Rebecca Swirsky: Writer

London-based short story writer and critic

Homo Faber: A Rainbow Caravan

Installation view at Aichi Triennale 2016; OHMAKI Shinji, “Echoes Infinity: Moment and eternity”, 2016. Photo: Tetsuo Ito

 

 

Homo Faber: A rainbow caravan was the title of Japan’s third Aichi Triennale. The festival has grown since its inception in 2010, and is now spread across the cities of Nagoya, Okazaki and Toyohashi. Lasting seventy-four days from summer to autumn, this year’s edition was overseen by the photographer Chihiro Minato and featured 130 artists from thirty-eight countries. Its diverse mixture of contemporary art, performance, music, film and opera marks the Aichi Triennale out as a strong presence on Japan’s cultural map, as well as the international art festival circuit, but this year literalism sometimes obscured its artistic merits.

Many artists took the festival’s theme – travel – at face value. Birds featured on canvases, in video, in sound installations, cut by laser from a 7-metre-tall vase and, most memorably, as live specimens fluttering in a flat furnished solely with complex, geometric bird stands: this installation by the Brazilian artist Laura Lima, “Flight” (2008–2016), invited a reverse-dynamic in which visitors became clumsy, gravity-burdened guests in the bird’s terrain.

In other works the theme was further from the surface: Mitamura Midori’s installation “Art & Breakfast” consisted of miscellaneous domestic items such as lamps, balloons, mirrors, figures, small tables, string, dolls, birds and toy aeroplanes, and tapped into a Japanese practice of gathering small talismanic objects – or omamori – to make oneself feel safe. Also at the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art was Ohmaki Shinji’s “Echos-Infinity” (2016) – a work that exists only in memory and on digital record now that the Triennale is over. It consisted of traditional Japanese painting powder stencilled on to 450 square metres of floor felt; its installation took fifteen people one month. Featuring peaches that are famous in the prefecture as a delicacy, and cranes encircling lime-green flowers with orange centres, the work had a lulling symmetry that echoed that of a Buddhist sand mandala. Initially, the work was protected from destructive smudging by visitors’ feet, but, as the Triennale progressed, people were allowed to walk over it with shoes in hand, blurring this carpet of jewel colours in which birds and flowers bloomed or touched beaks.

Overlapping with Aichi by a few weeks was the Okayama Art Summit, Japan’s newest international art show. It was launched under the directorship of the British conceptual artist Liam Gillick, and its inaugural edition presented thirty artists. The festival was significantly smaller than Aichi, but more cerebral in its curatorship. The theme was “Development” (or “Kaihatsu” in Japanese). As inspiration, Gillick gave participating artists a review by Fredric Jameson of David Wittenberg’s book Time Travel: The popular philosophy of narrative.

Among the artists resisting the idea of progress was Tatsuki Masaru, whose photographs of Japanese deer-hunting and fishing practices offered uneasy glimpses of lesser-known worlds. Masaru has an anthropologist’s interest in the relationship between humans, nature and animals. In “Is the Blood Still Red?” (2011), a deer’s death is carefully captured in close-up. The deer head takes up half of the print’s space; the rest is black. The scrutiny is shocking: hair filaments captured in precise detail, white ear tufts flecking to rust-red, vermilion drops beading a glossy, lifeless eye.

Ahmet Ögüt’s installation of bronze abstract-figurative sculptures “While Others Attack/Diğerleri Saldırırken” (2016), meanwhile, presented police dogs attacking protesters. Clothing covering the arms and legs of three bronzed figures is eerily taut, torn off by unseen forces. One figure, in a still of perpetual horror, is seen bending sharply to shake off the dog at his hip. Ögüt, who was born in Turkey and whose artistic themes include war, religion and social and rural customs, based his bronze installation series on photography archives from historical protests, including those in Cape Town, as well as Civil Rights Movement marches in Alabama. Ögüt’s use of bronze is significant: generally used for public monuments or aristocratic busts, it has official connotations; here, it is used to record violence carried out by the state.

The last Aichi Trienniale, in 2013, dealt with the effects of the Great East Japan Earthquake (March 11, 2011). Awakening – Where Are We Standing? – Earth, Memories and Resurrection took on a serious subject, but the artists’ output wasn’t all gloom. The architectural historian Fujimori Terunobu’s “Flying Mud Boat” (2010) was made from mud plaster and old sheaves of paper, suspended on tension cables. A comfortable space containing a stove and accessed by a ladder, “Flying Mud Boat” humorously combined the nostalgic with the never before seen.

