in the city are under threat. Höller’s slides spit out their overgrown customers (who have paid £15 a pop) onto one of Southbank’s public concrete walkways, which until recently housed a small, colourful igloo and a long pink bench sculpted into the shape of a snake for general use. The nearby skatepark lives on, but only just, after a long battle to prevent it being turned into shops. ‘What does this mean? Is this art? And what questions does this helter skelter raise about the importance of play within with the wider London community?’ asked nobody ever as they disappeared down a polished metal chute under the watchful eyes of their gallery minders.

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