Wendy McMurdo’s photographs explore the psychological world of the child, expressed through play. Specially selected from her past 15 years’ work, this comprehensive exhibition of 36 photographs includes 14 pieces never exhibited before.
Made within the school, the family and the museum, the artist has shadowed many groups of children, watching as they explore and develop. Carrying qualities of both historic painting and documentary photography her images give a sense that these children are both in the ‘real’ world and not – seemingly transported to another place by their imaginary activities.
Digital technology is embedded in the devising, composition, and fabric of McMurdo’s highly produced work. She trained as a painter, and the colour palette and light quality in her photographs are often redolent of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century works of Jacques-Louis David. McMurdo uses singular light sources to concentrate the viewer’s attention on the central subject of the image, while removing or adding objects in the scene accordingly. Some backgrounds have been made devoid of all but the simplest interior features while in other images, objects are an added eerie presence, like the seemingly levitating trees suggesting a possible view into the imaginings of a girl playing on her Nintendo DS in The Games Hall (i) Edinburgh 2007.
Many of the children appear very serious while going about their chosen activity. For the viewer this can feel ambivalent, even unsettling. But it’s often clear with closer examination that these children are simply concentrating, engrossed in what they’re doing and taking it seriously. In many images their preoccupation seems to render these children doubly vulnerable; unaware of being viewed. Again this can feel uncomfortable for the viewer; are we intruding? We are confronted more directly with this question in some of the Museum Project images where the child has been engaged with an exhibit but now turns to look straight out at the viewer.
There are moments of (never mocking) humour too; a small girl pilots a Starfighter tent; a pair of legs protrude beneath another tent, (this time an Imperial Tie Fighter); diminutive figures ‘lost in the moment’ and still wearing their art smocks as they take on the persona and posture of the robots whose heads they have fashioned from cardboard and tin foil. If we compare the tent and robot images this also highlights another of McMurdo’s preoccupations; that of the ‘predetermined’ play provided by late capitalism in the age of digital technology in contrast with ‘slower’ more ‘handcrafted’ forms. The mass-produced brightly printed Star Wars-themed tents have a startlingly different aesthetic from the personalised hand-made robot heads constructed from discarded materials. However, the artist is keen not to make any simplistic ‘Luddite’ judgements about the value of one activity over another; the children in both sets of images seem equally absorbed.
McMurdo’s work is newly re-configured here under three themes – Private Play; Masks; and Museum Projects.
Childhood is an ever-changing phenomenon. Anxieties are regularly expressed in the media and public life about the effects of cultural, technological and social change on children’s behaviour, and the status of childhood. In turn children and young people’s behaviour is seen as an indicator of the current state of society and a ‘barometer’ predicting its future conditions.
Wendy McMurdo has a preoccupation with new technology and how it changes our lives. Some of her previous exhibitions have explored this in more visually direct ways than here. McMurdo’s early images picture the beginnings of digital learning for very young children while in more recent works, digital play is the dominant form. Only three out of the thirty-six photographs here depict direct use of digital technology; and the artist has ‘airbrushed’ out two computers, placing an emphasis on the child’s visible concentration. Although these three depictions of digital interaction are set in schoolroom surroundings they are part of the Private Play section of the exhibition alongside images of domestic settings. Moments of private imaginative absorption can take place in public spaces too. It seems a cliché now to point out that digital technology, particularly handheld devices have made it all the more possible for people to be physically present and mentally elsewhere. The overall selection of pieces in this exhibition places an emphasis on activities that are perhaps at odds with digital change.
McMurdo is open minded about developments in digital technology, accepting the many benefits but also having some reservations. She has observed that, “Children (and indeed adults) exist in a hyper-stimulated environment, where one experience must quickly follow the other.”¹
Most of the images in this exhibition are about activities that the artist describes as slowing down the pace of things:
“…for example where children are playing instruments, involved in drama workshops or learning through looking at objects in a museum setting etc. More and more, participation in these experiences appears to be almost an act of resistance – an essential carving out of time which might otherwise be spent in the predetermined world of others.”²
In the section entitled Masks the word is used in its broadest sense as children take on a role or persona, again with great seriousness. Whether pretending to be robots, a skeleton, actors in a dramatic scene or genuinely playing an instrument, the intense concentration of each child is palpable. In the case of the musicians – as with the children on computers – the artist has removed the instrument from the image. This emphasises the child’s complete engagement in the activity of playing music. However, by removing the instrument, it also seems to bring these images in line with the other photographs in this section, emphasising the impression that despite their carrying out a ‘real’ task, the musicians are still required to take on a persona with certain mannerisms and formalities to be followed.
Compositionally speaking, the drama workshop images are particularly reminiscent of history painting. They were all taken at primary schools in Edinburgh. The five robot pieces were taken during an art workshop for children producing artworks on the theme of ‘the Robot’. McMurdo is currently working on a major project on artificial intelligence and has recently been photographing children interacting with humanoid and anthropomimetic robots at MIT in the US.
In the section entitled Museum Projects McMurdo’s images made in museums continue her preoccupation with children’s relationship to reality, and the cultural devices that trigger their imaginations. The museum displays encountered here mediate and re-present information and culture to their visitors through objects. Compared with digital formats these museum displays are a ‘slowed down’ way to interact with the world. Using three-dimensional displays in cases with models, and ‘original’ objects labelled with interpretive texts, the constructed nature of these ‘material’ means of mediation is more visibly apparent than much digitally accessed information. Sitting in front of a stuffed animal is both more and less ‘real’ than watching a video of a ‘living’ one on a screen.
For most of her museum images, McMurdo worked in collaboration with Museum education officers, shadowing school parties as they made their way around the museums on school trips. In some instances, as in The Science Museum project, she took pictures of children visiting the museum with their families. This was part of a commission to celebrate the opening of their new bio-medical galleries.
Dr Daniel Hinchcliffe 2011
¹ Wendy McMurdo in conversation with Russell Roberts.
McMurdo, Wendy (2009) The Skater Cardiff, Ffotogallery, p43
² Ibid, p43