PLAY – Petr Nikl’s unique project at Prague’s Mánes Gallery


A unique show on at Prague’s Mánes Gallery is continuing to attract visitors like no other, the latest collaboration between respected artist and performer Petr Nikl and dozens of contributing artists. Called PLAY, the show invites visitors of all ages, from children to seniors to complete, destroy, co-author or interact with existing installations, which range from musical sculptures to piles of found objects that can be arranged and rearranged anyway you like. Radio Prague caught up with the artist earlier this week and takes a closer look at PLAY in this week’s Arts.

When you enter the Mánes Gallery these days, the first thing you notice is the noise, clanging, crashing, banging wood on metal, vibrating cymbals, as visitors, often children run from object to object, display to display, throwing this, touching that, playing bizarre musical instruments. There are objects from the stuff of dreams and that’s all good and well given that the name of this exhibition is PLAY. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old: anyone visiting can and should pursue their imagination to the fullest. Artist Petr Nikl:

“The original inspirations for PLAY were the kind of interactive installations you find at natural science museums, where you have rooms where you can experiment with natural wonders or the laws of physics. First, you try things out and later you learn how they work. Here, I wanted to provide a kind of manual for the arts, to allow people to try different things. The other important aspect is that people gather and communicate together. Through the pieces, through the instruments, through objects, they form a dialogue and become conspirators and co-authors of a certain atmosphere, affecting multiple senses.”

Petr Nikl
This kind of interaction is not new for the artist’s projects – he has pursued similar aims before, in 2000 at Hnízdo her in Prague’s Rudolfinum or Orbis Pictus at Prague’s Museum of Music, but Play goes further by allowing visitors to shape objects into things of their own, to leave their mark. For this reason, a constantly-evolving piece known as Krystalíza (a play on crystallization) has become something of PLAY’s central installation: visitors were urged to bring their own objects from home, no longer than several centimetres or so, to add to a growing structure along the wall, expanding and undergoing metamorphosis. There are Lego men and makeshift dolls and all manner of attached items and found objects and you have to look up close to distinguish. This piece, along with at least a dozen others in the main hall, is constantly shifting and the whole thing is viewed from above by a giant eyeball, a camera, which transmits the ongoing changes to the internet. Petr Nikl again:

“We wrote on the poster that the object should be able to fit into your pocket so that there would be a unification of size. The pieces are not huge so they could all be integrated into the visual landscape. We didn’t want people to bring in bits of furniture or old tricycles or whatever. There is a web of ‘catches’ to add and attach objects to the growing piece and the main part is the wall – a cross between some kind of Wailing Wall and peoples’ imagination.”

The artist notes how over time even adult visitors forget themselves, employing their creative energies with verve and fascination. With children – of which there are many – interaction is even more free, more immediate, spontaneous and unfiltered: even if a child, say, kicks over something – a pile of foam and other assorted objects, it’s okay, says Nikl, because before you can build something up, something new, there has to be destruction. The point is to engage viewers, including children, to engage their imagination – this is more than a playground or a theme park. A close collaborator on Nikl’s interactive projects, past and present, is Jiří Wald:

“We had an original project in the past which took as its goal to help children in orphanages or children’s homes, those who have very limited opportunities, brought up in a collective atmosphere, often without close guidance in some respects. The idea was to have projects where interactive works would spark their imagination, allow them to explore in ways they were not used to. PLAY is similar in this respect: we are all to a degree influenced in our behavior, even manipulated. Schools play a role and can break early and natural creativity. The idea is to broaden your fantasy and creative horizons. If you aren’t at all creative in your thinking, you become only a puppet easily used by someone else.”

The day Radio Prague visited, children were certainly in abundance, running from one object to another. There are more than 50 objects in the show, by some 40 artists, musicians, even tinkerers. Most come from the Czech Republic or Switzerland, with one from Slovakia and a couple from the US. The show itself in Mánes is divided along two floors: the top where activity is more chaotic, and the bottom – a labyrinth of mysterious caves and various instruments and objects. Petr Nikl explains the difference:

“Above, is the chaotic metaphor of bubbling life, of eruptions and vegetation, a jungle of interaction. Below, there is also that, but there the experience should be more soothing, more calm. On the lower floor the objects are already complete. There are light and sound installations but how you can interact is fixed. You can’t change their basic sound or design. Above, is animation, everything is mixed. Below, pieces or musical objects have their own space and it’s more individual. On the lower floor there are also workshops, seminars, film projections and concerts.”

PLAY continues at Mánes until the end of January 2011 and it may well be that you or your children will never look quite the same at other exhibitions. But Petr Nikl suggests there is a time and place for everything and points out one aspect often forgotten, is how we view individual gallery spaces over time.

When viewers do come back again, they often recall earlier shows and compare how the space, the light, the overall atmosphere has changed, whether something is more traditional – no you can’t touch, this time you can only look – and so on. And that too is a kind of game. Certainly, Mánes over the last month, has undergone a kind of metamorphosis, or endless mutation. The works in progress there are for visitors to discover, to add to, to change, with inspiration and energy they perhaps didn’t even know they had. The artist Petr Nikl again:

“The first time I really saw something similar was at a show I did back in 2000 at the Rudolfinum called Hnízdo her and it was there that I first saw adults forget themselves. I was shocked by their energy, how far they went. That was very interesting and from that I learned a lot.”

Photo: Ondřej Petrlík, Hynek Zlatník, Martin Pavala