From the last festival’s focal point of devastation, it felt right that this year the Triennale turned outwards. Its artists – many visiting Japan for the first time – hailed from a much larger number of countries. The aim was for visitors to experience the world through their collected art works. Conversely, encapsulating in miniature the theme of travel, a “Mobile Triennale” toured three cities and a town, delivering and presenting works to Ichinoyima, Anjo, Obu and Shitara. The hope was for cross-pollination to take place, as the art of the Aichi festival took root and helped to unearth provincial culture.

Rebecca Swirsky  is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2015 and Ambit Magazine.

 

Ragged Lives Rephrased: How Serious Sweet upends our assumptions about love – and politics.

One of six UK-authored titles on this year’s Man Booker longlist, A L Kennedy’s eighth novel is a treatise on both the politics of love and the politics of politics. Its presence on the list is perhaps no surprise: although it was published in May, before anyone knew the outcome of the EU referendum, Serious Sweet – with shades of Nineteen Eighty-Four – is a satire on Whitehall. Timely, too, in a more literal sense, is the novel’s structural conceit of containing the narrative within a single day (flashbacks aside), which links its literary DNA with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The action focuses on two central characters, Jon Sigurdsson and Meg Williams, who stumble haplessly across the capital towards each other, teetering between civ­ilities and catastrophe. (“In case of apocalypse, take tea,” Jon quips.) A generous reliance on inner monologue – a device that Kennedy employed more frugally in her award-winning 2007 novel, Day – dilutes the plot’s tension in favour of a glutinous psychological interiority.

Jon, a scholarship boy made good, is a 59-year-old, divorced civil servant with moral capital but bankrupt emotional reserves, whose favourite place to visit is Monkey World in Dorset. Meg, a newly sober, actually bankrupt former accountant, is 45 years old and working at a home for damaged animals. Both individuals are navigating perils. Meg is undergoing treatment for precancerous growths, an experience made doubly harrowing by her refusal of anaesthetic. Jon, having stayed too long in Whitehall, providing services that he no longer believes in, is spilling secrets: he is a whistleblower. A self-confessed reality-rephraser-turned-reality-leaker, he wonders, “What is a political party? A conspiracy theory with membership cards.” Later, he decides, “Politics is just an organised and expensive way of being furious.”

They enter each other’s orbit when Jon advertises his services as a writer who, for a small fee and under the pseudonym “Mr August”, will write letters of gentle comfort to female readers. Of his readership, it is Meg who understands that her letter writer needs the immaculate kindness that he posts out. The damage suffered by both characters allows them to see each other clearly – the refrain “to see and see and see” weaves throughout the book – but also intermittently impairs emotional clarity.

They are agonised by intimacy. The closer they become, the harder away they tug. If Jon is a man who can paper over the cracks (adroitly observing of his role as a civil servant, “If you feel that you can’t quite like some part of reality, I’ll step in and rephrase it for you”), Meg “had an interest in damages, you might say; damages and gaps. They could both be educational.” Words on the page – ­written, erased, reassembled – pull them closer. Meg muses: “I can have faith in words. I like words. I like them more and fucking more.”

Amid this angst are snapshots of altruistic London life as collected by Meg: a man plucks a spinning balloon from mid-air; two women help a distressed fellow passenger at Canada Water Tube station; a father spontaneously introduces a babe in arms to everyone at a café as “Nina”. “Every time I see something good, or kind, or silly, or worth collecting, I remember it,” Meg tells Jon. These observations, lucid and laser sharp, can read like compressed versions of Kennedy’s short stories, such as those in her 2014 collection, All the Rage.

Indeed, this is an author with a proven ability to see – truly see – and whose prose can fire like gunshots across the page. Some lines are to be treasured: “The parakeets were lively already and sleeking about, flaring to a halt and alighting, an alien green that never was here before, bouncing and head cocking in dull trees.” Echoing the fineness at the heart of the book, Meg says she locates “fissures in the world’s hardness, where I can find what’s right, sweet, harmless”. Kennedy delights in seeing the world in a grain of sand, but her best, most tickling gifts lie in upending our assumptions. Lights at Harrods are “white pimples”, letters are “napalm and velvet” and, memorably, the handshake of a minister is “like being handed a warm shit in a sock”.

Aiming for high scores is not without risk. Phrases such as “Jon feeling his own sweat creeping down the back of his neck like the feet of shamed insects” tread a fine line between superb and plain overcooked. Yet Kennedy’s problems lie mostly in sustaining any kind of tautness through the course of a long book – especially when the work is largely a two-hander with an emphasis on interiority. Sometimes things turn sodden. “You find yourself disgusting, because you always do,” Meg thinks, and Jon pronounces: “I am the spineless son of a spineless man.” Voices become diluted. Jon’s voice, specifically, transitions from florid to plain to poetic in the space of a single day.

