Newcastle’s Baltic divides spectators with its interactive exhibition, The Playground Project, open until 30th October 2016. Situated along Gateshead’s quayside, the centre for contemporary art continues to leave us pondering over what should, and shouldn’t be classified as ‘art’.
The Baltic is home to multiple exciting, unique and outright weird pieces of artwork. However, more often than not, this house for contemporary art can take ‘contemporary’ a bit too far as it pushes the boundaries between art and pretentiousness, leaving half of its visitors inspired and the other half shouting ‘this is not art!’
Since mid-July this year, on the fourth floor of The Baltic, The Playground Project, announcing itself as a ‘homage to play, a plea for playgrounds to be more daring,’ has been on display. After a failed attempt to visit in the summer of 2016 – cut short by the sheer velocity of under 7s rampaging around the room – I visited once more during term time.
The exhibition was inspired by over sixteen artists from across the globe. From Paul Friedberg’s use of wooden climbing frames, to Marjory Allen creating junk play yards in the wreckage of WWII, the architects and landscapists all had in common a desire to bring freedom and creativity to communities. Which, in itself, sounds quite artistic.
However, what appeared to be the main attraction: the slides, swings, sand pit and climbing frame, all seemed somewhat typical of playgrounds evident in present day England. The impetuous shrieks of six year olds over that summer had left me suspicious that the Baltic had once again placed something obviously not art into an art gallery and labelled it ‘contemporary art’.
The centre pieces certainly didn’t strike me as ‘daring’. Nonetheless, I explored the numerous other materials on display around the room. Most notably, the walls were plastered with images of playgrounds from New York to France, tracing the history of their development into what we know today, forfeiting adventure and anarchy for the sake of health and safety.
Yes, it felt more like a history lecture than an art gallery, but the chronology of images from the 1930s up until now, made explicit the extent to which playgrounds have changed. They once facilitated art, not only with their design and aesthetic, but also their function in providing joy to those who use it, parent or child, without being confined by the restrictions of health and safety. Art is meant to be enjoyed, after all.
It made me think about my local park: lots of fences and bland colours, juxtaposed with the innovative projects of Paul Friedberg, Marjory Allen and many more. The intro reads, ‘a playground is [where] art and public space collide,’ and this was perfectly depicted in that room. Those under 7s were shrieking with joy that summer, while adults immersed themselves in history and culture. Normally, I’d be one to argue that placing a climbing frame and some sand in the middle of a room would be classified in the ‘this is not art’ box, but this time, the Baltic has inspired me, by making playgrounds works of art, as they once were. It was as though the architects were screaming at us to go back, stop worrying and once again scribble with reckless abandon.