For his latest series of photographs Playground, Mollison photographed children at play in their school playgrounds, inspired by memories of his own childhood and interested in how we all learn to negotiate relationships and our place in the world through play.
Between May 16th and June 27st 2015 James Mollison’s newest work entitled Playground will be on show at the Flatland Gallery in Amsterdam. In conjunction with his new series of photographs, Aperture Foundation New York will publish his book 'Playground', launching it on the openingsday of Mollison's exhibition in Aperture's gallery on April 16th, 2015 in New York.
Playground is a follow-up to ‘Where Children Sleep’: portraits of children in various countries, published in 2010. Once again the artist has explored the situation of children around the world. He travelled through five continents, to 17 countries: from Bolivia, the USA and the Caribbean Islands, through Norway, Israel and Kenya to Nepal, China and Japan. The result of this vast undertaking was the creation of almost 60 photographs depicting pupils during recess at schools. This large project took a lot of effort on Mollison’s part, as he usually needed special permission to access the premises to photograph students.
The playground is a seemingly pleasant, fun and enjoyable topic. However, schools are a serious and important part of our lives. Here we develop, and during the short breaks between classes we indulge in important interactions, which are usually unmonitored by the teachers and cannot be fully supervised. Real life begins in the playground, where we either have to strive for survival or status. Cliques form, gossip spreads, fights begin. Many of us remember being bullied, pushed over, laughed at. This can be especially observed in Mollison’s photographs of the schools in the UK.
Social problems arising during recess in Western societies pale in comparison with those in underdeveloped countries. In many places the situation that children endure cannot be influenced by their behaviour, as they were born to a hard life. In some cases they have no other option but to spend their free time on heaps of trash with animals. In other areas teachers have to check them for traces of sexual abuse. In some countries life is exposed to the constant danger of war. This can be observed in the photographs taken in the Middle East and Africa.
Despite the fact that Mollison touches upon crucial issues, such as politics, global diversity and inequality, his photographs are not merely documents of social history. They have a strong artistic value, attained by colour, contrasts and composition. Taken from a raised point, they present the viewer with the essence of human interaction; a multitude of small Shakespearean dramas simultaneously taking place. What is more, there is no connection between the photographer and his subjects, who make no eye contact with the viewer. They seem to be captured in their natural habitat, without the interference of the outside world.
Observing children at play evokes genre paintings of Old Dutch and Flemish Masters, especially that of the Flemish renaissance artist, Pieter Breughel the Elder. In his work Children's Games (1560) he portrayed youngsters in a town pursuing various amusing activities, of which eighty have been identified.
Here, as in Mollison’s photos, children indulge in seemingly innocuous games; however, on looking more closely you may discover some menacing and rather sinister behaviour. Although the meaning of this painting remains unclear, one of the many interpretations presents children as small adults whose actions reflect what they have learned from their observation of adult daily life.
Given the diverse settings, races and cultures captured in Mollison’s photographs,you might expect strong contrasts between them. And these are indeed apparent at first glance. But the more you think about the children’s behaviour the less important these differences seem. As Mollison himself stated, “Although the schools I photographed were very diverse, I was struck by the similarities between children’s behaviour and the games they played.”