United in love, undone by their frailties, Jon and Meg make poor page-fellows. Previous works have testified to Kennedy’s faith in love, but with these two characters oscillating between sadness, pessimism and nausea, even Meg gets irritated: “She really does understand being scared – it’s not like he’s so fucking special.”

Ian Rankin once said of London, “It’s a different city if you’ve got money in your pocket.” Kennedy admirably presents this case, lobbing Molotovs at political rottenness and hollow elitism. Yet it is reasonable to expect rewards in return for readers’ time. Bloated novels are a puzzling trend. Had Serious Sweet undergone judicious whittling, its benefits would have been ­seriously sweeter.

This review first appeared in the New Statesman

Jerusalem Season of Culture

Rustling
Photo by Noam Chojnowski

 

It’s 3 a.m. in Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley. In a modest building that is normally a music centre for Arabic and British children, I’m standing in a circle, holding hands with women I’ve never met, participating in a Sufi ceremony. Our circle contains two further concentric circles of men. At the centre, instead of a traditional Sufi sheikh, stands an imam. In unison, heads and bodies dip to the mantra of “Allah”. It’s a beguiling sound. The space, too, is beautiful. Muslin strips hang from the ceiling like opaque light shafts. Designed by Tal Erez, the artist who represented Israel at the 2012 Venice Biennale, the strips are inscribed with devotional language from the three Abrahamic faiths in Arabic, Hebrew and Western languages.

Four hours earlier, Dervishes and Dervisha had whirled, hands on hearts, aiming to build a connection to Allah. In an atmosphere as potent as perfume, sinuous music spun from Sufi instruments including the oud, drums, kamancheh, ney and daf. Like Kabbalah in Judaism, Sufism is Islam’s mystical element, though some Muslims consider it heretical. However, the imam chanting the mantras (whose name cannot be printed for safety reasons) came from Islam’s third holiest site, Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque. Equally astonishing was the presence of the other religious leaders: five imams from Nablus (a city in the West Bank), Copts, sheikhs, nuns, monks and Christian clerics and rabbis from varied denominations and genders, ranging from an Orthodox rabbi, dean of a West Bank yeshiva, to a female rabbi, Rabba Tamar Appelbaum – whose dream the evening, and week, stemmed from. Yet that evening, despite their differences, everyone present held hands and chanted “Allah”.

How, one wonders, does a multi-faith initiative occur in one of the world’s most hotly contested cities? Amen – A House of Prayer for All Believers was the result of eight months of meetings between religious leaders; for one week, all could say “Amen” together. Participating faiths took turns to lead the day’s prayers. The emphasis one evening was on absolution and forgiveness. When Coptic monks sang from John’s Gospel, the discovery was made, on the night, that the Coptic praying style bore striking similarities to Hebrew davening. This made sense given the presence of Hebrews in Ancient Egypt, presenting a fascinating example of dissemination, in which elements of cultures and religions become normalized into other cultures and religions until origins are forgotten or erased. The week was rounded off with worshippers invited to Muslim prayers on Friday, a Jewish Shabbat service on Saturday, and a Catholic Mass on Sunday. The hope is that seeds of unity and acceptance will germinate. None of the religious figures was alone; all have congregations behind them, all have been open about their involvement.

Amen was one strand of Jerusalem’s progressive Mekudeshet festival (“holy” in Hebrew), presented by the Jerusalem Season of Culture (JSOC) between September 4 and 26. Many of its events were free. Those attending Rustling in Jerusalem’s sliver of forest could roam until daybreak, experiencing an uncanny night-time audio experience, while Jerusalem Confessions, an evening of risqué immersive theatre, made the audience the drama’s focus. Seven Ways to Dissolve Boundaries offered seven four-hour journeys on which participants met, along the way, those deemed to be “boundary dissolvers”. These included Yiscah Smith, a father of six and ultra-Orthodox believer who underwent gender-realignment surgery from male to female; Chaya Gilboa, also previously ultra-Orthodox, now a leading voice for pluralism and women’s rights; and Sarah Weil, a lesbian who became an LGBT activist after sixteen-year-old Shira Banki was fatally stabbed by an ultra-Orthodox man at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride festival. Using the city’s light rail tram (controversial, for connecting North Jerusalem’s Pisgat Ze’ev settlement to the city centre), our group met with East Jerusalem’s volunteer cultural co-ordinator, Mahmoud Muna. At the Educational Bookshop, Mahmoud’s bookstore in the American Colony Hotel, where books include The Unmaking of Israel by Gershom Gorenberg, tiny biscuits were dipped into Arabic coffee as Mahmoud confronted his mostly Israeli or Jewish audience: “Israeli soldiers may be your friends or loved ones, but to us they are a symbol of the occupation, and a legitimate target”.

