Few people credit her with being a visionary artist, but Yoko Ono’s All White Chess Set from the 1960s was hailed as a symbol for peace and a metaphor for the futility of war.
A version of the classic all-white set, Play it by Trust, is just one of the 15 pieces that make up Museum London’s new exhibit, Free Play, which is now open and runs until May 8.
The exhibit features work by an international array of contemporary artists who borrow from play and games to speak out on various social, philosophical, and cultural issues.
Cassandra Getty, Museum London curator of art, said Free Play — which is a touring exhibit circulated by Independent Curators International out of New York — presents works recognizable outside of an art gallery experience.
“There are pieces based on video games, chess, an artist’s take on Monopoly, there is a Ping-Pong table, hopscotch table, there is an important emphasis on them all being interactive,” Getty said. “They are about as far as you can get from a painting or a blue-chip sculpture, so they’re accessible in that way. But the artists have all given them a twist; they aren’t what you’d expect. Some of them have agendas, anti-war agendas, pro-peace agendas. Some of the games are open-ended; they aren’t about winning or losing.”
Getty said the museum works thematically, which is why at the same time Free Play is being shown, other exhibitions include a look at toys and how they’ve changed over the years.
Another exhibit is focused on work. Free Play is the other side of the coin and, according to Getty, gets people thinking about what constitutes leisure and what constitutes work?
Then again, there is that all-white chess set, which, perhaps as Ono herself intended, is designed to get people challenging their existing notions about what a game can truly represent.
“Often people play chess, but don’t realize it’s an ancient Persian game that is about winning, black and white; it is about domination,” Getty said. Not that everything has to be political. Some of the things we have are quite absurdist. But it challenges the notion that games are something that have to have winners and losers.”
The exhibition asks the question of why play is important. For Getty, play is essential to not only to general health — physical and psychological — but to people’s creativity as well.
Many of the big ideas in the world, she added, came from people playing around, playing with ideas, as opposed to just going from a theory and not bothering to work things out themselves.
That, Getty said, is how the world works and is how innovation happens.
After an 18-year career, she has seen a lot of exhibitions in her time and far too often they exist with a strict “no touch” policy. That approach couldn’t be further from reality when it comes to Free Play.
After all, although a Group of Seven exhibit is important, and is something Museum London also features, Getty said it is nice to change things up a little from time to time.
“Often, if there is an older work, you just can’t touch it. We’re trying to preserve it for posterity,” Getty said.
“But art can be a lot of things. It can be a historic picture or things a little less stuffy, more a part of their everyday lives. It can be fun.”