I often make work that plays with the desire to want to touch. I’m interested in using materials and surfaces we want to reach for, feel and squeeze whilst, curtailing that desire with the fear of leaving some evidence of physical contact on polished and porous surfaces.
I love watching young children make sense of the world through their hands – reaching out and pressing fingers into soft materials. There is so much joy and body-mind stimulation in getting your hands dirty.
Touch is a decision. To hold a thing is a decision to want to understand more about that thing. In a similar way physically letting go can be a way of letting go of a problem or understanding more about a material. Holding something is getting to know it. And playing with it is a good way to get to grips with it.
When I was asked to make work for the children’s exhibition at the Tramway, I’d recently been researching pictures of children playing on old bomb sites shortly after the second world war. There were children of all ages digging for treasures amongst the debris. They were working together to use found bricks, wooden window frames, doors, tyres, lead pipes and glass to build things in the landscape. Structures, boundaries, mounds with make-shift slides and shelters were emerging everywhere. There were so many things being built, that children were mining each other’s creations to repurpose materials.
In what looked like an endless process of erosion and deposition it struck me that there was a freedom in the wide-open possibilities of playing like this.
Between the 1950’s and the 1970’s Architect Aldo Van Eyck was responsible for designing over 700 playgrounds across the city of Amsterdam. These spaces were often not fenced in, leaving them open to the urban layout of the city.
In designing the equipment, he tried not to dictate what a child is supposed to do rather invite multiple uses. He said, ‘A child can sit on a bench but is also just as likely to step on it and jump from it’. By making the function of play equipment and furniture more ambiguous within his playgrounds, he was able to engage children and adults alike with a desire to reimagine the city.
One morning sitting drawing and chatting with my 4-year old, I noticed her in the act of picking her nose. Using her finger, rotating the edge of her nail to loosen it from the nostril, then rolling the soft substance into a slightly firmer ball, I noticed she was completely engrossed in an intuitive act. Then whilst giving me a knowing smile, she ate it.
This got me thinking, the act of picking your nose is something we all must do occasionally. Not that we necessarily want others to witness us doing it, but there is something mutually understandable and socially levelling about it.
Terms like ‘Turd in the plaza’, or ‘Plop art’ used to demean public artwork thought to be ‘plopped’ into an urban landscape came to mind. Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore’s monumental bronze sculptures being prominent examples of the use of this phrase. I wondered, was there a mutually humorous way of describing making and looking at sculpture? As most young children (and adults) find it funny talking about embarrassing body functions, perhaps there was.
Clay has that humorous quality.
It can also record the grip, impression or mark of a hand whilst offering the potential to be remoulded. The textures in the concrete floor and the tracks of the Tramway gallery seemed like the perfect environment in which a soft malleable material could be used to make impressions.
At first, I investigated mixing waxes then experimented with making oil-clay from a recipe. It quickly became obvious that to try to do this in large quantities, without industrial machinery would not have been safe for young children. So, I ordered a large amount of children’s modelling clay direct from a manufacturer.
I then began creating the objects, stage, and framework onto which the modelling clay would sit. Made from wood, the grating, walls and the many tool-like, bone-like, building block-like objects were individually sculpted and put together by hand. Everything was then finely sanded, and spray lacquered. Making everything by hand in this way ensured that each element was safe, but it also allowed room to experiment with the layout in the studio.
Once these elements had been laid out and fitted back together in the Tramway, layers of modelling clay were built up in and around the assemblage of objects. The outer surface of the green modelling clay was then gilded with copper leaf and treated with vinegar to oxide its surface - like that of patinated bronze.
Aldo Van Eyck said ‘The notion of an individual, a child, who is all by itself with the world of objects is a completely artificial abstraction. The individual is not simply thrown into the human world; it is introduced into this world by the people around it, and they guide it in that world’.
In this sense adults will inevitably guide children in their care, especially in the case of young children. However, in doing so they will often demonstrate the ‘function of the play element’. Van Eyck described this as ‘the field of constrained action’.
As the children’s exhibition was aimed at children aged between 2 and 8 years old, the ‘field of constrained action’ has been a useful way to understand how physical interactions with this work played out. As a result ALL OUR FINGERS IN THE PIE has many stories to tell; not just of the playful actions of children but also those of their carers as well as many other people in the building who also played a determining role in its strata.
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