JSOC’s clear-eyed gaze, energized by an enduring love for its city (which in 2013 had 499,400 Jewish residents, 281,100 Muslim residents, 14,700 Christian residents, 200 Druze and 9,000 residents not classified by religion) is striking, given recent cultural crackdowns. In December 2015, the novel Borderlife, a love story focusing on an Israeli and a Palestinian, was banned from schools. In January this year, the Education Ministry’s cultural blacklist of the “politically undesirable” was exposed. In February, the Justice Ministry approved the Culture Minister Miri Regev’s “Cultural Loyalty Bill”. Condemned as McCarthyite by its critics, the Bill aims to halt funding for cultural activities that “contravene the principles of the state”.

JSOC’s Executive Director, Naomi Bloch Fortis, remains hopeful. “The official point of view has many shades. But yes, Miri is creating harm to our consciousness. People are getting scared, cowed. Jerusalem faces issues before any other places in Israel. With this festival we are focusing on what pulls us together rather than what separates us.” JSOC’s Artistic Director, Itay Mautner, added, “In Israel we rarely go out of our comfort zone. Culture has been held for so long in one party’s hand – rich, white, secular men who looked down on other cultures. Jerusalem is made up of so many different people who speak different languages. The potential is that there are all these parallel realities going on simultaneously. I’m not saying that’s realized – but it’s there”.

It is indeed a city of warring narratives. I left Israel as flyers were being handed out in Zion Square, the site of recent right-wing rallies, denouncing JSOC’s activities as the work of Christian missionaries – initiatives that include bringing trees and herbs temporarily into the square (the trees worked: karaoke, canoodling, dancing and eyebrow-plucking ensued). The group responsible for the flyers, Lehava, a small right-wing faction, is noisily opposed to Jewish assimilation.

In an essay published in 1966, the Jewish theologian, philosopher and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “We are heirs to a long history of mutual contempt among religions and religious denominations, of religious coercion, strife and persecutions”. Amen’s positioning within a culture festival, both for the religious and the arts world, is deliberate and new; had the project been positioned within purely theological or political contexts, it would have had less breathing space.

Rabba Tamar told me: “Religion at its best and culture at its best speak to the same point about what reality should be. Being here is the result of regular meetings, learning about each other’s ways of praying. Not one religious leader said ‘no’. At the end, eight of us went into the desert and rehearsed under the stars, each in his corner praying until 2 a.m. Here, we don’t lose our identities, but stand strong in them together”. I’d been reminded of Fr Rafic’s words, spoken earlier that evening: “Forgiveness is a special power. Only a strong person can forgive”. I’d also thought of the thirteenth-century Islamic philosopher Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there”. Outside, in the cool summer air, observing a Mizrachi (Oriental) rabbi serenade a couple of delighted-looking Coptic monks on an oud, Rabba Tamar nodded. “We must go forward. We can’t go back.”

This article was first published in the TLS on 28th September

 

Vimeo video

Venetian glassware

A family affair

NO ARTIFICIAL light is used at the first British show by Laura de Santillana and Alessandro Diaz de Santillana, Venice-based siblings from the great Venini glassware dynasty. Instead, spring sunshine scribes and inhabits the sculptural glass shapes they have installed in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s 18th-century chapel. Whereas Paulo Venini, the glassware maestro, was lauded for designs that tether form to function, his grandchildren translate the medium’s possibilities into objects ambiguously located between mirror and painting, sculpture and book.

Glass—like the de Santillanas’ family—has a rich history. In 2,000BC Egyptian glass beads were considered as valuable as gold and semi-precious gems, and were traded widely. The Venetians were making glass by the eighth century, but the flourishing of the craft was linked to the arrival of Byzantine glassworkers fleeing Constantinople’s occupation by the Crusaders in 1204 and by the Ottomans in 1453. The city-state’s glass trade grew accordingly, aided by its strategic trading position between East and West.

In 1291 the industry was ordered to move to the island of Murano to safeguard Venice’s mainly wooden buildings against fires caused by glass furnaces. This isolation also made the glassmakers easier to control. They were both supervised and respected, and a law was passed in 1295 forbidding them to migrate, lest they take their knowledge with them. To encourage successive generations to stay in the trade, the Venetian government granted artisans higher social status and permission for their daughters to marry into premier Venetian families. The manoeuvre worked. Bequeathed from father to son, glass recipes or partite became wreathed in secrecy, fostering an insularity that persisted even beyond the Republic’s collapse in 1808.

Into this smouldering atmosphere of heritage and tradition came Paulo Venini (1895-1959), a fresh-faced Milanese law graduate, in 1921, bringing more modernist visions with him. Formidable in promotion, taste and, later, his own designs, Venini employed Carlo Scarpa, a renowned architect, and Fulvio Bianconi, an illustrator, as artistic designers. His company exhibited at the Venice Biennale and the Milan Triennale, and soon many others were copying its avant-garde style.

