Play: Art that Makes You Move

30 March - 22 July 2018, Hastings City Art Gallery
By Rosheen FitzGerald

Much like artists with their art, play is the medium that children use to make sense of the world around them. On a Saturday afternoon, HCAG throws wide its doors to the children of the Bay and launches with a bang. There’s a festive atmosphere on the plaza as the Council opens its coffers to lay on copious refreshments – fruit kebabs, sausages and ice-blocks – the wine and cheese of youth – face painting, bubble and badge making machines, local musical talent, and the opportunity to lounge, or to batter strangers and friends alike with an assortment of foam polyhedra, as is their wont.

Inside, three artists have installed their own invitations to play. The foyer is bathed in golden light, a function of transparencies that cover the ample glass walls and cast subtle shapes on the room. At its centre, a barely raised platform houses abundant blocks, designed by Sara Hughes, the artist behind MTG’s Pinwall, and constructed by Hastings Menzshed. As her inspiration she has isolated shapes and patterns from buildings of the surrounding streets for a piece that is firmly located in its whenua, and fitting of the title Heretaunga. There is something wonderfully freeing in watching children, the most powerless in society, remaking and destroying their surroundings as they see fit. In that their highest purpose is aesthetic, devoid of function, their process could be cast in the same mould as the finest of fine arts – ars gratia artis.

In the alcove, Campbell Tamahina Burns’ Internal Geometries combines tone, electronics and two dimensional geometric shapes in royal blue and gold to create wall-mounted instruments that sound in response to touch. Participants delight in experimenting with pressure, articulation and tempo to compose collaborative symphonies. It is a testimony to their tuning that there is more melody than discordancy, belying the depth of thought and feeling that went into their construction. Perhaps the experience will inspire any number of budding Philip Glass’s in our midst.

The Holt houses Seung Yul Oh’s Periphery, on loan from Dunedin. Vast yellow inflatable spherocylinders are clustered like trees in a forest at the centre of the room. The atmospheric difference between this and the previous occupant, Paratene Matchitt’s Hui, is marked – pliancy takes the place of rigidity, colour instead of dark, humour and frivolity where there was sombre gravity. Sounds of breathless laughter and the patter of bare feet on concrete bend around its curves, distorting depending on where you are in the space – whether you are inside, or outside looking in. My wild-eyed four-year-old exclaims, “I lost myself, then I found my way out…then I got lost again!” It’s a novel way to experience our own boundaries, pressed right up against surfaces that gently yield then bounce back in response to our passage. It also confronts us with the boundaries of others – turning a corner brings us face to face with another human, a second ago completely obstructed.

I imagine the experience would be much different on a weekday morning, rather than inhabited by hordes of hobbledehoys, rainbow painted and hopped-up on free ice-blocks and marshmallows. Fretful volunteers flutter around the edges attempting to enforce signs which prohibit running, pushing and manhandling the artwork, and impress on guardians their responsibility for their charges. Apparently, beneath their squishy exterior, each artefact contains a core of solid metal that could crush a child like a watermelon, which does add layers of meaning to the piece. It’s hard to present children with such temptation, when they have been socialised in the bouncy castle, only to attempt to place parameters on their level of interaction. But such is life, I suppose, as we all must learn in the end.

As a whole, the exhibition is ambitious, expanding on HCAG’s imperative to get the people of Heretaunga through their doors, demanding engagement and easing us into the potential for artistic expression. A thoroughly sated yet sceptical eleven-year-old asks, ‘How is that even Art?’. Play scribbles all over the lines of our perceptions of value and artistry and, in prompting the question, answers it.

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