The Play and Passion of Jaime Hayon
Written by Zachary Vigna
Continuing its tradition of engaging with the community through public art, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta recently launched the third annual interactive outdoor sculpture installation in its Carroll Slater Sifly Piazza, this year featuring Tiovivo: Whimsical Sculptures by Jaime Hayon. Originally intended as a two-year series, the popular piazza activation will continue through 2017 in order to explore further “how engagement with art and design can extend beyond the museum’s walls through dynamic installations,” says Virginia Shearer, cocurator of this year’s installment.
A central objective of the High’s piazza series is to engage adults and children equally, so Spanish artist/designer Jaime Hayon was a natural choice. He has become well-known for playful art that examines the childhood experience, such as his Green Chicken, a boldly colored four-legged chicken that sits on curved rails like a rocking horse. One can’t help imagining oneself playing with it as a child, which prompts questions about why children are permitted to rock only on horses, and how interacting with more unexpected design would inform the experience of growing up. The piece stimulates a backward look at childhood through adult eyes, but its bright color and exaggerated form engage younger viewers at a visceral level as well.
Although Green Chicken could theoretically be ridden, it is a gallery piece, meant to be viewed and not touched. Hayon’s The Tournament, the centerpiece of the 2009 London Design Festival, on the other hand, was designed to be interactive. An enormous chessboard with human-size chessmen set up in front of Trafalgar Square, The Tournament was built on a scale that elicited feelings of childlike smallness in adult viewers. It could also be played, like a child’s game. Despite the installation’s playfulness, however, it represented the Battle of Trafalgar, a violent event, and included many specific historical details that would likely have been beyond a child’s understanding, making The Tournament, like Green Chicken, an artwork capable of stimulating children but better suited to an adult perspective.
If Jaime Hayon’s work has previously been largely for adults without excluding children, Tiovivo marks an interesting moment in his career, as he has employed his characteristic playfulness in creating something that is largely for children without excluding adults. The installation comprises four large-scale wooden sculptures painted with bright patterns and resembling figures that one can imagine having been removed from an enormous carousel (tiovivo is Spanish for carousel). These unnamed sculptures—of, depending on one’s interpretation, a pig, a bell, a clown, and a space helmet—are hollow and have openings so that children can play in them. Three of the sculptures include slides, explicitly encouraging play. Further, as Shearer points out, the openings to enter the sculptures are sized for children. This makes it “easy for them to climb inside to experience the art,” but it also means that adults, although they will find much to admire in the sculptures, will have to do so from outside. Only children are invited inside.
An outsize scale can produce a childlike feeling in adults, as they remember the world appearing much bigger when they were young. Through their playfulness and scale, Hayon’s The Tournament and Héctor Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena’s Los Trompos—thirty larger-than-life sculptures based on traditional Mexican spinning-top designs previously installed in the High’s piazza—were capable of producing such a feeling; Tiovivo, however, although at least as capable of making an adult feel like a child, is designed specifically to heighten the childhood experience among children.
Nonetheless, these are sophisticated sculptures. As Shearer explains, “children can recognize the shapes of animals and objects that are likely familiar to them, and which may remind them of animals on a carousel,” and adults will feel similarly. The red-and-white sculpture, for instance, with its ears, and with its head angling to a point away from the rest of its body, and in spite of its six legs, signifies a pig—much like Hayon’s 2003 sculpture Supersonic Pig does with its extremely elongated snout—but it could just as easily be a spacecraft resting on a launching apparatus. The sculpture’s abstraction allows children to define it according to their imaginations, and it similarly invites adults to examine it the way they might confront Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space, appreciating the artist’s ability to strip away nonessential characteristics to reveal to us the process by which we ascribe meaning to form.
Tiovivo operates as both an art installation and a play space, catering to a child’s perspective without sacrificing the adult’s, and it will be interesting to see where Hayon, who is perhaps better known for his design than for his art, goes from here. Perhaps he will follow the lead of past artists who delved into the world of children's design. Those who are lucky enough to see Tiovivo (open until November 27, 2016), then, for an example of such an exploration, should take the fifteen-minute walk to Atlanta’s Piedmont Park to see the one-of-a-kind Playscapes, the fully functioning children’s playground designed by Brancusi’s greatest protégé, Isamu Noguchi.