Fast-forward several years and the de Santillanas, who developed their skills working at Venini, have developed separate visual languages as artists, although they share a dynamic, fluid approach. Nudging the medium into the fine art world, they have created pieces in America, Italy, Venice, France and the Czech Republic, forging international artistic–rather than artisanal—reputations.

Mr Diaz de Santillana’s series of painterly mirrored works of blown glass and silver patina usher the atmosphere of Venice’s laguna into the chapel. They appear as undulating slabs of murky water, their ruffled surfaces like liquid indented by breeze—the Corinthians quote comes to mind, “For now we see through a glass, darkly”. His site-specific work “HS-YSP” (2011-15) arranges 13 pieces of glass on a wall, in a large, loose curve reminiscent of an ammonite.

Ms de Santillana says the pair often start from the same idea, before diverging into different processes. Indeed, if Mr Diaz de Santillana reflects the light in his work, Ms de Santillana draws it inward. Among the highlights of her exhibition is “Blue Octavo” (2014), referencing Kafka’s octavo-size notebooks, which the writer kept from 1917 to 1919. Resonating with the work of Edmund de Waal, a ceramicist, in its careful simplicity, “Blue Octavo” is composed of a white vitrine or “bookshelf” holding eight rectangular “glass books”, each made from blown compressed glass, and each containing a sealed interior space. Before the mouths of the books were sealed, white opal powder was poured in, settling into formations inside and making the chromatic properties of each unique. In direct reference to Kafka’s notebooks, seven of Laura’s books are an inky blue. Ms de Santillana explains that the “dark blue looks black, like clouds turning black in the twilight”.

The chapel’s contemplative, light-saturated space is a fitting environment for the works of these 21st-century glass maestros. Skilled in the sculptural syntax of glass and touched by Venini stardust, Ms de Santillana and her brother share new visions for this age-old material.

This article was first published in The Economist’s online blog Prospero

‘Something Else Entirely’

Dinosaurs on Other Planets

by Danielle McLaughlin
(208pp, John Murray, hardback £14.99, ISBN 978 1 473 613706)

 

Good writers rely on style. Great writers rely on empathy, revealing something essential about who and why we are. Mining the psycho-geography of small towns and rural Ireland from Portlaoise to Balleyphehane, Danielle McLaughlin’s debut collection edges her towards the latter category. In the opening story, The Art of Foot Binding, a character asks, ‘Did you ever think our lives would turn out like this?’ It’s a question that sets the tone for eleven works in which cruelty and care are situated a hair’s breadth apart.

McLaughlin belongs to a new breed of Irish writer and, more specifically, female Irish writer whose outspokeness has been hazarded by author Kevin Barry as ‘a proper radicalism’. Writers who, swerving from traditional touchstones of exile, artistic restraint, poverty, famine and church (subjects labelled scathingly by Anne Enright as ‘Grand Ireland’), are detailing contemporary Ireland in all its recent diffuse angst and economic instability.

Owing its spirit as much to Flannery O’Connor and Alice Munro as William Trevor and Anne Enright, McLaughlin’s writing possesses an impressive degree of maturity for someone who had a mid-life career change. She hadn’t published a word before her 40s. Yet the author’s previous grounding as a lawyer, with its proximity to courtroom theatre and linguistic rigour, explains her precision in detailing the tensions in relationships. Dented by life, characters rub uneasily against each other, missing some vital social cues and wilfully ignoring others, ultimately defined as much by the negative spaces between them as by jolting connection. In Not Oleanders, Etta, a twenty-something would-be suitor for ‘battle-scarred, fraying around the edges’ Lily, is too gauche to understand that ‘Life, after all, was mostly the art of salvage.’ Louise, the first person narrator in The Smell of Dead Flowers, realises only many years later the true meaning of her aunt’s expression as she gazed from the bedroom window, an expression understood by the story’s end as ‘something else entirely’.

Death shapes the collection, specifically the death of animals; a trail of ducks, crows, fish, puppies, mink, seals, crabs, bluebottles, dragonflies, moths, sheep and chickens pile up by its end. McLaughlin says she ‘had an obsession with dead things; insects, birds and animals’ as a young child. Her characters fare little better, yet despite a slew of affairs, mental breakdowns, spontaneous prostitution, alcoholism, dying mothers and learning disabilities, they avoid reading as overwrought. And among the many bruising, quotidian sorrows, beauty emerges with rawness. An argumentative teenager is ‘dismayed, confused, scorched by the life sap bubbling up through her’. Park ducks, mysteriously lifeless, are described as ‘lying on a muddy bank, their jewelled heads pressing beak-shaped indents into the silt.’

