Peabody Essex Museum to Open “PlayTime”

A new exhibit will explore the role of play in contemporary art at the Salem art museum.

Martin Creed’s balloon room installation / Photo by SITE Photography

When you think of playtime, images of scattered Legos, a trunk of tutus, or assorted hand puppets may come to mind. Most parents consider play as a reward for work—something set for a day off. But what if there’s more to play that speaks to adult productivity and creativity than childhood frills?

Trevor Smith, curator of the Peabody Essex Museum’s upcoming exhibition, “PlayTime,” says the exhibition explores how play is an important part of the creative process. It’s the medium through which uncertainties are negotiated and cultural and creative boundaries are worked through. Most importantly, play hinges on rules.

“There is something that I think is profoundly empowering about play that relates to making up the rules of the game,” Smith says. “There is something about play, which is about imagining that the world is not just as it is given, that we have some means to impact or to see it differently or to work with it differently than most people do.”

According to Smith, much of the work in PlayTime” begins with “off-the-shelf” items that are transformed by the artists’ creative application of play. Featured artist Lara Favaretto makes the drab exciting with her sculpture, “Simple Couples,” which features seven pairs of rotating car-wash brushes, blurring color and rhythm.

“Off-the-shelf objects are made for one purpose and one purpose only, and that’s the only life they’re ever going to have,” Smith says. “But in the eyes of the artist, they find new potential, new possibilities, a new way of looking at it.”

Showcasing 40 works by 17 artists, “Playtime” includes a range of mediums, from videos and sculptures to three groundbreaking interactive works, which give visitors a role within the exhibition. Martin Creed’s interactive piece captures the essence of fun through an immersive room filled with pink balloons. The other two works are participatory: Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures encourages visitors to jump inside the exhibition by striking poses next to everyday objects, while the third interactive work allows museum-goers to pin words from global protest signs on their clothing or on a world map without country boundaries—only lines of latitude and longitude.

Some of the exhibition’s pieces speak to sexism in the realm of gaming, specifically World of Warcraft, the popular online role-playing game. Since 2012, artist and gamer Angela Washko has documented her interactions in the game to gain insights into gender assumptions and bias. Through this, she’s created a conversation surrounding how to change the rules of gaming culture.

Instead of starting the creative dialogue when the exhibition opens, “PlayTime” has started the conversation early: The exhibition’s website has been up since October, allowing future visitors to forge online connections and conversations before they even see (or touch) the featured pieces.

From poets to writers to economists to game designers, play encompasses making connections. It stimulates change and creativity, be it through the swishing of Favaretto’s car-wash brushes or the melodies of Pedro Reyes’ piece consisting of 6,700 confiscated guns turned into working musical instruments.

“Play is very much about empowering ourselves and creating a zone in which you are empowered,” Smith says. “Play is no longer removed from the realm of productivity, and it’s no longer radical to be working at play.”

“PlayTime” will be on view February 10 through May 6, 2018 at the Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem,