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The Value of Play

I grew up with parents who didn’t know how to play. Whenever my mum caught my sisters and I dressing up our dolls, running around in the yard or generally doing what kids do best, she’d say, ‘Stop playing, go and study.’

Play was frivolous and pointless. It was doled out in incremental quantities as reward for good behaviour. I grew up in a particularly strict Chinese household but my experience seems to reflect the cultural expectation that play is for children and work is for adults. I’ve often marveled at adults who act one way in their daily activities and become a different person when interacting with young children in the playground. It’s as if they’ve been given permission to play. As if the playground represents some sort of sacred circle and children are the portals through which they can harness a sense of curiosity about the world.

Carsten Hoeller’s oeuvre is an exploration of the value of play. I recently experienced a retrospective of his works at the Hayward Gallery in London. I entered the exhibition through a pitch black maze that winds and turns seemingly forever; just as I was feeling a little like Alice in Wonderland, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. I entered a room with a giant mushroom sculpture.

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The work is interactive; I pushed the lever to re-arrange the floating mushroom components in space. When I got tired of this (or rather, when it seemed polite to let other people have a turn), I moved into the next room. It was completely empty except for a mound of capsules. As I got closer, I noticed a single pill dropping from the ceiling, like someone hadn’t turned the tap off properly. What’s even cooler is when you wander up to the next level. There is a clear Perspex box filled with capsules; this is the basin reservoir that is slowly funnelling the pills through the ceiling.

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The exhibit is one part gallery: nine part imaginarium. There’s a robotic bed that slowly roams around the gallery. I found out afterwards you can pay £300 to stay overnight – ala night-of-the-museum style. There’s an exhibit where you put on glasses that flips the world upside down. Finally, if and when you make it to the end, you exit the building through a macaroni slide that takes you back to the ground floor. The sound of glee mingled with terror that echoes up the tube as I waited in line is not something I normally hear in a gallery.

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This is what contemporary art should be about— evoking a sense of curiosity and wonder about the world, infusing humour into everyday objects and experiences. Above all, it should be about breaking down that magic circle of play.

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