Visual Art: Childish Things curator David Hopkins on why toys in art are so sinister

LATER this month visitors to Edinburgh's Fruitmarket Gallery may feel they have stumbled by chance into a giant and possibly sinister playroom.

Amongst the works they will encounter will be a precise reconstruction of a child's playpen, two outsize comic sculptures of bears by the American artist Jeff Koons and an anatomical doll - a huge Sesame Street-style cuddly toy whose padded front unzips to reveal sausage-like innards.

The exhibition Childish Things, curated by Professor David Hopkins of Glasgow University, will reveal that toys are neither simple nor simply child's play. In the hands of contemporary artists they have become a means to explore a vast range of issues, from our attitudes to our own growing up to the adult ideas and fears we project on to children. Infused with a certain sense of nostalgia, and at times with downright sinister connotations, the artworks in the show touch on both ancient and modern myths, dolls and puppets, simple pleasures and dark secrets.

Hide Ad

Toys, dolls and games have been recurring images in painting for centuries but in the 20th century they took on new sculptural forms, from Picasso's children's toys to the puppets of the Surrealist generation.

In the waning years of the century, they seemed once more to be central again. For Hopkins, the interest in toys and play is a valuable means of exploring, in particular, the British and American art of the 80s and 90s.

"I'd identified this period in the 20th century when the child's toy, or if you want the child's plaything, seemed to be the iconic image," he says.

If you wanted to conjure up a single image to represent the American art of the period, you could do no better than Jeff Koons' Rabbit of 1986, the shiny mirrored replica of a rabbit-shaped helium balloon. In Britain, any visitors to the sculptor Rachel Whiteread's London studio could not fail to be arrested by her extraordinary collection of doll's houses, 20 years in the making, which finally saw the light of day as an artwork in their own right in 2006.

When I visit Hopkins in his office it seems rather incongruous that I've come to speak to him about toys and children's play. This, after all, is the terribly adult world of scholarship and learning and his workplace perfectly fulfils the academic stereotype. A monograph of the artist Marcel Duchamp - on whom the professor is an acknowledged expert - lies open on a table. A teetering pile of books is topped with a single forlorn sandwich (I have caught him trying to refuel at the tail end of a day's teaching). There are handwritten notes and pieces of paper wrist-deep on his desk.

Hopkins is one of a growing band of art historians whose activities reach beyond the classroom and the conference hall and into the art gallery. "I don't just want to write about things," he explains. "I'm interested in the objects themselves; it's where I start from as an art historian, seeing something and being moved by it… the best art historians are empathetic, which is to say that they empathise with artists… the great privilege of putting on a show is to be on the side of the artist."

Hide Ad

That the exhibition leans to what the catalogue describes as the "dark poetics" of childhood imagery is no surprise coming as it does from a scholar who is an expert in Dada and Surrealism. A show about the more sunny aspects of art and play he says "would not make very interesting viewing".

But this dark element is also clearly led by the work of the period. If Koons was the grinning poster boy for a buoyant American art market, then a number of key US artists set their faces and their work against his vision. In a sense then, Childish Things might be seen as a battle in the toy cupboard between Koons' apparently anodyne reconstruction of popular figurines and the melancholic use of toys in the work of artists like Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy.

Hide Ad

Kelley's 1990 work Innards is a blanket on the floor scattered with a number of woollen objects that on close examination turn out to be body parts belonging to a dismembered woollen doll. There's a sense that an unidentified child has been on some kind of destructive rampage or perhaps engaging in a forensic investigation. Hopkins links this work to a much older idea of Charles Baudelaire's, that a child tears apart his playthings in order to discover their soul and that on discovering that the insides are empty feels one of his earliest encounters with loss and melancholy.

It's an arguable point, but it's clear that artists of the 80s and 90s were deeply concerned with the post-Freudian view that, as Hopkins puts it, "so-called innocence doesn't exist, children are complex and sometimes adults want to wish that away".

But Kelley's work and that of Paul McCarthy also touch on the immediate concerns of the period, which Hopkins describes as "hysteria... in relation to children's issues." This is the era when concerns about the abuse and neglect of children and the long overdue development of children's rights were accompanied by massive social anxiety about children.

In America, it was the era of so-called Recovered Memory, when an industry of therapists, writers and publishers rose up to tackle the effects of both actual abuse and the pervasive social fear of it. In Britain, the newspapers were full of stories about "satanic abuse" and high profile court cases - famously in Orkney in 1991 - resulted in the removal of children from their families.

The possibility that children's formative years and children's play might indeed be shaped by darkness and anxiety is actively raised by two of the women artists included in Childish Things.

Susan Hiller's memorable video projection An Entertainment is a literal assault on the senses, a four-screen projection based on sounds and images drawn from Punch and Judy shows. Made in 1995, it came like a bolt form the blue, a visceral, noisy and overwhelming experience.

Hide Ad

At the other end of the scale are the late Louise Bourgeois' tiny dolls made from scraps of pink cloth and pins. Roughly stitched and laid out in a glass case, they tell that central and troubling myth of childhood origins and adult responsibilities, the story of Oedipus. Falling somewhere between homemade toys and ritual objects, Bourgeois's dolls evoke both our sympathy and our fear.

Hopkins expects audiences to be similarly ambivalent about Childish Things. "Everybody has had the experience of playing with toys, everybody can empathise," he says. "At the same time, they might find it disturbing." v

Hide Ad

Childish Things is at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh from 19 November until 23 January

• This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on November 7, 2010