The Playground Series

Contribution to the catalogue of the Vivian Lynn exhibition at the Adams Art Gallery, VUW (October 2008 – March 2009).

Keywords: Literature and Culture;

It is said that if you remember the 1960s, you were not there. The 1970s were  much more problematic, not least because of the new wave of feminism. What was a man to do but take the kids down to the park and watch them play? Others saw a different playground; at least Vivian Lynn did – more intense, more socially threatening. The lazy rhythm of children on swings becomes one of tension and anxiety in her Playground IV.

The first I saw of the series was Playground V in a sociologist’s house. The triangular image has always stuck in my mind, reminding me of the cone of the space exploration vehicle, but here the people are exposed outside rather than protected inside. The friend explained that the people climbing the merry-go-round wheel was a representation of a society where everyone was striving to get to the top, although they could not all make it. Had he been a psychologist he might have thought instead of Abraham Maslow’s pyramid hierarchy of needs with its ultimate object of self-actualisation;  now that was something to do with the 1970s I think –  or was it the 1960s?

I suppose the sociologist or the psychologist might also be taken by the chair ride of Playground II with its passengers isolated from one another – perhaps lone commuters in their cars. That was the first time I noticed the commentary image at the foot of each print. This one shows a fallen child with a buzzy-bee,  presumably run over by the crashed car. The child is naked; so are the androgynous people.

When some friends gave a print to the Department of Economics at the University of Canterbury when I left, we chose the snakes and ladders of Playground III, a reminder that life is less determinant than its portrayal in economic models. It is a strange picture with the traditional ups, and downs replaced by plankton and deep sea creatures which morph into supermarket staples repeated, as in Andy Warhol print. Around the border are labels: ‘consume’, ‘loss’, ‘success’, ‘expand’, ‘pollute’ ‘waste’. ‘pay’, ‘wait’, ‘advance’, ‘progress’, ‘consume’, ‘shop’, ‘buy’, ‘penalty’, ‘profit’, ‘success’, ‘interest’ – the only use of text in the series.

The footnote comment is a seesaw controlled by a couple of giant fingers. Some see the fingers of capitalism (an economist might say ‘the market’) but I have always thought of them as belonging to fate. It may not seem so in the celebrity-driven  2000s, but there is a lot of luck in whether you make it or not.

Playground I uses the seesaw motif.  Those on the upswing are straining, those on the down seem happier. The footnote comment is the only case of an unequivocal gender image: a woman running away from the playground. In the first print, we may take it that she is having nothing of the world the series portrays.

The print in my office is Playground VI, with machinery which on closer inspection proves to be made of human bodies; I am reminded of the treadmills of the prison of Oscar Wilde’s  Ballad of Reading Gaol. I acquired it while working through the Ricardian/Marxian theory of embodied labour in capital. The print captures the idea beautifully.  It is  a terrible tribute to the costs of industrialisation and of a modern economy.

Mind you, the labour theory of value is not comprehensive, because it does not include natural resources. That does not make the image any less powerful, but it reminds us that the environment in the 1970s was not as prominent an issue as it is today, although it is sneaking in, as the sea creatures and the cats eye shells in the footnote to Playground VI signal. .

No doubt the artist, like the rest of us,  was going through a transition then. Yet the prints stand independent of her personal concerns. My responses to the works are – shall we say – very 1970s. The pleasures of being with the kids at the playground were a distraction from the great forces shaping society – but perhaps ultimately more rewarding.