If there is one thing every art gallery visitor knows, it is do not touch the display. Do not get too close to it. Art is supposed to be admired from a safe distance. Artists like Conrad Eric Armstrong, and Petr Nikl’s art project Orbis Pictus PLAY respectfully disagree. Armstrong’s exhibit Rukozábavky (Fun for the hands) in the atrium of Anglo-American University and Orbis Pictus PLAY, nearby in the gallery attic of Malostranská Beseda, require visitors to put their hands, legs and imagination to work.
The idea is not new. The notion that art could be fun came with Dadaism in 1916. Disgusted by the stuffiness of early 20th century art and the World War I society in general, the rebellious art movement spread from Zurich across Europe. Rukozábavky and PLAY take a lot from Dadaists like Marcel Duchamp. His readymade, everyday objects made into art by simple alterations of appearance, purpose or both, come through especially in the case of Armstrong’s Rukozábavky.
“You don’t always have to come up with something new,” says Armstrong. The American artist repurposes junk, giving such reclaimed material a new spirit. A glass lampshade that someone left behind in Letná becomes a perfect whipping-top. A wooden lawn-mower frame topped with part of an old fan transforms the lawn mower into Lawn grower, protecting grass instead of cutting it. Anyone can mess around with the small cardboard cut replica of Bhaktapur Nyatapola Temple from Kathmandu, spin broken juggling pins on a yellow Ferris wheel or count Armstrong’s earliest Facebook friends on a human-sized abacus.
Built from moveable pieces of wood, broken house appliances, toys, and other found materials, Armstrong’s “sculptures” are left at the mercy of both the weather and children from the nearby kindergarten. Falling apart and being picked apart transforms them constantly.
“I was counting on that. It’s the purpose of the exhibition to be played with. I don’t care if things get destroyed,” he says, hinting that the exhibition is as much about fun as it is about decay and change. The reflective colors are balanced out by moss, while the fun of moving the parts around contrasts with an overall “forgotten toys” feeling oozing from the exhibit. Rukozábavky is both naive and pessimistic. It will be in the AAU courtyard till the end of April.
A few streets down the block, PLAY takes a lighter approach to the same theme. Lead by the Czech artist Petr Nikl with his artistic collective Orbis Pictus Play, the group is influenced by Jan Amos Komensky’s teachings that playfulness is the key to knowledge and universal communication.
Hidden in the shady attic of Malostranská Beseda, the building where the theatre of Jara Cimmrman was born in 1967, PLAY’s otherworldly objects test one’s imagination with vigor. For instance, Milan Cais’ Harfičky (Little Harps) use the openings between the gallery’s support beams to carry sound around the entire loft, so that both the vibrating acoustic and amorphous frames carved from light colored wood summon Australian Aboriginals into the room. Overlooking the space from the second floor, a hand harp Platonické Snění (Platonic Dreaming) by Ondřej Puchta seems to be from the futuristic workshop of the Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. His glowing white, sleek structure with its heavenly chimes bares resemblance to Dubai’s Burj al Arab.
While Cais’ harp requires fingers to play, Jiří Konvrzek’s Qes kvintet needs legs’ power. His bicyle-like structure with organ pipes encased in wood is played by riding it. In Zóna (Zone), David Vrbík and Petr Nikl use water to mesmerize the eyes by creating temporary “paintings” reflected on an overarching fabric. And if tinkling around gets too tiring, the weary are welcome to take refuge in Nikl’s Klobouk (Hat). This is a wooden cone, that looks like it arrived right from the world of Jules Verne. Once inside, one can discreetly monitor the surrounding space through a hidden camera making the Hat a secret observatory.
There are many ways to experience both Rukozábavky and PLAY. One contemplating the other, both exhibitions in Mala Strana are an omen for a new gallery, where visitors can evolves from mere bystanders into a part of the display.
Rukozábavky can be seen in the AAU atrium until the end of April. While PLAY will entertain Prague up to June 30, and can be visited from 10AM to 6PM every day.
Cover photo courtesy of Orbis Pictus PLAY.