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They play with kites, with snow, with a green brush, with broken pieces of mirror or a piñata

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Hanne Ramsdal
Ramsdal is a writer.
LEK / The exhibition by Francis Alÿs at Copenhagen Contemporary neither explains nor defines what play means. Rather, it is an archive of toys and forms lines of connection between people across the places we come from.

Video installation: Copenhagen Contemporary
Artist Francis Alÿs
Children’s Games 1999-2022

It was an early morning in October at the hotel by the Central Station in Copenhagen, and I was sitting on an ergometer in the exercise room. The screen at the handlebar offered me to let the bike ride go along a small road that wound between almost black lavender fields in France. But the film got shelved due to poor coverage. I looked up and noticed some cracks in a tile on the wall in front of me and discovered that the cracks resembled a face. I had to add the nose and mouth myself, but the crack "drew" a head shape, and the hair and something that could suggest an eye. I looked at the face as I pedaled the bike, a "living face" that made me want to talk to. I forgot the movie with the road along the lavender fields that had hung up – and felt the feeling from the day before when I visited the exhibition of the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs, Children’s Games 1999-2022, at Copenhagen Contemporary. Both this exhibition and now the sight of the crack in the tile aroused a feeling of joy at spontaneous ingenuity.

Children’s Games 1999-2022

In two large halls, screens hang from the ceiling, with over thirty video works of children playing in different parts of the world – Mexico, Hong Kong, Nepal, Switzerland, Congo, Iraq, Jordan, Denmark, Afghanistan, Venezuela, France, Belgium, Morocco and Ecuador.

Children playing in different parts of the world: Mexico, Hong Kong, Nepal, Switzerland, Congo, Iraq, Jordan, Denmark, Afghanistan, Venezuela, France, Belgium, Morocco and Ecuador.

The project has been created over thirty years on Alÿs' travels. Some of the films are from war-torn countries and refugee camps. These provide another entrance to the places we know from news reports. They remind us of man's ability to cooperate within a common framework with set rules, which play often is.

The children wait their turn, follow each other and listen attentively, be it in a game with a stone that must be thrown as close as possible to a line in the sand, or in the competition where it is about hitting soda caps with a plank. In other films, they play with dragons, with snow, with a green brush, with broken pieces of mirror or a piñata. No phones, no tablets. Only children at play, often with other children. They use their bodies actively, to jump bungee cords, sled, balance, kick a ball, keep the kite flying, run round and round in the chair toy, use their hands like rock, scissors or paper.

The sound from the thirty screens

Some of the works have previously been shown at the Venice Biennale, but this is the first time that all the works have been brought together in one place. It is heard. The sound from the thirty screens fills the two halls with squeals of laughter from children sledding, feet running, jumping, balls hitting the ground, shouting, and I thought at first that I wasn't going to be able to stay there that long. But soon I forgot the sound and disappeared deep into the film about the boy in the Congo who pushes a wheel up the remains of an open pit mine. He works hard to push the car tire up the gravel and dirt, and when he reaches the top, he settles into the tire and rolls down. Once down, he begins again with the heavy work of getting the deck back up. The same patient investment of attention is also shown in the film with the children organizing snail races. The snails get different chalk colors on the house, and when one of the snails finally reaches the goal, it starts to rain, and the chalk colors are washed off the snail houses. Nature meets culture.

Video installation: Copenhagen
Artist Francis Alÿs
Children’s Games 1999-2022

homo ludens

In the book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play- Element in Culture from 1971 the Dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga writes about the characteristics of play. It is free. It is something different from ordinary life. It creates order. It is not linked to material interests. And it's non-profit. He describes play as an important activity in living cultures, but he also points out that play is older than culture. Also, that the animals didn't wait for the humans to start playing. Animals invite each other to play via certain ceremonies, rather they follow rules and have fun. Even in the simplest form of play there is a meaning, writes Huizinga. In play, something is "in play". All play matters.

Archive of toys

Alÿs' exhibition at Copenhagen Contemporary neither explains nor defines what play means. Rather, it is an archive of toys and forms lines of connection between people across the places we come from.

Children sledding, shouting, feet running, jumping, balls hitting the ground...

The exhibition also reminds us of the freedom that lies in immersing oneself in something outside oneself, alone or with others – which corresponds to Huizinga's thoughts on play.

Embedded in the exhibition is a strong humanism and optimism. But the amount of children and the outline of the lives they live in the small section we see in the films form a subtle subtext and raise a strong sense of responsibility in me as an adult spectator. Deeply speaking, the exhibition, in a playful way, raises serious questions about responsibility – for children, they are the future, and every choice we make now affects their lives.

 The exhibition lasts until 10.04.2023. Suitable for children and adults of all ages. https://copenhagencontemporary.org/en/

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