Play & Contemporary Art

by Bernard De Koven on January 25, 2011

When you watch kids making art, because, I guess, they’re kids, and you’re a grown-up, a couple of things about kids and art become especially clear: one, they are very serious about what they are doing, and two, they are having a lot of fun. You may not call what they actually produce “art.” But that’s besides the point.

I can only think of a few such grown-ups in my personal life who have managed to make their work out of this kind of fun. Apparently, it’s an art just getting to be a grown-up artist, and those who have succeeded are worthy of our significant respect. There’s my very long-time friend Bob Gregson, my colleague in games Johannes Grenzfurthner, and a couple artistically playful people I write about, often passionately: Liz Mamorsky, and Rafael Lazano-Hemmer .

In 2005, PBS presented the third series of Art21 – an exploration of art in the 21st Century. One of the programs in that series was called “Play.”

The program notes describe the show as follows:

“The artists in “Play” improvise games, draw inspiration from dance and music, and employ color, pattern, and movement to elicit delight. Indulging in process, these artists transform naïve impulses into critical statements about the nature of identity, creative expression, and pleasure.”

It is these very naive impulses that define play, both for the artists and for the people who put this show together. Naive, insofar as they are unconditioned, primitive, coming from a nameless source that has no particular credibility, no provenance other than the driving forces that cause the artist to find joy in the act of unplanned creativity. As described in the program notes:

“At the Rice Gallery in Houston where she is working on a large exuberant installation, (Jessica) Stockholder’s fascination with systems is evident in the way she arranges mundane objects in playful, surprising ways. “I’m interested in how a thinking process can meander in unpredictable ways,” she says. “Like child’s play, learning that doesn’t have a predetermined end.”

Each of the featured artists produces a very different kind of art. As you watch the show, the diversity will help you perceive the commonality – the profundity of playfulness that has led each one to perfect what he or she has come to understand as “work.”

“Play,” says artist Oliver Herring, “it’s a thing that we put on hold because we get distracted by so many other things. We have to make money. We have to pay the bills. We grow up, and these roles that we play, they’re not real. But after a while they become real, they become us. Play is sort of a reminder of what that was like to be a kid. And we in the end never lose that.”

Watch the full episode. See more ART:21.

Sometimes, the people in the film get a little cerebral, as most adults do when they try to explain their art. Yet they are also profoundly playful. You might learn more from it the second time you watch it, with the sound turned down. But do watch it. These people are having fun. Seriously. And you can, too.


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