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In his 1938 book Homo Ludens, Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga identified behavior “play” as a civilizing functions, and necessary to the development of culture. 15 years later, the proto-Situationist Ivan Chtcheglov, would bemoan the languor and absence of play in modern life, saying “‘We are bored in the city, there is no longer any Temple of the Sun The hacienda must be built.” In a gutted four-story Georgian mansion in Mayfair, a one-off venue, otherwise East End gallery Paradise Row has staged a group show of some 50 works and performances in response to the resolutely non-functional theme of play.

Conrad Shawcross, Axiom, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro.

Georgy Ostretsov, one of Russia’s 2009 Venice Biennale participants, treats art history as a species of life especially fertile for play, to various consequences. She shows mock-up comic pastiches that draw on Soviet agitprop, and a scaled-up Monopoly board depicting 20th Century art historical movements like Surrealism and Pop as the various property blocs, rendering them ripe for consumption (-ism Monopoly, 2009). Just outside of Ostretsov’s room is David Birkin’s Concord. A pianist sporting light-emitting diodes on his fingers performs the modernist composition of the same name—but no sound comes out. The work’s various frames of reference—its real-time enactment, the original score’s four movements in celebration of American transcendentalists—exceed the leaden technologies involved.
One story up, Jake and Dinos Chapman’s original commission, Fucking with Nature, is a mechanized see-saw with a triad of humping taxidermied rodents on one side and a quartet on the other, positioned between Sol LeWitt’s Pyramid (1985) and Conrad Shawcross’s Axiom (2009). Lewitt’s solid wooden pyramid, Shawcross’ distended steel equivalent—as if the very shape had come apart at the seams—also call to mind a children’s playground. While this makes for a savvy enough grouping of works, it also suggests a certain imprecision in the questions at stake with “play.” Is it the special territory of childhood, whimsy, or parody? If so, what are the bounds of this territory? By the time one has reached Douglas White’s top-floor set of six found chests and dressers melded to light boxes, the show’s organising theme has loosened considerably.
There are highlights: Olympia Scarry’s Kinder Heaven is Walter De Maria’s earth room; feathers and white light replace the packed earth and dank of the latter, and make for a fine juxtaposition to Edward Fornieles’s eldritch playroom next-door. Amelia Whitelaw’s performance Listen with your eyes (2009), meanwhile, dripped globules of multi-colored dough from the holes in a mesh fishing net suspended above the stairwell, creating a rainbow-colored pile of droppings on the atrium floor. Here play conflates juvenilia with entropy, and abjection—a play of traumatic childhood and an uncertain future.

Perhaps play finds its limit in specific context. The reference to the Situationists, for instance, is significant; the hallmark of May 1968 in London was a protest against the American embassy, in spitting distance from tha art-show-cum-mansion in question. The “hacienda,” meanwhile, is both a symbolic and tangible (lost) space for “play,” having enjoyed a long run as a Factory Records home base in Manchester until its closure in 1997. Paradise lost, indeed.