Playing Along: On Art and Play

Aarushi Zarthoshtimanesh 21st Apr, 2021

‘I am not going to oppose play to reality, to work, to ritual or sports because it exists in all of them. It is a way of being in the world, like languages, thought, faith, reason, and myth.’ 

– Miguel Sicart, Play Matters, 2014.

Often considered to be an autonomous activity that exists free of conforming to regulation or restraint, play holds a multiplicity of meanings within itself. It generally engenders memories of freedom and spontaneity in our minds as we associate it with laissez faire playgrounds that gave us a space decoupled from reality to openly gamble with our ungoverned ids. Play has been contemplated within a lot of subjects, primarily within psychoanalysis. From Sigmund Freud to D.W. Winnicott, Melanie Klein to Jean Piaget, play has a lot of doctrinal theory backing it. One view of play as this separate, unrestricted world, was extensively put forth by Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga in his famous book Homo Ludens (1938), which is often regarded as one of the archetypal references in regards to the discussion of play.

But, author and professor Miguel Sicart, challenges this Huizingan play we know of, by aptly bringing to light how play, in this contemporary epoch, breathes and prevails in every aspect of our lives – from the dolls we call best friends as kids, to the screens now feeding us palliative content of memes, hashtags and double taps. But, playing as an escape into an imagined utopia and a verb converse to ‘working’, is a singular concept of a dynamic subject. So further, as we look at play as a multidimensional being, coexisting in every sphere of our lives, we can take a deeper look into its associations with contemporary art and artists working and playing across mediums, ideas and motifs. Further helping us analyse this word as not just a method of consumption, but of creative production too, like reading, writing, singing, etc.

Hillary Floe in her article on cases of ‘over-participation’ within art, also addresses the dichotomy of the idealised notions of play as ‘a lawless sphere of freedom and authenticity’ opposed to the intrinsic nuances within different aspects of play, which direct us employing certain rules and boundaries. Making a very valid point because even as one observes games, part of the world of ‘playing’, they function solely on the basis of there being a certain set of rules that guide and direct them. The more elements of control and constraint are added, the more difficult and in-depth the game gets.

Take for example, Ukrainian artist Zhanna Kadyrova’s  work. Her pieces such as- ‘Second Hand’ (2019) and ‘Market’ (2018), recreate and regenerate items of clothing like dresses, jackets and other textiles, or even markets of fruits, vegetables and more, with her mosaicked style of using repurposed tiles and materials like concrete and cement. Author Juliana Neira talks of how Kadyrova, through the historical, soviet references to past ‘Constructivism and Socialist Realism’, addresses the instrumental role that certain places/locations hold in our lives, as the pieces are ‘tied as they are to the architectural past their very fabric is made from.’ Bringing to the forefront the relevance of the materiality and physicality of the pieces.

The concept toys with familiarity, with an ode to houses that get passed down through generations and turn into family homes and leave an indelible imprint in people’s lives. With our perceptions of the materials used to make these objects and the intrinsic commercial values they hold, it ties up various notions of art as commodity, of what we wear and where we live as symbols of our identities and also the ever-present act of recycling- of objects and our past narratives, all tiled up together.

Working and playing, within the boundaries of referencing which material elicits the right historical context (As Neira mentions in her article on Kadyrova- she uses ‘tiles from defunct Soviet-era industrial buildings,’ and referencing ‘sculptures reminiscent of 1960s and 1970s-style soviet fashion’); what she makes and how it is sold (‘everything is sold by weight, at the rate of one gram per unit of local currency’), all of these specifications bring a more layered depth to the work. It simultaneously also creates a parallel world of norms and conditions for the work to be activated within. Thus, further illustrating how utilising certain formal structures and rules within play can add a more galvanising feature to it and generate a more stimulating environment, giving artists a more powerful profundity to express with.

 Further on in her article, Floe also brings up how author and art critic Edward Lucie – Smith, questions the political context of ‘play-based culture as serving only to assuage feelings of frustration with the status quo, dissipating the energies needed to achieve political reform’. Essentially, expressing how the remedial agenda of play, as escaping and abandoning responsibilities, can often create an environment that tranquillises us from facing the brutal reality of unjust political and social disparity. His understanding was that it could take away and misspend people’s attention and efforts on ‘novel manifestations of mass- cultural kitsch’, rather than actualising the change we so desperately need in society. This was all within the context of the then evident rise of participatory/ performance art, in the sixties and seventies.

Author Jason Miller in his book, ‘Activism vs. Antagonism’, discusses this even further. This shift into ludic/ social driven art was gaining momentum and reflecting the social and political antagonism, also questioning the art world to engage and challenge normative values and roles of artist and viewer, set since eras bygone.

But play, is much more than the whimsical Mary Poppins-esque frivolity it is often singularly pegged as. Play balances between a fantasy of frolic and simplicity and the dangers of chaotic, untamed misconduct. This duality shines through even in morbid children’s tales, as gore, violence and murder (eg. Hansel and Gretel), are wrapped up in a sing-song merriment. Also understanding that Lucie- Smith’s argument and references are dated to the early seventies and bound to a narrow anthropological and historical view, they do not hold much weight in today’s context. But, even more than four decades down the line, in this culture of constantly yearning for easy and quick remedies and the mass desperation for eye-catching hyper productivity, his views are bitter-sweet because to a degree they still ring true.  

Then further we understand play as this way of creating our own language of correlations to grasp realities and decode or challenge the world, we then begin unscrewing the fixed ideas of representation and power-plays that have been celebrating prejudice for far too long. So, within art, while employing ludic behaviour, the formal boundaries of society and the roles of artist and viewer, artist and audience are also further disturbed. ‘Play, it seems, oversteps certain lines only to redraw others,’ says Hillary Floe. That ability to choose where to draw the line, where to draw in parallels and what to expose and how, all form the lexicon of the artists playing.

One such dynamic artist, redirecting the lens of history, is Kara Walker. A woman shifting the narrative, white washed textbooks have fed us with, bringing into focus the brutal reality of a past we can’t seem to accept as it truly is. From her haunting recent work at the Tate Turbine Hall- ‘Fons Americanus’, to the famed, ‘The Subtlety’, a sugar sphinx mammy resting in an old sugar factory, she’s been working and playing with sugar, silhouettes and more to challenge America’s inherent chronicles of racism and prejudice.

Her works, especially dated to the early 2000’s, utilising the Victorian medium of silhouettes, were originally a vehicle for ‘genteel portraits and illustrations in children’s books’, writes Ana Finel Honigman. They are beyond edifying and not just didactic but compellingly confronting. Walker claims this medium for a style of dark and magical storytelling and showcases through it, the contrast of the brutal atrocities of rape, abuse and assault that the slaves, in the American South endured. This wilful use of an art interwoven with its own history, and the choice to play with it in her own contexts, and breathe life into these visions of perennial devastations an entire race has had to live through, all prove how play can also solicit art in unveiling an au courrant perspective on a past we have too easily digested.  

Thus, surpassing boundaries of age, time, space, place, subject and object, play endures. Play creates, dances with, borrows from and lends to art. It forms a language of its own, in its own contexts. Even including the existing dichotomies and paradoxical themes of limitations, risks, dangers, arbitrariness and pleasure that all exist with and within play, it gives art a new breadth. To conclude, here is a quote that sums up play best – 

‘No theory of play would be adequate if it did not leave scope for its own deconstruction and distortion into nonsense.’ (Brian Sutton-Smith, The Ambiguity of Play, 2001.) 

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