For most parents, the ritual of pushing your child on a swing or kicking a ball with them in the park is the diametric opposite of high culture and radical politics. But artist Albert Potrony doesn’t see it that way. “Play is an amazing vehicle to explore absolutely everything,” he says. “Play is a fundamental tool for self-discovery, for knowing how to be in the world. It’s basically the artists’ process. We play – but it’s serious play.”
In his past work (if “work” is the right word), Potrony has given children the freedom to devise their own toys and encouraged students and refugees to make sculptures together. In his latest exhibition, Equal Play at Gateshead’s Baltic, Potrony uses the realm of the children’s playground to smuggle in ideas about urban theory, imagination and masculine roles. A key reference point, he explains, is Aldo van Eyck, the pioneering Dutch architect who opposed the soulless, abstract, top-down tendencies of modernism.
This is not about children. This is about all of us going into the gallery and playing
Instead, Van Eyck thought urban space should be more democratic, embracing life’s messy multiplicities. And his chief weapon was the children’s playground. After the second world war, Van Eyck was commissioned to design public playgrounds in bombed-out Amsterdam. By 1978, he had designed 734, very few of which survive. In the process, he developed a vocabulary of abstract forms, almost like pieces of sculpture: tubular-steel climbing frames, sandpits, plain benches, stepping stones arranged in circles. Van Eyck wanted these elements to stimulate imagination and communication among children, rather than dictate behaviour, as a slide or a swing would. Nor did Van Eyck cordon off his playgrounds with fences. The playground was part of the city and, by extension, the city was a giant playground.
Potrony has installed several large, Van Eyckian elements in Baltic’s main gallery: a long, rectangular bench-like form, low semicircular forms creating an enclosure, as well as stepping stones and climbing bars. These sit alongside a series of detachable play elements such as abstract plastic shapes and lengths of rope. “This is not about children,” he says. “This is about all of us going into the gallery and playing. The pieces are quite considered – to suggest that adults have to collaborate and follow the lead of children. It’s a space for hierarchies to shift.”
Children’s play can be political. In the adjacent space, Equal Play revisits the forgotten anti-sexist men’s movement of the early 1970s through films and written materials by groups such as Creches Against Sexism and Achilles Heel, which advocated men taking on more childcare to allow women to participate in politics and activism. (Stuart Hall and other men ran the creche at the first National Women’s Liberation Conference in 1970.) If men were truly on board with feminism, they reasoned, it was their duty to challenge traditional forms of masculinity.
“Our power in society as men,” ran an editorial in Achilles Heel’s eponymous magazine, “not only oppresses women but also imprisons us in a deadening masculinity which cripples all our relationships – with each other, with women, with ourselves.” However, the predominantly white, educated, straight men in the movement were challenged by gay groups to examine their attitudes towards homophobia, gender roles and even repressed homosexual desires. One splinter group went even further and argued for “effeminism” – a wholesale rejection of masculinity. The women’s movement was often critical and sceptical of these initiatives.
“In the end, it couldn’t go anywhere,” says Potrony of the anti-sexist men’s movement. “Other men didn’t have access to it – men of a different class or a different race. And to the feminists, they were not really solving anything. They were actually just meddling. So they basically had it from all sides.”
Potrony is interested in how these utopian ideas might look today. In some ways, little has changed. A 2018 study found that 85% of British men thought they should play an equal role to women in childcare, yet women were still eight times more likely to be the principal carer. To bridge some of the divides, Potrony is bringing veterans of the 1970s anti-sexist men’s movement together with North East Young Dads and Lads, a local support service helping men to “play an active and meaningful role in the lives of their children, within families and wider society”. The goal is to produce a “toolkit of ideas” exploring and comparing their experiences.
In a sense, art galleries are already playgrounds for grownups, though they have in recent years moved closer to literal playgrounds, if one thinks of, say, Carsten Höller’s slides and carousels, or Danish artists Superflex, who filled the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with swings. Potrony thinks galleries should be a communal middle ground that welcomes children and parents alike – more like Van Eyck’s playgrounds. “I think we need to bring grownups back into play. Especially now that we are living in this virtual world. You need people – legs and hands and arms and bodies in spaces, just having fun, just exploring things – and making a fool of yourself.”
On the one hand Potrony is transforming the gallery into a giant children’s creche. On the other, he describes the exhibition as a “reading, resting and working space”. The artist, who does not have children, has no idea what will happen. “This is what I do a lot,” he says. “I put myself in places where I don’t have a clue. I think that not knowing is a crucial element of artistic practice.”