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In an essay entitled 'The Philosophy of Toys', the poet and art-critic Charles Baudelaire put forward this intriguing proposition: 'The toy is the child's earliest initiation to art, or rather for him it is the first concrete example of art, and when mature age comes, the perfected examples will not give his mind the same feelings of warmth, nor the same enthusiasms, nor the same conviction.'1 Art thus becomes a partial or incomplete substitute for the relinquished toy object and the infantile pleasures with which it is associated. To think of this in terms of psychoanalysis, one could say that what Baudelaire delineates is the primal scene of art.
It is within such a setting that one might consider the work of David Akenson. For his exhibition Game, Akenson took to remaking modernist sculpture as a type of toy or game and, in the process, uncovering the repressed infantile origins behind its logical geometric structures. Although retaining the fastidious do-it-yourself look that has become something of his signature style, Akenson's decision to use 'candy' colours on this occasion represented a significant formal departure from his previous work. The effect of this chromatic shift was to give the work a decidedly more ludic quality which pointed towards a playful re-interpretation of modernist conventions that would ultimately push the logic of Modernism beyond its own rational intentions.
This playfulness was perhaps most immediately apparent in the two sculptures Rocker and Roller which together formed the centrepiece of the show. Painted in colours of baby blue, pink and orange and skilfully fashioned from craft wood and fitted together with dowel, these objects were suggestive of, among other things, toy rocking horses. More precisely, what these objects signified was not a specific toy as such, but a more ambiguous sense of 'toyness'. On another level, the flat simple planes of Rocker and Roller alluded to quite specific art-historical sources: the classic Modernist sculpture of Anthony Caro and the lesser known three dimensional works of Elsworth Kelly are two obvious referents.2 The use of a high gloss enamel also links these works with certain tendencies of Minimalism, particularly the 'finish fetish' of the so-called West Coast Minimalists.
Though once again, one would have to say that these works had an evasive generality which resisted a precise designation. If these objects could be linked to citations these were better viewed as associations, rather than definitions of the work, which functioned to keep open rather than stabilise or fix interpretation. In their irreducible hybridity Rocker and Roller, and the other works in Game, hinted at spaces which are necessarily excluded by Modernism and its delimiting principle of medium specificity. It is in this respect that Akenson takes his cue from the inter-disciplinary approach of installation art.
The suspension of classification that Rocker and Roller effected was redoubled as a literal suspension of movement. Insofar as movement was implied rather than actualised, Rocker and Roller touched on the long standing tension in sculpture where the problem is one of evoking movement in the process of arresting it. This was also part of the meaning of Fiddle Sticks. For this work, Akenson made a number of thin metal rods that looked like enlarged versions of the sticks from the children's game of the same name, and leant them against one corner of the gallery. In some respects, the work shared the concerns of Richard Serra's One Ton Lean in which sculpture is conceived as a precariously balanced house of cards. Another work, Mental Blocks, which consisted of a loose arrangement of small wooden blocks painted in various enamels, alluded to the specific pedagogical history behind the 'universal' geometric syntax of Modernism.3
If toys and games are Akenson's way into Modernism does this suggest that he has as nostalgic or fetishistic a relationship to that tradition and its values as one would have to the objects of one's childhood? On the other hand, one is led to wonder if the evocation of toys and furniture entails an ironic critique of Modernist avant-gardism.4 The difficult and crucial question of Akenson's relationship to Modernism is posed by Andrew McNamara in his catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition. McNamara distinguishes the work in Game from the popular transgressive reading of Modernism which wants to take a metaposition with Modernism while simultaneously colluding with it in an unknowing way. He sees Akenson not as rejecting the defunct practices of Modernism but re-activating them in order to open up some of 'the unforeseen…yet to be enacted possibilities of the modernist legacy'.
And yet, at the same time as Akenson participates in the fiction of a nascent Modernism, he precludes the possibility of a simple return to a Modernism before Postmodernism when values such as originality and innovation were still operative. Here Akenson shows his difference from someone like John Nixon, who sees his practice as a continuation of on an ongoing tradition of Modernist avant-gardism and not an iconic appropriation of it. Indeed, what Game implicitly illustrates is that every attempt to return to Modernism only succeeds in taking us further away from it. This is because Modernism defines itself precisely through its difference from what has come before it. Lyotard expresses this paradox in its opposite form when he says: 'A work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state and this state is constant'.5 I do not position Akenson as within or beyond Modernism but in an interstitial position which problematises simplistic notions of a linear art history upon which such divisions rely.
1. Charles Baudelaire, Selected Writings on Art and Artists, Cambridge University Press, 1981. p. 199.
2. In particular, these works strongly call to mind, if not directly quote, Kelly's Blue Red Rocker (1963) and to a lesser extent Caro's Prairie (1967) which was famously analysed by Michael Fried in his essay 'Art and Objecthood'.
3. On the broader historical connection between art and toys see Norman Brosterman's essay 'Child's Play', Art in America, April, 1997, pp I 09- 1 I I. Brosterman links the use of toys as an educational tool in the early kindergartens of the late 19th century with the subsequent rise of geometric abstraction.
4. In this regard we might consider a work such as Plain No. 1 where Akenson reinterprets, among others things, the sculpture of Tatlin. In Plain No. 1 Constructivism is divested of its materiality and its political potential and re-made to look like a sleek designer shelf or module.
5. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. p. 79.