Rarely used, metaphor, when utilised, homes in on the body with queasy precision; girls from a rough estate are ‘propped against alley walls, taking boys like bullets’, skin has the ‘waxy, pinched look of a museum doll’, breasts are likened to ‘two small oranges’, nipples as ‘little hard pips’, while pregnant Aileen in Silhouette, reading an article about German ‘baby hatches’, imagines babies plopping into warm darkness,’the occasional soft cracking of skulls like eggs’.

Occasionally an imprecision with language surfaces, while some endings err on the stagey side, yet these are minor shadings. Mostly, the author’s crisp yet comma-rich prose style balances a novel’s leisurely breath with the short story’s tart density. Ali Smith has suggested the latter form’s tension results from the reader’s awareness in its imminent end – an end closer in sight than the novel. ‘With the short story,’ she has written, ‘you are up against mortality’. Death is always around the corner. Within this context, the largesse of animal corpses in Dinosaurs on Other Planets sits comfortably.

This review was first published in the TLS in May 2016

 

The Fine Art of Play

The fine art of playing – Artists on Play


The UN has enshrined the importance of play for children in its Declaration of Human Rights, and science shows how vital it is to their physical and mental development. But as cash for playgrounds in the UK is cut, privately commissioned projects, often created by artists, are coming to the fore. But can the worlds of art and play come together with integrity?


Blueprint

Words Rebecca Swirsky

Amid the glitz of London’s Frieze Art Fair, a four-year-old studies an oversized dice scored with black holes, from which children are intermittently appearing. ‘Normally you’d roll a dice,’ he tells his mother. ‘How am I going to roll this?’ Nearby, a toddler is tugging on a toy octopus’s tentacles, the creature’s hazel glass eyes uncannily human, while two six-year-olds are rocking a giant mushroom with realistic funghi veins and patination. I’m in Gartenkinder (2014), a children’s playspace designed by Carsten Höller, the Belgian conceptual artist whose major show – Decision – has just opened at the Hayward in London. Gartenkinder’s title is translated literally as ‘garden for children’ and this installation for the Gagosian Gallery’s stand attracts a steady stream of well-dressed children and accompanying adults, some of whom are clearly hoping to play themselves.

Fast forward five months and I’m lying down, staring through a square of Plexiglass built into an Escheresque soft-play space named The Idol (2015), in London’s economically deprived borough of Barking. Straddling contemporary art sculpture and functional space, The Idol is the jewel in the crown of the £14m Abbey Sport Centre and is predicted, in its first 10 years, to engage more than 700,000 local young children and families.

The Idol, an art sculpture and playspace by artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd in Barking, 2015. Photo Credit: Emil Charlaff
The Idol, an art sculpture and playspace by artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd in Barking, 2015. Photo Credit: Emil Charlaff

Designed by Turner Prize-nominated artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, acclaimed for her anarchic, playful group performances, the soft-play space has departed from generic primary colours, instead reworked with black-and-white, sci-fi overtones, taking its title from the mythology of an effigy discovered in Dagenham believed to date from around 2250 BC. Raisa, a 10-year-old girl, tells me: ‘The see-through bit makes you feel like you’re going to fall. But the slide is the best, it gives you an adrenalin rush.’ I ask her about the design. ‘Some of the pictures up the wall are cool, but a bit scary and odd,’ she replies.

Commissioned by Create, The Idol is part of the £14m Abbey Sports Centre. Photo Credit: Emil Charlaff
Commissioned by Create, The Idol is part of the £14m Abbey Sports Centre. Photo Credit: Emil Charlaff

Franky, seven, agrees. ‘I like the slide when it goes bumpy because it makes me feel weird.’ He adds: ‘I like feeling weird.’ Chetwynd was commissioned by the charity Create, whose interest lies in infiltrating artists and designers into social projects in different ways. ‘It had to be functional, stimulating and interesting to adults, but also cut the mustard as a critically acclaimed artwork and contemporary sculpture,’ Chetwynd tells me. I ask what would she like the children to feel as they use it. ‘I’d like them to feel pride that it’s in their area, like civic pride.’

The Idol takes its name from an 2250 BC effigy discovered in Dagenham. Photo Credit: Emil Charlaff
The Idol takes its name from an 2250 BC effigy discovered in Dagenham. Photo Credit: Emil Charlaff

‘The presence of play in art emerges periodically,’ says Ralph Rugoff, director at London’s Hayward Gallery, where Höller has a survey show this summer. ‘It goes in cycles, and this definitely seems like a moment.’ In 2009, the art commissioner Artangel hosted the one-day conference called There’s an Artist in the Playground that examined play’s connection to adult concerns, which included, in the words of the marketing material: ‘responsibility, risk, fun, recovery, politics, inclusion, conflict, environment, belonging, being’.

