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Tag Archives: Toys

This is not a toy

I haven’t seen an exhibition of art toys for almost a decade, not since 2010. This year there have been two; the second one, This is Not a Toy Scene, opened last night at B-Side Gallery in Fitzroy.

It was an impressive group show with almost a dozen artists showing their toys, or should they be described as limited edition objet d’art? Perhaps the word ‘toy’ is more of reference to diminutive size, as in ‘toy poodles’, rather than use for play. Miniature polychromatic sculptures many in their own bubble packaging that imitated the commercial versions faultlessly.

Although many of the toys reflect a nostalgia for childhood there was more art than that sentiment and collectability in the exhibition. Cepholopede had some most immediate pop cultural references (egg boy, the milk-crate) by that I have seen in any show in a long time. There were some works that questioned copyright issues (not mentioning any names there). And some hard-core surrealistic work by Wendy Olsen.

There is still some cross-over between Melbourne’s street art scene and exhibitions of toys. I remember seeing the work of Phibs, Deb, and Junior in Villain’s ‘Munny show’ of customisable toys figures (see my post).

I knew that ADi and Facter have been making toys for years but I didn’t know about Russkid’s dragsters 3D doodles. Facter’s Irikanii Corps figures have the same colours as his work on the street and ADi’s toys (featured in earlier exhibitions) riff on Star Wars abstracting the characters to a minimal. Facter says that he now prefers making toys to painting on the streets because he can finish more.

If art toys are not really a happening scene in Australia it is in Asia. GGNW (GoodGuysNeverWin) from Indonesia is now based in Melbourne and promoting the art toy scene here. He told me about the Indonesian art toy scene. There had been a public controversy that some of his toys had created because people got the idea that toys depicting child killers might be sold to children in toy shops rather than to adults at art galleries.

Earlier this year I saw that there was a limited edition toy depicting the American art critic Jerry Salz so I guess we can call this an international toy art movement.

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Toys Make the Human

Toys are as much cultural artefacts as sculptures, although generally not considered as valuable. As a cultural artefact toys can shows as much about the culture, its values, traditions and beliefs as a small sculpture. Toys show part of the collective consciousness; they are miniature version of the adult world.

Soldiers doing ablutions survive at the Munich Toy Museum

Toys are part of an ephemeral culture and most of them are loved to destruction. Conscious of this history and like many aspects of ephemeral culture, toys have become collectable design objects in themselves. Some toys are now consciously created as collectable design objects, marketed to adults, remain in their original packaging as part of a complete design statement. (More do not touch signs and glass cases.)

I’ve been to toy museums and also the occasional a customized toy exhibition or art exhibition using toys. (I should note that I still have a collection of 25mm lead figures that I painted when I was a teenager and won a prize for some of them at Arcarnacon I.)

Toy museums are always interesting places to visit. I have enjoyed my visits to the Munich Toy Museum (Spielzeugmuseum im Alten Rathausturm) and the Mint Toy Museum in Singapore. Curiously both of these museums are extremely vertical, their exhibits crammed into several small narrow floors. Fortunately their exhibits are all on a small scale. The Mint Toy Museum concentrates on the influence of popular culture with toys associated with the space age, politicians, the Beatles, Disney films etc. It has a great collection of Japanese tin toys especially robots. The Munich Toy Museum specializes in teddy bears but also in the past preserved in miniature with toy vehicles, kitchens and armies. There was a whole history of kitchens, the military or transportation told in those toys.

Doll house kitchen in the Munich Toy Museum

President Nixon’s ping pong diplomacy preserved in toys at the Mint Toy Museum.

A few years ago at Villain I saw one of their “Munny” shows (I’ve seen others since at Villain but this was the best – I wish that I’d had my camera that day). A Munny is a customisable toy figure with a simplified round cartoon form either as a standing figure or in a small car. It is customisable in that all kinds of media can be applied to its plastic surface. They are amongst other brands of customisable toys that are for sale at Villain. Every year or so Villain assembles an awesome collection of modified Munnys for an in store exhibition. That year several of the artists exhibiting in the show from the street art scene: Phibs, Deb, and Junior. Phibs sushi crab version of the Munny car was out standing. There were some amazing and fun modifications of the original toy, some beautiful painting and excellent modelling. Some of the modifications left the original form far behind, like Agnieska Rypinska’s large impressive elephant with howdah. One of the works on display was by Katherine Dretzke, a customer who had brought her, now decorated and winged, Munny back to the store for the exhibition; a genuine interactive consumer experience.

Maybe we should look more deeply at toys; maybe they are more than just artefacts that represent our culture but symbols of what makes us human. Desmond Morris argues in the Naked Ape (1967) that humans retain many juvenile ape features and that this juvenile nature has been turned to an evolutionary advantage. The human ability to remain a juvenile and play allows the human to continue to learn as adults.


