On ViewWaterfront Park
September 4 – October 31, 2020
As a mother, Sari Carel spends long hours in playgrounds. The Shape of Play (2020), her recent public art installation situated at Waterfront Park in Boston’s North End, was inspired by moments of observing children play and listening to the sounds produced in various playgrounds.
The title of the installation set the ground for its content: The Shape of Play investigates how play shapes individual humans and society at large; how, as children, we played with each other and how that carved our interactions as adults. It also asks how we shared, what strategies we developed for climbing, what fears we had when jumping, and how we collaborated with our peers. And although the project does not go deep into psychological influences, it does question the role of the playground as a personal and social phenomenon.
Produced by Now + There, a curatorial non-profit focused on site-specific public art installations, and commissioned by the Jewish Arts Collaborative, the installation included six rectangular pillars spread across the park’s lawn. The pillars, different lengths, heights, and widths, were situated on the ground in an oval meta-structure to form an inclusive space. Each pillar was made from recyclable wood and decorated with blue, yellow, red, and white rectangles, squares, and half circles. Very much inspired by modernist aesthetics, the installation referenced Piet Mondrian's color scheme, architectural structures by Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, as well as Kandinsky’s exploration of color and sound. The simplicity of shapes and colors made the installation visibly approachable—not too busy, not too dull—moderate stimulation that stands in opposition to the overwhelming amount of graphics we take in every day via screens, devices and present-day toys. The senses here are active in a different way, as the installation was designed to generate excitement at a degree that is appropriate for developing an active imagination, rather than suppressing it. Here, Carel managed to capture the role of a playground at its essence.
When approaching the piece either from the nearby playground, Rose Kennedy Greenway, the local harbor, or Downtown Boston’s skyscrapers, one noticed the playful sounds that echoed every full and mid-hour. The 16-minute-long synchronous and surround sound installation drew viewers and listeners from the different areas: inside each pillar was technical software that enabled the installation to produce sounds that encouraged passersby to listen. The soundtrack was created in various Boston playgrounds, as the artist experimented with a variation of sounds produced on site. She used sand on plastic and metal slides, sticks on metallic ladders, and bare hands on plastic surfaces. The first part of the soundtrack appears naïve and sweet, but also dark and mysterious, something like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton-style. This bit transitions into more percussive acoustics, as if animals and crickets had taken over the playground. The concluding session has a spiritual feel, with ringing bells of sorts. One of the fun aspects of this piece is the guessing game: Was this the sound of sand on a slide? A stick on a plastic surface? The sound of hands through monkey bars? Visitors were encouraged to listen to the sounds and play with the sand that is at the base of each individual structure.
The show’s original date of installation was to be in May 2020, during Passover, a Jewish holiday that signifies freedom. However, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the installment was postponed and eventually opened in September. The beauty of meeting people outdoors to experience art had become more potent; between suppression of expression, police brutality, and people’s need to be in the open air, the question of who’s free and why was heightened. How does freedom affect play? How does play affect freedom? And who can play freely?
In 1967, the Massachusetts State Council voted to establish a non-profit corporation that would construct affordable housing at the site of the lawn in which Carel’s installation is situated. Eventually, however, it was decided to create Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park, which included a statue of the patron. The statue has been frequently vandalized throughout the years: with red paint and the word "murderer" in 2004, beheaded in 2006, spray painted with “Black Lives Matter” in 2015; finally, this year, the statue was decapitated again, and its head stolen. The Shape of Play stood nearby as a non-monumental public installation and represented everything non-colonized: it was available to everyone, all ages, all ethnicities; it promoted play and imagination; it was made of sustainable and recyclable materials that are ready to be reused; and it promoted equality and freedom of expression through its interactive attributes. It suggests a different philosophy that our society needs to follow, and now maybe it will.