‘They wanted to end masculinity’: artist inspired by anti-sexist groups of men | Art

For most parents, the ritual of pushing your child on a swing or kicking a ball with him in the park is the diametrical opposite of high culture and radical politics. But the artist Albert Potrony do not see it that way. “The game is an incredible vehicle for exploring absolutely anything,” he says. “The game is a fundamental tool for self-discovery, for knowing how to be in the world. It is essentially the process of the artists. We play – but it’s a serious game.

In his past work (if ‘work’ is the right word), Potrony gave children the freedom to design their own toys and encouraged students and refugees to make sculptures together. In his latest exhibition, Equal game At Gateshead’s Baltic, Potrony uses the children’s playground area to convey ideas about urban theory, imagination and male roles. A key point of reference, he explains, is Aldo van Eyck, the pioneering Dutch architect who opposed the soulless, abstract and descendant trends of Modernism.

Instead, Van Eyck believed that urban space should be more democratic, embracing the messy multiplicities of life. And his main weapon was the children’s playground. After World War II, Van Eyck was commissioned to design public playgrounds in bombed-out Amsterdam. By 1978 he had designed 734, of which very few survive. In doing so, he developed a vocabulary of abstract forms, almost like pieces of sculpture: tubular steel climbing frames, sandboxes, simple benches, springboards arranged in circles. Van Eyck wanted these elements to stimulate the imagination and communication between children, rather than dictating behavior, like a slide or swing would. Van Eyck also did not enclose his playing fields with fences. The playground was part of the city, and by extension the city was one giant playground.

Designed to stimulate the imagination… Aldo van Eyck’s Hygiëaplein playground in Amsterdam, circa 1965. Photograph: City Archives of Amsterdam

Potrony installed several large van Eyckian elements in Baltic’s main gallery: a rectangular bench-like shape, low semi-circular shapes creating an enclosure, as well as springboards and climbing bars. These sit next to a series of detachable play elements such as abstract plastic shapes and lengths of rope. “It’s not about children,” he says. “It’s about all of us going into the gallery and playing. The pieces are thoughtful enough – to suggest that adults need to collaborate and follow the kids’ lead. It’s a space for hierarchies to change.

Children’s play can be political. In the adjacent space, Equal Play revisits the forgotten men’s anti-sexist movement of the early 1970s through films and materials written by groups such as Creches Against Sexism and Achilles Heel, which advocated for men to take more responsibility for men. children to enable women to participate in politics and activism. (Stuart Room and other men ran the nursery at the first National Women’s Liberation Conference in 1970.) If men were really okay with feminism, they believed, it was their duty to challenge traditional forms of masculinity.

“Our power in society as men,” wrote an editorial in the eponymous Achilles Heel magazine, “not only oppresses women, but also imprisons us in a deafening masculinity that cripples all of our relationships – with each other. , with women, with ourselves “. However, the movement’s predominantly white, educated, straight heterosexual men have been challenged by gay groups to examine their attitudes toward homophobia, gender roles, and even repressed gay desires. A splinter group went even further and argued for “effeminism” – a total rejection of masculinity. The women’s movement was often critical and skeptical of these initiatives.

“In the end, it couldn’t go anywhere,” says Potrony of the anti-sexist men’s movement. “Other men didn’t have access – men of a different class or a different race. And for feminists, they really didn’t solve anything. In fact, they were just interfering. So they basically had it on all sides.

'I put myself in places where I have no idea'… Albert Potrony.
‘I put myself in places where I have no idea’… Albert Potrony. Photography: Colin Davison / Colin Davison Photography

Potrony is interested in what these utopian ideas might look like today. In some ways, not much has changed. A 2018 study found that 85% of UK men believed they should play an equal role with women in childcare, but women were still eight times more likely to be primary caregivers. To bridge some of the gaps, Potrony brings together veterans of the 1970s anti-sexist men’s movement with Young dads and boys from the northeast, a local support service helping men “to play an active and meaningful role in the lives of their children, in families and in society in general”. The aim is to produce a “toolbox of ideas” exploring and comparing their experiences.

In a sense, art galleries are already playgrounds for adults, although in recent years they have come closer to literal playgrounds, if one thinks, for example, of the slides and carousels by Carsten Höller. , or Danish artists Superflex, which filled the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern with swings. Potrony believes galleries should be a common ground that welcomes children and parents – more like Van Eyck’s playgrounds. “I think we have to put adults back on the line. Especially now that we live in this virtual world. You need people – legs, hands, arms, and bodies in spaces, just for fun, just to explore things – and to make a fool of yourself. “

On the one hand, Potrony transforms the gallery into a giant nursery for children. On the other, he describes the exhibition as a “space for reading, resting and working”. The artist, who has no children, has no idea what’s going to happen. “That’s what I do a lot,” he says. “I put myself in places where I have no idea. I think not knowing is a crucial part of artistic practice.

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