Play Things: Some Contemporary Artists and their Objects

The function and materiality of the art object, when investigated by artists, often evokes a childlike sense. Be they miniatures, process-related installations or large minimalist works, these objects call upon the viewer to look at them as if for the first time. As so much contemporary art retreats from theory and aims to locate itself squarely in the everyday, the art objects social function is also more assured, bringing the artist and the audience closer together. Paradoxically, this use-effect is best achieved by artists by emphasising the dysfunction of the object and some of those who best achieve this are Paul Saint, Stephen Birch, Jean Arp, Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, Tom Friedman, Robert Pulie, Simryn Gill, Mikala Dwyer and David Griggs.

To open his book on the state of the avant-garde in the 1990s, The Return of the Real, Hal Foster used the image of a child interacting with a Robert Morris sculpture. Running along the rectangular arrangement of beams that lay on the floor, reflected in the mirrors that were placed on each corner of the structure, the six-year-old girl took Foster "to school," his "theory no match for her practice." While the child's significance to Foster was mostly allegorical, her idealised presence, relating to art in a spontaneous, playful way, is an image that has consistently reappeared in relation to the avant-garde, and continues to appear with much contemporary art. And as with most things, the more you look, the more you'll find: kids pop up everywhere. It's not only the Art Brut associations of children's art, collected and emulated by the likes of Dubuffet, Klee and Kandinsky, or the countless images of children representing memory, trauma and the loss of innocence. It's also in the way we conceive of and interact with art and its objects, with a relationship to the body and to the site of display that takes us back to first principles, the ABC of art.

The function and materiality of the art object, when investigated by artists, often evokes a childlike sense. Be they miniatures, process-related installations or large minimalist works, these objects call upon the viewer to look at them as if for the first time. The frequent use by artists of simple processes such as ordering, moulding and arranging bring to mind child's play, which is not so much the free, disinterested play so admired by the surrealists and by Roger Fry, but more a play that assists the development of particular skills. This directed play in children has a social function, in that it prepares the unskilled to become useful members of society. And, as so much contemporary art retreats from theory and aims to locate itself squarely in the 'everyday,' the art object's social function is also more assured, bringing the artist and the audience closer together, negotiating a social space (the gallery) that is more porous than ever before, as it competes (and occasionally merges) with the cineplex, the boutique, the café and the nightclub.

Paradoxically, this use-effect is best achieved by artists by emphasising the dysfunction of the object. The imperfections and slippages are often kept slight enough to enable quick recognition of form, and then, as the content spills out, the work's presence is heightened. A temporal quality enters the object, and we are made aware of both the process of its making and its particular context within the gallery space. In Paul Saint's work, for example, functionality is parodied using the most obvious functional form: the vessel. His metal bins, clay pots and cane baskets sag, bulge and twist, the objects often repeated in spatial configurations. The viewer is thus directed to walk in and around the pieces, taking in their carefully crafted wonkiness and sensual, homely beauty. The works are of a decidedly human scale, being either the proportions of the objects  made to be held and carried  that they suggest, or of people (as in the 'burial poles' of For a Cultural Future, 1997). Their craftiness reminds us of the pinch-pots and simple baskets we might have made at school, and are all the stronger for being seemingly unfinished. However, as in the classroom, the objects do not retain equivalent power elsewhere, being forever tied to their position within the aesthetic zone of the gallery. It is here and only here that their function is enabled, subtle and beautiful as it is.

Similarly, Stephen Birch's cast and fabricated objects are able to exist only in the gallery, their scale and placement designed site-specifically. His exhibition Unforgettable (1997) at Side-On Gallery in Sydney consisted of four disparate objects; a car tyre, a car wheel, a tree branch and a rubbish bin. All cast from polyurethane, the objects were life-size and oddly coloured; the branch a pale and uniform gold, the car tyre orange, the car wheel cherry red. Only the green bin, stacked with cast-polyurethane chunks of simulated wood and other detritus, looked like its original, its duplicity enhanced by its placement next to the gallery desk rather than in the main space. Again, the viewer is directed around the space, and made aware of the presence of the object. As in Saint's work, the body is evoked, but more so; for example, Birch's recurrent anthropomorphic tree trunks and branches eerily suggest limbs and torsos, while their arrangement is redolent of gesture and pose. Placed in groups, as in Under Wood (1998) and Woodsprites (2000), they become sociable, looking at each other and out at the viewer with LCD 'eyes'; while in Civic Minded (1999) the branchless trunks wear shoes, their bubbled and cracked fibreglass bark becoming a repulsive skin.

While Birch's work could be considered pre-sexual, the forms and arrangements suggesting more a fairytale or juvenile delinquent quality, John Meade's work is distinctly erotic. While his earlier work was grounded in recognisable, if coded sexual forms  a child's car ride dressed in a pink wool jumper, a mannequin protruding from a stack of tubelike shapes, even a Jean Arp sculpture  his more recent work has become far more oblique, the shapes more difficult to place. They frustrate and defer the release of recognition, encouraging in its place, as one critic put it, a Barthesian "erotics of reading." This is heightened by Meade's attention to detail when it comes to placement in the gallery: its very specificity implies a statement of intent. In a recent exhibition, Objects to Live By at Sutton Gallery in 2000, a series of small stainless steel pieces were arranged on a wooden plinth with a mirrored top. Although the pieces were also editioned to be sold separately, the objects and plinth, with their respective reflective qualities, were of a piece. One object in particular, a half-cone with a tapered, tail-like end, only became complete when reflected in the mirror-top, while the small stack of egg-like shapes was doubled in size. Presence is heightened through perceptual illusion, and disappears as soon as the works are removed from their place.

