Life with small children can get repetitive. One of the most common repeats is the soft play centre, which seems to have an identikit, brightly coloured look wherever you go. But now there’s a new kind of play centre in town: The Idol, created for the Abbey Leisure Centre in Barking, London is designed by the artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd and sports a strikingly different style…
Chetwynd has previously been nominated for the Turner Prize and is renowned both for her unusual name (which she explains here) and for her performance art, films and installations which explore surreal, often carnivalesque stories. The play centre is therefore something of a new direction for her, though it comes with its own narrative, based on the Dagenham Idol, an ancient wooden effigy found near the location of the new leisure centre in 1922, and believed to date from 2250 BC. For its appearance at the centre Chetwynd has giving the effigy, which is blocky in design, a robotic makeover, and children are invited to climb up inside it and look out at the world through its eyes.
Most significant, however, is the the monochrome look of the play centre. For parents weary of childish primary colours, this will come as a relief, and while in photos the black-and-white tones may seem a little sinister, when I visited with some toddlers in tow, they were entirely unphased and gleefully set upon the structure, which is narrow but high, stretching over three floors.
In most respects, its contents are familiar fare for regular visitors to soft play centres – there is a ball pit (of all-white balls), slides (including a terrifying looking vertical one for older kids, which was closed when I visited), and lots of soft things to climb up. In this, Chetwynd’s piece differs from other artworks created for utilitarian spaces (such as Martin Creed’s beguiling sound work in a lift at the Royal Festival Hall, for example) in that it is first and foremost a place for children – art fans who pitch up to view it as an artwork may receive strange looks from the staff, particularly if they arrive without kids.
But as an example of how a different point-of-view can enliven an otherwise formulaic genre, Chetwynd’s work is something of a marvel. Here’s hoping that more councils follow Barking and Dagenham’s lead in employing artists to think differently about the more ordinary aspects of our day-to-day lives.