Friday, October 12, 2007

Play Value: The Spirit of the Object

I see some of the objects Glynn Davies-Marshall has chosen to use in his piece are second-hand toys.

Glyn Davies-Marshall: Day 3
Originally uploaded by livebiennale
More LIVE5: To Glyn Davies-Marshall 3-Day Photo Collection

Edinburgh has a fascinating museum of childhood. Toys from all over the world from different periods of history are juxtaposed against each other with a soundtrack of haunting children's songs in the background. It's spooky. The dolls are particularly poignant. The simplest doll is a piece of cloth wrapped around a bone. The most complex is a porcelain doll with glass eyes and human hair made for the children of British royalty.

As parents, when we are going to buy a toy for a child, we try to assess its "play value". How amenable is this object? Can it be used in a variety of ways in fantasy play? How often will it be used and for how long? This itself in linked to a concept of the object's usefulness as opposed to its monetary value on eBay or in a future episode of Antiques Roadshow.

The amenable object. Somewhere, buried in my memory is the essay on "The Amenable Object" by Jean Randolph. (1982)

Web definitions of "amenable" from Google"

* disposed or willing to comply; "someone amenable to persuasion"
* responsive: readily reacting to suggestions and influences; "a
responsive student"
* open to being acted upon in a certain way; "an amenable
hospitalization should not result in untimely death"; "the tumor was not
amenable to surgical treatment"
* liable to answer to a higher authority; " the president is amenable
to the constitutional court"

I'm teaching my son to be a thrift store shopper. We see it as our mission to rescue toys that other people have thrown away. I like the idea that we are re-using things that were destined for the landfill. How can we extend
this object's life and use it in an art piece or a child's play? Besides looking into the object's future, we also like to conjure its past. Who made it, who bought it, or who received it as a gift? I've inherited this scavenging tendency from my father, who loved to collect antiques before it became fashionable. Dad took me to second hand shops as soon as I could walk. I grew up thinking that a second hand object was much more desirable than buying something new, almost devoid of a past life. I eschew the new.

Seeing an objet d'art in a gallery is a bit sad for me. I can't touch it. I can't stroke the leopard skin lapels of Dr. Brute's jacket, can't put the sublime phallic symbol of the wooden sax to my lips. These are other people's props, fixed in time and space, fetishized to become museum
objects. I'm surprised to say that what engages me most is the photographs of the objects. When I see an image of three swimmers wearing sharkskin bathing caps (made by Glenn Lewis and Kate Craig) I see how the object was used. I get a glimpse into how it was animated by the performers and why it was created in the first place. The grainy black and white photo of Gathie Falk gives me a hint of the history of her ceramic eggs. The image of the Brute Saxes at the F. Scott Fitgerald tea party act as a visual stimulus to hear the music in our mind's ear. David Khang's circular painting has a striking presence in the site of the Helen Pitt Gallery. Would a photograph help me to see it as an artifact of a particularly visceral performance process?

These are not theatrical props, per se, but they were often used in highly theatrical ways. Is that a dagger I see before me, or a rubber knife? Theatre props are often created to be used to be seen from a certain distance under a specific light, with the expectation of a certain amount
of suspension of disbelief. Put them in a gallery and they look tawdry. As the gallery is a white box it only supports a high level of craftsmanship meant to be scrutinized at a fairly close distance. Why do we put latex masks used in movies in museums rather than galleries? Is there such a big difference between the two kinds of institutions these days? Why is one of
the most interesting galleries today called the Museum of Jurassic Technology? I feel I need to come back to these questions later in the festival, but please tell me what you think if the spirit or the object moves you.


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