Mark Neville: Child’s Play / Reviewed by Malcolm Cossons / 21.02.17
London’s Foundling Museum has a habit of fostering thought-provoking contemporary art that engages with their permanent collection on the history of the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity. Established in the 18th century with the support of luminaries such as William Hogarth and George Frederic Handel, the work continues today in the guise of the charity Coram, helping children and young people in the United Kingdom and overseas.
Until 30 April, the museum’s current exhibition, Child’s Play, presents artist Mark Neville’s photographic work exploring the complexity of children at play. Through work from previous projects and commissions specifically for this exhibition, Neville creates a portrait of both his subjects and their context. Images from his study of the demise of the Pittsburgh steel industry and his time as official war artist in Afghanistan appear alongside earlier projects in Glasgow and North London. New work depicts displaced children in Ukraine; residents of one of Kenya’s largest refugee camps; and a London adventure playground.
The exhibition divides into three sections, each looking at the different circumstances in which play takes place. ‘In Structured Space’ documents the strictures of family and school life in photographs from London, Corby, Glasgow, Pittsburgh and the Ukraine. Children are shown in school grounds, acting in plays and interacting in sports and social clubs, yet, beneath these focussed and organised activities, there is an underlying sense of misrule – for instance, a formally posed football team on the cusp of dissolving into laughter.
‘In Free Space’ looks at the importance of freedom from supervision or restriction. The images from playgrounds in London show children in Halloween costumes, riding in shopping trolleys, lighting barbeques and playing in ponds. The latter includes a memorable image of a girl utterly focused on holding a jumping frog.
The final section of the show, ‘In Oppressed Space’, shows how the impulse to play persists even in the most extreme circumstances. Children from Afghanistan, Kenya, Ukraine and Canada are, respectively, shown in war zones, refugee camps, rehabilitation centres and aboriginal reserves. An Afghan boy, playing in the mud, pulls a face at the camera. The picture was taken when Neville was on patrol with the army in Helmand Province in 2011, revealing, as he recounts, “play helps children to cope with the realities of living in a war zone.”
In addition to his powerful images, Neville often seeks to convey an important social message. The book accompanying this exhibition is far more than simply a catalogue. Written in part by Adrian Voce, former director of the body Play England, it presents groundbreaking research into play and a manifesto for change. Copies will be sent to policy makers, government departments and local councils across the country.
Child’s Play affords a compelling insight into the world of children and the importance of play in their development. This is at a time when, nationally, opportunities and places to play are reducing and, internationally, conflict and upheaval are blighting childhood – child’s play is anything but simple.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Malcolm Cossons
The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1N 1AZ
Russell Square or King’s Cross