Carsten Höller’s Isomeric Slides cascades down the Hayward Gallery, part of his major summer show Decision. Photo Credit: The Artist and Luma Foundation, Arles, Photo David Levene
Carsten Höller’s Isomeric Slides cascades down the Hayward Gallery, part of his major summer show Decision. Photo Credit: The Artist and Luma Foundation, Arles, Photo David Levene

Notable British artists concerned with play include Gary Webb, whose Squeaky Clean (2012) is a permanent playground and interactive public sculpture in Greenwich’s Charlton Park, and Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, who presented Sacrilege in 2012, a life-size, inflatable, bouncy-castle replica of Stonehenge. Artist Katarzyna Zimna published Time to Play: Action and Interaction in Contemporary Art in 2014, a book that links 20th- and 21st-century art with studies of play, games and leisure, and the theories of Kant, Gadamer and Derrida. Last year’s Glasgow International Festival saw Play Summit, a threeday event curated by artist Nils Norman and Assemble, an 18-strong collective working across the fields of art, architecture and design. The remit was to explore the state of play in Scotland and beyond, and the event was attended by Chetwynd, who cited it as inspiration for tendering for the Dagenham soft-play commission.

Snake by Carsten Höller, 2013. Photo Credit: The Artist and Air De Paris, Paris, Photo: Marc Domage
Snake by Carsten Höller, 2013. Photo Credit: The Artist and Air De Paris, Paris, Photo: Marc Domage

Enshrined under Article 31 in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the importance of play is deadly serious, although not always valued. In Britain, as funding has dropped for play provision, the science has surged ahead, showing that quality play stimulates essential brain ‘plasticity’ and is an essential pathway to cognitive, developmental and physical growth. Where play doesn’t occur, brain cells rigidify, in a process referred to as ‘synapse elimination’, with chronically play-deprived children experiencing mental problems, restrictions in brain growth and depression. The leading theorist on children’s play, Bob Hughes, goes one step further, connecting it with the survival skills of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Made From Scratch builds play spaces to children’s designs
Made From Scratch builds play spaces to children’s designs

One of the main reasons for play deprivation, and a clear casualty of modernity, is the drastic reduction of ‘roaming’ – the extent to which children’s play and travel is negotiated autonomously of adults. It has been reduced by fears of traffic, children engaging in risky activity and ‘stranger danger’. Into this vacuum, adventure playgrounds, more than any other play spaces, are the unsung heroes, compensating for children’s restriction. Completely free to access, they provide a range of activities, including opportunities for physical risk, and offer an authentic space to experiment and self-learn.

Made From Scratch has so far built eight playgrounds and one adventure playground
Made From Scratch has so far built eight playgrounds and one adventure playground

Children at Northworld Primary school take part in building thier own playground
Children at Northworld Primary school take part in building thier own playground

The first was created in Copenhagen in 1943 by landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen, and was known as a skrammellegepladsen, meaning ‘junk playground’. In England at the time, children were playing on bombsites, building dens and re-playing war, and inadvertently dying because of collapsing walls and unexploded devices. When the English landscape architect and philanthropist Lady Allen of Hurtwood saw the skrammellegepladsen in 1946 during a lecture tour, she realised Britain needed dedicated play spaces. The first UK junk playground (later called adventure playgrounds) opened in 1948 in Camberwell, south London, on the site of a bombed church.

Iraq’s first adventure playground, created by Made From Scratch, in the Kurdish town of Halabja
Iraq’s first adventure playground, created by Made From Scratch, in the Kurdish town of Halabja

Today, with British councils decreasing funding both for playgrounds and art initiatives, ‘utilitarian’ arts projects such as Chetwynd’s The Idol might offer a new hybrid way forward.

But can the art world and the play world integrate with integrity? ‘The problem is that artists can possibly do damage if they don’t understand about the science of play,’ says Jess Milne, who for 11 years managed Hackney Play Association’s Play Training Unit, and who is also a qualified art teacher. ‘And I mean that in the sense of creating things for art and for themselves, rather than for children to look at, and work with and see through and generally participate in.’

Assemble’s Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock takes shape. Photo Credit: AssembleAssemble’s Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock takes shape. Photo Credit: Assemble

Fergus P. Hughes defined play in 1982 as ‘freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated’. Yet despite all the scientific advancements made in understanding what play does and how it affects the brain, many adults still find it hard not to take control. ‘It’s very difficult to remove the adult and the adult’s ego,’ says Milne. ‘It’s the same for everyone – parents, playworkers, artists.’

Assemble’s Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock takes shape. Photo Credit: Assemble
Assemble’s Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock takes shape. Photo Credit: Assemble

Yet art and play share the same goals, according to Gemma Mudu, co-director of social design enterprise Made From Scratch, which builds play spaces to children’s designs.

