Lost in Play
by Lucy Soutter
A cuddly lion, a monkey and a Paddington Bear gaze out the window in the cool morning sunshine. They cannot help but gaze into the light because they are prisoners, wedged into the arm of an upturned Marcel Breuer chair. The scene is a bedroom; there are patterned curtains, a kilim rug on the parquet floor, and a bed in the foreground. The animals are safe, held tight in their modernist confinement. They are also abandoned the child who placed them so carefully is nowhere in sight, and has clearly forgotten about them. A still life of everyday objects arranged in a room, the image is also a narrative, with the toys as characters in an imaginary drama.
Alexandra McGlynn's Play is made up of approximately 70 black and white photographs documenting the play activities of her daughter Aurelia (b. 1998) over a five year period from 2002-7. Made by a mother in response to her child, the work has a very different quality from Sally Mann's dramatic portraits of her children in Immediate Family (1991) or Mary Kelly's Postpartum Document (1973-8) tracing her son's entry into language. Mann collaborated with her children to produce loving images tinged with sex and violence. Kelly used her son's development as a case-study around which to develop a feminist theoretical discourse. McGlynn's relationship to the subject matter provided by her daughter is more subtle and restrained. Neither mother nor child is the star performer or interpreting voice. Made without Aurelia's knowledge, usually while she was at school, the images record the aftermath of play.
The five-year project ended the first time images from the series were exhibited and Aurelia realised her activities were being documented. Any further pictures would have lost their objectivity, in that the daughter would have begun to perform for the camera (as Mann's children did so conspicuously). There isn't necessarily anything wrong with a mother and child collaborating on an artwork. This particular project relied on ignorance - a kind of innocence - in its subject for the neutrality of its anthropological framing device.
Aurelia certainly has flair. With their ingenious use of diverse materials and insistent narrative thrust, her productions compare favourably with contemporary sculpture. But McGlynn's deadpan approach discourages us from getting fixated on Aurelia as some kind of outsider artist, inadvertently channeling postmodern aesthetics. In keeping with her training as a cultural anthropologist, McGlynn makes use of a classical documentary approach - large format, black-and-white, available light, subjects centrally framed. Titling the images with month and year, McGlynn presents them as an archive, and thereby invites viewers to classify and analyse the highly-wrought activities.
The photographs show us that Aurelia performs a number of different operations in her play. She creates environments, both doll-scale and child-scale, using furniture and household objects. She embellishes existing structures, enriching them with additional shapes and textures. She arranges diverse materials on the floor into hieroglyphic formations. She creates ersatz objects out of cardboard and other ephemera. She sets up doll scenarios from the conventional to the bizarre. These categories of activity all take place against the backdrop of the family flat: mansion block architecture, found modernist furniture, and oriental carpets.
Philosopher and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss describes classification in the understanding and use of objects as one of the fundamental characteristics of human thought. In his 1962 book The Savage Mind, he explores the structures of human activity, both 'primitive' and 'advanced,' with his description of the bricoleur, an ingenious handyman figure who uses a collection of available pre-fabricated objects to make and mend other hybrid objects. The bricoleur is a kind of model for creative and aesthetic activity, as his resourceful patching together applies as readily to the structure of mythical language as it does to the repair of physical structures. Key to the figure of the bricoleur is his discrimination, his capacity to imagine how an element will change in meaning when it is inserted in a new context: 'He interrogates all the heterogenous elements of which his treasury is composed to discover what each of them could "signify" and so contribute to the definition of a set which has yet to materialize but which will ultimately differ from the instrumental set only in the internal disposition of its parts.'
Aurelia is the consummate bricoleur; in her hands the stock of available toys and household items are configured and re-configured in delightfully surreal ways: a bath sponge becomes the wheel of a vehicle, a popcorn box an ad hoc prison cell, the Breuer chair is on one day a high chair/observation stand, and on another day the receptacle of a mysterious arrangement of shoes. There is expressive force in the choices a bricoleur makes with his or her stock of items: 'the bricoleur... "speaks" not only with things... but also through the medium of things: giving an account of his personality and life by the choices he makes between the limited possibilities.' Above and beyond specific projects undertaken, the key function of the bricoleur is to transform the chaos of the world into a personal order, not just once, but again and again.
As visual anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards has noted, photographs only have an anthropological function if they are viewed within the framework of anthropology. Similarly, art photographs only function as such within an art context. Although they are not art, Aurelia's constructions often look like art, and are brought into the context of art photography through McGlynn's intervention. Each image has its own visual intrigue, from the minimalism of upside-down game tiles arranged in a grid on a rectangular footstool, to the maximalism of a scenario involving seven Barbies under an antique side table. Tinsel threaded in and out of a classic Robin Day chair is a decadent, transformation, evoking the argument of Adolf Loos' 'Ornament and Crime' (1908). If 'the evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects,' then Aurelia is happily taking culture backwards, indulging in egregious, exultant ornamentation.
In his 1971 study Playing and Reality, psychologist D.W. Winnicott argues that although the task of being human involves coming to grips with reality, we never fully master the task. We may outgrow our infantile fantasy of controlling the mother's breast, our toddler attachment to thumbsucking or teddy, and our childhood games of imagination, but even as adults we require activities in which our inner and outer realities can meet. Those of us who successfully achieve 'illusion-disillusionment' (otherwise known as growing up) still need some form of creative outlet, in a sympathetic environment, in order to stay sane. Adults who live too much in their imaginations are generally regarded as mad. But if we get too attached to objective reality, at the expense of our inner life, we may find ourselves dead inside. As Winnicott puts it, 'It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.'
Aurelia is a creative force, one to watch in the future. In this work, however, Alexandra McGlynn is the artist. Her quiet watchfulness, so different from the overheated 'maternal gaze' familiar from much portraiture of children, gives viewers more room to make their own way through the work. Winnicott asserts that while we may leave our toys behind, play can continue in adult cultural activity, scientific research, even a creative approach to everyday life: 'It is creative apperception more than anything else that makes the individual feel that life is worth living.' Documenting Aurelia's play has been McGlynn's play for the last few years. Although the visual style of the images is austere, McGlynn's artistic eye is subtly evident in the angles, framing, light and above all the selection of activities documented.
With neither mother nor child in the frame, McGlynn's photographs represent an in-between place, the space of trust between mother and child that must exist, Winnicott argues, for play to take place at all. Straddling tropes of anthropology and art, the pictures offer a space of play for the viewer too. The photographs of Aurelia's activities allow us to lose ourselves in the creative play of categorization, interpretation, and projection.