After spending twenty minutes bouncing, bumbling, and fumbling around what seemed like a cross between a giant net and a landscape straight from the mind of Dr. Seuss, a whistle blew and we slithered down to the base of the membranous surface to give other visitors (in this case, some dozen elementary-aged children and their chaperones) a chance in this surreal environment. So, with some difficulty, I shimmied out of one of its many orifices and was eventually expunged upside-down onto the mat below. I’d been to the Toledo Art Museum many times before, but never had I experienced anything like this.
This large installation, Harmonic Motion, is part of the TMA’s exhibition Play Time, a highly interactive show that will change and evolve throughout the course of the summer. Sure to be a crowd-pleaser, it actually seeks to address some serious questions about play: Is it for children only? Is play frivolous? Is it a necessity?
These works invite viewer participation. One gallery contains (in every sense of the word) Ground Control, Edith Dekndt’s gravity-defying helium-filled sphere that responds to body heat as it slowly hovers about the room. Jillian Mayer’s Swing Space allows people to swing into a kaleidoscopic video projection of clouds and sky. Harmonic Motion, unquestionably the show’s centerpiece, is a gallery-filling installation of crocheted fiber art by Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam and Charles MacAdam. The biomorphic form is an environment accessible by kid-sized portals and replete with womb-like pockets where one can hide.
RedBall Project 1 will join the show in August, appearing first on the TMA’s main campus, after which it will start showing up randomly around the city. It’s a giant red malleable ball that viewers can interact with, whether by posing for a selfie in front of the crimson orb or by flinging themselves headlong into it (people seem to enjoy doing both). It originated as public art by Kurt Perschke to revitalize a rather uninteresting street in St. Louis, and has been traveling the world ever since, demonstrating that art, with uncanny efficiency, can transform an urban space.
But is play necessary? Henry Ford certainly thought so; he famously shortened the workweek for his factory employees from 48 hours to 40 hours, realizing that the extra day off would ultimately result in a more productive workforce (which it did). And if we equate “play” with “leisure,” it’s even a provision in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 24). Perhaps its importance is best understood by those who rarely experience it, such as those who juggle multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet.
One of the most surprising features of Play Time is that it initially seems trivial, wholly unrelated to life’s more pressing matters. Then, when you least expect it, perhaps after you’re bouncing around on your head in Harmonic Motion, you realize that this art initiates a conversation about something profoundly important. So is play necessary? The evidence suggests it is. The exhibit itself doesn’t presume to answer the question, but it certainly creates space to have the discussion.