‘Artists and children are each absorbed in a line of enquiry, questioning the role of existence,’ says Mudu. ‘Both are getting to grips with the nature of being and expressing it through different ways. We see great potential for cross-fertilisation with artists aware of play sensibilities.’ Lizzy Longtale, her co-director, agrees: ‘In many ways adventure playgrounds should be seen as ongoing art installations.’

Assemble’s Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock takes shape. Photo Credit: AssembleAssemble’s Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock takes shape. Photo Credit: Assemble

Set up in 2011, Made From Scratch has already built eight different playgrounds and one adventure playground, with seven further builds in the pipeline. Their budgets are small – the average cost for a playground is between £30,000 and £70,000, with smaller playgrounds costing £15,000. ‘We invite kids to take inspiration from landscapes, art galleries, paintings, sculptures and immersive spaces so that they’re not just thinking about the conventional format of play structures,’ says Longtale. ‘A special project is Made from Scratch’s work on Iraq’s first adventure playground in the Kurdish town of Halabja.

‘Initially we had to deal with the community representative who dreamed of a neat, sterile, Disney fairground,’ explains Longtale. ‘Explaining loose parts theory – the need for an infinite variety of materials for children to play with, such as sand, timber, pipes, tubes and fabrics – was challenging. He kept saying, “When are you going to take all this rubbish away?”‘ The playground is in its final stages of completion before handover to the community, when it will support play for up to 80 children. Ironically, Made From Scratch had to travel to Iraq to work on an adventure playground. Longtale says: ‘There is no funding here anymore for new community adventure playgrounds, so we work on playgrounds in schools. But we always try and link the children up with local adventure playgrounds that already exist.’

Assemble’s Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock takes shape. Photo Credit: Assemble
Assemble’s Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock takes shape. Photo Credit: Assemble

Assemble, the co-curator of Glasgow International’s Play Summit, has created the Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock, an impoverished area of Glasgow. Delivered in collaboration with Create, the project has helped bag the collective a nomination for this year’s Turner Prize. Hadrian Garrard, director of Create, remains on the playground’s board of directors. ‘This wasn’t about making a pretty artwork,’ he tells me. ‘Assemble was interested in getting the right set of conditions for a community space. The Turner Prize nomination picks up on the opportunities for artists and designers to move into territory managed in the past by government authorities.’

Architect and Assemble member Amica Dall explains what attracted the group to this territory. ‘We’ve always been very aware of the limits of what you can do with design, and of how much design is asked to do that isn’t necessarily in the realm of design with a capital ‘D’. I would argue for a more expanded notion of design. For example, systems have to be designed, organisations have to be designed, arguments have to be designed. These things add up to make situations and environments that are not just physical. In many design situations, all the critical decisions have already been made by the time the architect gets involved. Doing self-initiated work is a way to be part of more stages of the process.

The Brutalist Playground, a collaboration between Assemble and artist Simon Terrill at the RIBA. Photo Credit: Photo by Tristan Fewings Getty Images For Riba
The Brutalist Playground, a collaboration between Assemble and artist Simon Terrill at the RIBA. Photo Credit: Photo by Tristan Fewings Getty Images For RIBA

‘The adventure playground is the epitome of that approach because while we are creating an environment where physical things need to happen, there has also been the human aspect, the organisational aspect, the financial aspect, the legal aspect, the political aspect. All of those ducks have to be put in line to create this environment. I think that’s common to a lot of our work: creating the conditions of possibility and being responsible.’

Assemble’s interest in play has also led it to collaborate with artist Simon Terrill on The Brutalist Playground, at London’s RIBA this summer which recreates in foam the concrete playgrounds designed for post-war housing blocks.

Ralph Rugoff has commissioned many artists to create site-specific environments at the Hayward Gallery. I ask him whether it would be good for such artists to create municipal spaces in the public realm. ‘People in the design world can be a bit abstract, while artists are very attuned to the way we experience things. So there is a role,’ he concludes. ‘Although,’ he adds wryly, ‘it might work best with those who play well in teams.’

Mudu is also optimistic about the potential of artists, as long as they prioritise play. ‘It’s such a balance. If it’s about art coming into the community, the priority is the art. But if the primary focus is to have a quality play space, then the priority is the play.’ With health and safety fears rising and funding being cut, play deprivation is likely to become more endemic in the UK. Perhaps, if play was rebranded to seem to be the serious issue it is – ‘self-learning’ – those who hold the purse strings might give it greater importance. ‘Most people think play is a leisure activity,’ Mudu continues. ‘For adults it’s about extreme sensation and about getting some form of pleasure. For kids it’s a necessity.’

This article was published in Blueprint