Even the most princely doll becomes a capable proletarian comrade in the children’s play commune (Walter Benjamin, “Old Toys” 1928)
During our childhood, we have all eviscerated a stuffed animal or disemboweled a toy. Baudelaire interpreted this impulse as a “first metaphysical tendency”: the child looks for the soul of his doll, but when he does not find it, sadness or stupor ensues.
What Walter Benjamin would reply to the French poet is that the soul is not in the object but emerges from the “capacity to look”. “The world of things shows children a face that only they see”, inviting them to create “new and capricious relationships”. In this, the infant resembles the figure of the collector because both are gleaners of waste or forgotten objects to those who endow a second life, freeing them from the mercantilist and utilitarian wheel.
In the figures of the flâneur, the urban tracker, the collector and the child, Benjamin glimpsed the potential to transform mere existence into an experience, to transform a remembered sensation and a fortuitous encounter into an authentic experience. In the way of working of Ana Barriga all these figures coincide. The artist recovers statuettes and toys from flea markets (angels and porcelain virgins, jewel cases, Playmobil figures…), which she will submit to a process of desecration: amputation, scribblings, an assemblage of dissimilar pieces and staging of unpredictable narratives, where human relations take on a magical and comical tone.
Ana often transfers her “tableaux vivants” to the pictorial form, as still lifes where they curiously maintain their three-dimensional appearance and their brilliant enameled surface. The visual deception, together with the use of masks and small boxes, impel us to a multi-layered reading. She understands the act of playing as a Russian matryoshka doll, as a “placed in abyme” structure, a journey through the circular time of the imagination. We will always find one layer of meaning under another: the camouflage allows her to link one search with another, for example in the tangram pieces covered with other toy wrappings, or in her recent pop reliquaries (Little Man urinating on dove to Marilyn Monroe 2019). Although sometimes we can guess a final game, one last matryoshka doll shaped like a skull, as in her mural intervention in the CCAC, because here she refers to adult’s game, when the destructive impulse is not compensated by the constructive instinct of childhood (From animals to gods 2019).
Nowadays, sociologists and pedagogues seem to have overcome the idea that the child is a miniature adult, but “imitation toys” are still being marketed: medical kits or briefcases, baby dolls that cry and do pee… Roland Barthes called “Shuar head shrinking” these replicas on a small scale of dads and moms tasks. In short, toys intended for training, not education; toys that make them small users, never creators.
Along with the threat of this repetition of models in the form of an innocent children’s play, the imagination currently also tends to be occluded by the displacement of the child-faber (as a bricoleur who uses his hands) towards the child-videns, who still before reading or writing, he is addicted to the tele-viewing (Giovanni Sartori).
The upholstered dolls of Roberto López Martín, as unattractive for a child as a sofa or any other piece of furniture, allude to a childhood that has been separated from her exploratory essence. Lined from head to toe with patterned fabrics that hide their facial features and reduce them to silhouettes, to Disney icons or heroic stereotypes like the soldier or the cowboy, they are toys that can not be played because they suffer such excess of iconicity that only remains as ghosts. They lack the possibility of being something else: they want to be “avatars”, but being so discarnate, they no longer incarnate again. Their time is gone. Like mannequins in abandoned shop windows, they are condemned to wait forever to be dressed again.
Mimicry, the illusion of “becoming another”, is an essential part of a game. Roger Caillois gave it a significant role, pointing out its shamanic and healing origin. But this French sociologist, and also Benjamin, understood that “play at being another” as an emancipatory recreation and transfiguration, never a crude imitation of stereotypes.
In his anthropological study of gaming, Caillois defined “paidia” as opposed to “ludus”: the first is fantasy, chaos, improvisation; the latter is social regulation of that wild imagination.
When Nathalie Rey rescues abandoned teddies to revive them as radioactive monsters or meteorites, she returns in some way to that first anarchic phase of creation, the “paidia”. The involuntary element that intervenes in the choice of an object, which can attract by the smell, the touch, the color …, by its unconscious relation with the intimate memory, will then moves to the second phase, the ludic or “ludus” , but not to submit to external and consensual rules, but to an inner decision, to an exigency of the artist towards herself and towards the world around her. She will compose, as visual fables, cruel stories with which she will redeem the memory and the bodies that those plush monsters, vagabonds and survivors embody.
The game derives from the sacred, that is, from ancient rituals and divinatory practices; although we could also say that the sacred derives from the game, if we attend to the reflections of Huizinga, for whom the homo was before ludens than sapiens. In any case, and given that religious dogma gave way to the capitalist cult, the game (and the art made game) has the potential to desecrate the mercantilist liturgy, freeing the objects of the sphere of consumption as it once freed them from the sphere of the sacred.
Ana Barriga, De animales a dioses
Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo de Sevilla, CAAC
until 25th August 2019
El taller de las moscas. La Casa Encendida, Madrid
until 28th April 2019