Soft Toy Art

Toys are functionless and as useless as art. Toys appear to be a category that runs somewhat parrel to art; it is hard tell what the divides the two categories of objects maybe it is all the “do not touch” signs on one side of the division. Toys, unlike most art, are intended to be touched. Toys are intended to be touched, handled and played with.

Toys do not just act as the tokens or signifiers for the imagination at play. Toys are animated with a spirit, a kind of childhood voodoo. And for this magic reason their spirit depends on who is touching the toy, that this spirit can be desecrated by the wrong kind of touching by the wrong person. It is not simple selfishness that restricts sharing toys.

In this new brow era (you know, new brow, neither high brow nor low) there are art/toys created artists are art/toys. There is a lot of it about. Toys created by artists are becoming increasing common in art exhibitions. Toys are part of the street art influence on contemporary art. “Urban Art 10A” earlier this year at BSG included custom soft toys by Amy Calton, Antonia Green and Rob Thompson, from the Australian Guild of Toy Makers, amongst the work of stencil, cartoon and aerosol artists. Snappy Yabby was exhibiting stuffed toys in the window of White Elephant Artspace in Brunswick in August. Cecilia Fogelberg’s “Super Groupie” at Craft Victoria in 2008 was clearly soft toys art for adults. There is also the Toy Society, what started as a small street art project in Australia is slowly spreading around the world.

Sounds fun. I often describe art that I like as fun, as I would like to see more fun art. Fun is a big category, from silly to serious, that excites people’s body, emotions and imagination. Fun has rarely been taken seriously but it is important to life (and not just human life, all vertebrates, like Cindy Lauper’s girls, just want to have fun). Food and sex, the basics of life, are often fun for vertebrates (the same cannot be said for invertebrates). And toys are unashamedly fun creations.

What I find uneasy about much of this art/toys is that although toys can be a miniature representation of the real world but they are not a comment on the world. Toys are a withdrawal from the world rather than an engagement with it. And that most of these art soft toys are ugly monsters.


Trouble in Toyland

On Thursday evening, 15 January, the Counihan Gallery had its first exhibition opening of the year and launched its annual program of exhibitions.

“Trouble in Toyland” is a gem of an exhibition; a small group exhibition by five notable artists from Australia’s eastern states, “exploring the seductive, sinister and anthropomorphic qualities of toys.” Toys are an obvious theme in contemporary art from Jeff Koons’s “Pink Panther” (1988) to Takashi Murakami “The castle of Tin Tin” (1998). Toys are a feature of contemporary life for both children and adults. Every movie has action figures (even “Reservoir Dogs”) and the computer game industry out grosses Hollywood.

Toys, like art, are part of the excess of culture. They occupy our spare time and are bought when the necessities of life have been paid for. Toys, games and art are part of the same excess in culture. “Poetry and pushpin” are not alternatives for pleasure as Bentham suggested but are part of the same excess that is the source of pleasure.

Martine Corompt’s kinetic sculpture “Scared chair with anxious cat” was very popular with all the little kids at the exhibition opening. The kids enjoyed the anxiety of the wondering if the toy cat, with a bass shaker fitted inside, would fall off its little chair as it vibrated around.

Christopher Langton’s very large inflatable figure “Plastic Man” also impressed the kids, along with the adults “Plastic Man” is modeled on Captain America and it is capable of shock and awe by its size, but it is not as friendly and ultimately just full of air.

Michael Doolan’s ceramic toy figures with platinum luster look beautiful. The toys that they are modeled on were not beautiful or elegant but cute and sentimental. Once they were soft and plush; now they are ultra shiny and hard ceramic forms highlighting the superficial quality of beauty.

Van Sowerwine has a series of videos using dolls and stop motion animation along with photographs of this miniature world. Using dolls Sowerwine creates a child’s world full of pathos. In contrast to the videos and photographs Sowerwine also exhibited a shadow-box sculpture with hand-cranked animated figures, a simpler version of the same vision.

Anna Hoyle’s whimsical delicate and detailed drawings of fluffy animals and psychedelic glitter decorations were the small stars of the exhibition. Squirrels wearing gym shoes pamper pompadour pets with phallic blow dryers. Hoyle creates a fanatic world of toys, consumer culture beauty treatments with a cute overdrive.

In the back half of the Counihan Gallery was Keiko Murakami’s first solo exhibition: Kizuguchi. (I presume that Keiko Murakami is no relation to the more famous Takashi Murakami). Keiko Murakami’s paintings and prints also depicts a troubled child’s world; the exhibition’s title ‘kizuguchi’, means a “wound or cut to the body” in Japanese. Murakami’s Goth-Lolita figures all bare a symbolic wound, a vaginal symbol imposing reality on their doll-like qualities.

The world is not safe for children; that is why they grow up.


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