Historical Journal


Child’s Play

March 2, 1987
Catherine Liu

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The child in the work of the artists in this show is closer to the primordial infant than the innocent cherub. If there is something monstrous about this creature which these artists attempt to represent, there is also something about it which fascinates. The spirit of child’s play is first of all extremely important to the production of art because the artist is the one who breaks down the boundary between work and play in our culture. It is as small children that our work was also our play. The artist works with play in order to cultivate creativity. We could say that each of these artists is also trying to represent a celebration of that anarchic spirit, the spirit of play itself.
In fact, Bataille wrote that it was the complexity of their play which separated the first human beings from other primates and it was play which spawned art which spawned the sacred which gave birth to religion. The artist in our culture is someone in the community which the puritanical fathers disapprove of because all he or she seems to be doing is playing. Play is denigrated because it is “for children” (How often do we hear the derogatory imperative, “stop playing around”?) and leisure (“the getaway”, “the antidote to civilization”), the consumption of recreational commodities is for mature adults. But play being self-generated, does not depend on mass produced toys: play is a completely autonomous set of activities that brings us right back to the roots of culture. Play is based on the useless expenditure of energy and exists in a monadic economic system. Play produces pleasure which serves nothing but itself. Take, for example, word play. Playing with words allows us to have fun with language itself by liberating the nonsensical and arbitrary nature of symbolic systems.
The uncanny or monstrous aspect of this work which represents the bodies of children either by invocation or evocation raises the issues that limit experiences like fear and horror. Children possess a mysterious quality to the adult who refuses the fantastically fragmented world in which the child lives. The adult who is able to interact with children is the adult who is able to identify with them. The experience of being afraid of children is one which is as easy to understand as the experience of being afraid of one’s fear as a child. But what could be more frightening that to exist in a world ruled by creatures who are physically so much bigger than one is? What world of giants would not be threatening to a little person? The threat that the sexuality of children poses to the order of the adult world is also astonishing. Our Anglo-Saxon culture is still shaking off the Victorian myths of childhood as a complete innocent, that is sexless time. The work of the artists in this show is disturbing because the issues of sexuality are raised specifically around the context of children and although the works we see refer to innocence, they refer to knowledge as well. The works refer to childhood as a realm of possibility and complexity.
The artist who cultivates a special relationship to all of these childish and infantile experiences can either become exalted, stunted or psychotic. In any case, remaining childish is somehow construed as a threat to our identities as big people. But we live in a culture which, while it tries to sanitize childhood experiences, also refuses to offer us meaningful rites of passage into adulthood. Therefore, we remain distinctly infantile. The artist who tries to plumb the mysteries of childhood is in a way trying to understand our relationship with memory and loss in an unsentimental way in order to produce a different version of the adult subject. Each of the artists in this show offers us a different lens on the child and the child’s body in order to do precisely that.
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