The image of the child enters such art in other ways. Its predecessors, be it Dada, Surrealism or Fluxus, had in common an Oedipal critique of institutional structures, often expressed through the assumption of an infantilist position. A complex mix of degradation, alienation, and sexual perversion, this stance was most pronounced in the abject art of the late 1980s and early 1990s. In more recent art, there seems to have been a shift toward order within this frame, the chaotic, faecal performances of Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley becoming the carefully rolled shitballs of Tom Friedman, precisely half-a-millimetre in diameter and placed at the exact centre of a plinth. Friedman's conscious use of gallery display (the plinth, a white cube, is also part of the work) and his fastidious attachment to the object encapsulates the concerns that artists have with locating the art object in the institutional here and now. Similarly, Meade's mirrored plinth provides a visual 'completion' for the stainless steel fetish objects that would need to be renegotiated once they left the gallery.

While Meade's objects as collectibles are highly durable, if in a sense 'incomplete,' in the work of Tim Silver, the object's function as a commodity is thwarted entirely. While his cast objects appear in the form of a collectible object (small, familiar, and reproducible) they are also fallible and deteriorate over time. Silver's post-Informe interest in entropy finds its expression in materials that rot, melt, crumble and dissolve. The objects produced, from materials such as blood, cheese, hair gel, chocolate and fairy floss, are imperfect even in their most pristine state, with the viewer chancing her luck with them depending on at which stage of the exhibition she enters the gallery. The work is embedded with the passing of time, which Silver often enhances by casting the pieces in the shape of vehicles  planes, cars and motorbikes. However, temporality is most clearly evidenced in Silver's most recent works, a series of Crayola pieces. Cast from melted children's crayons, the vehicles are 'driven' by Silver on specially constructed shelves or tables, or along the gallery walls, creating a coloured trace, which correspondingly wears down the object. The objects are then placed with the crayon residue (literally at the end of the line). These object/drawings bring to mind children's toys  which are indeed the source of the moulds  while the fragility, ephemerality (and lack of moving parts) of the objects render them relatively useless as tools of play (unless we consider the artist's own actions in 'driving' them in the installation process).

By extending the process of play into the gallery space through the installation process, artists enable further connections to be made with the viewer through a more immediate engagement with the objects. For example, Robert Pulie's work Transcontinental interiority (1996), consisting of 24 cut-out wooden busts on stands, includes installation instructions to place the busts in three concentric circles, creating a kind of political hierarchy. Each bust is an individual 'portrait,' made distinct by different hairstyles, skin colours, clothing and accessories, yet with no clear indicators as to social position. The arrangement of the busts is left up to whoever installs the work, creating a game involving personal prejudice and taste. As the viewer walks around the work, the relationships between the figures shift and she is left to ponder why decisions were made, and what her own decisions might be.

Simryn Gill's floor pieces Self-seeds (1998) and Roadkill (1999-2000) are also left up to the installation team to decide. Containing myriad objects that the artist gathered in various places she visited, the works evoke the childlike desire to arrange, sort and collect. Self-seeds consists of seeds and pods collected from three specific regions (Australia, Finland and Malaysia), while Roadkill contains a large yet carefully selected array of objects found discarded and crushed on the roads of various cities. While these fragments and debris have ceased to function in their original form, they have attained new life through the attachment of tiny toy wheels. In the case of Roadkill, the objects become tiny versions of what destroyed them in the first place, a whimsical and slightly sinister touch that defies the piece's traumatic history. The flattened cans, split straws, crumpled papers and gasless cigarette lighters have all been robbed of their original function, yet fitted with Gill's carefully attached wheels, chosen for their appropriate size, they are mobilised, grouped and set off in an intimate yet remarkably powerful display of recovery.

Mikala Dwyer's works are also rearranged each time they are installed, with their omnivorous open-endedness literally allowing numerous points of entry for the viewer. Her recent exhibition at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art featured, amongst other things, special cubby holes and a secret door, works with head-holes, objects placed on the tops of false walls, and pipes protruding from the floor and ceiling, their openings confused with mirrors. One work blended into the next, with no clear separation between pieces or even rooms. The children running and playing around the works on opening night recalled Foster's allegorical six-year-old, the wooden beams replaced with a pinewood-lined portal.

With Dwyer's work, forms and materials combine to suggest and trigger, with the overall effect one of a memory dream, fractured and warped. The viewer becomes infantilised; ducking, crawling and tweaking, seeking comfort with materials found in the most intimate domestic places: the bathroom (rubber mats, band-aids, mirrors and plumbing tubes) the kitchen (plates and cork) and the wardrobe (lamé, organza, sequins, lipstick  the stuff you seek out when your mother's not looking). Materials also provide a trigger in the works of David Griggs, whose use of tarpaulin, pinewood, camouflage, denim and spray paint evoke utes, suburban walls, army-disposal stores and hardware shops. While solidly constructed from the most utilitarian stuff, Griggs's objects are pointless and strange: an octagonal wooden frame stretched with tarpaulin on a wooden stand; a hinged ring of tarpaulin-stretched panels; a waist-high box with a bleached-denim cover. It's hard to avoid the class-conscious implication of youthful delinquency and slackerdom (Griggs's paintings have included images of graffiti and marijuana leaves on occasion), yet on the face of it  reliable, durable, wash-and-wear  these objects are made to work hard.

This is perhaps just as well, for as artists are being required to work harder and harder  to make their work, to get their work shown, for their work to be seen, to account for their time  so too are their objects. The question of audience, as one artist-writer recently noted, is "surely the biggest question for any artist in the brand new (so to speak) twenty first century." The 'sociability' of art as it attempts to interact with its audience in ever-more ingenious ways has become increasingly prevalent, with the tools of play an increasingly useful device. While the field may still not have expanded far beyond the gallery space, it's certainly becoming a lot more fun.