This is Play – Reflections on playful artworks (as means for toy research)

Kati Heljakka

Flower-powered, plush guns (2011) (Photo: Carina Laine)

As Belgian anthropologist Jean-Pierre Rossie points out, toys can never really be explored without reflecting on their use (2005). In other words, toys, as playthings, cannot be explored without a deeper understanding of play itself. Play as a phenomenon can be captured and defined perhaps first and foremost just because of its multidimensional, playful nature – in activities and engagement with people, products or materials. Toy play is about acting playfully; trying out, manipulating, altering something in a pleasurable way. Hence, to toy with something is to interact with the counterpart in a way that gives the player a sensation the joy of discovering or creating something new, re-appropriating or even destroying. Playing with objects is about exploring their limits and possibilities. As play scholar Stuart Brown puts it, “there is now way to really understand play without also remembering the feeling of play” (2009, 20). Without actual manipulation, toys lose their original purpose and become silent objects doomed to oblivion.

Playing is concerned with process, not the outcome. In my case, playing an artist and toying with artworks has served both purposes – the telic and paratelic. When I started to photograph toys such as Uglydoll figurines, plush and Blythe dolls I realized that not only is the (digital) camera a means to document, but a toy in itself, a means to breath life into e.g. vinyl and textile characters. Photographing toy companions not only means seeing toys in a new light, but to give them a life. I came to understand that toy photography (or photoplay) for me, is painting life into toys with light.

Marvel (2011)

Playdate (2010)

Playing artist: This is Play

For Sutton-Smith (1997) imagination is one of the primary rhetoric of play and the one most closely associated with creativity and art (Power, 2011, 309). “To play is to create and then to inhabit a distinctive world of one’s own making”, says Thomas Henricks (2008, 159). According to Brown, the impulse to create art is a result of the play impulse (2009, 61). But it is worth remembering that whereas creativity produces useful ideas and artefacts; play creates possibilities (Power, 2011, 316). During my years as a doctoral researcher in Pori, I have been toying with art and playing an artist. My position allowed me to enter the world of art with the motivation of a researcher, and the heart of a player. By attaining a playful attitude and an explorative take on the ready-made, I had the chance to not only create playful spaces, but laboratories for testing insights communicated in play theory. I built my works under a common topic ‘This is Play’ and filled exhibition spots with toy photography and various installations, including participatory ones. The results have been exhibited at numerous venues in Pori, Tampere, Espoo, Helsinki, New York and San Francisco between the years 2008–2014.

The works created can be divided into three groups: Photoplay, Researcher at play (self portraits, documented autoplay) and Please play (participatory works). In the first, I use dolls, action figures and soft toys and depict them in various locations. In the self-portraits I transform myself into a toy, an organic object of play suggesting that the lines between concepts of a toy and a player become blurred. Some of the works toy with the idea of the avatarial dimension of a doll. The last group consists of pieces that viewers are encouraged to toy with by themselves. There Are No Rules and Rough-and-Tumble challenge exhibition-goers to let themselves loose in a moment of play. Furthermore, I address the hybrid qualities between manmade and natural materials – between Barbie-esque plastic and pine cones – in my Pinebie sculpture and Encounters series (2012) of mixed media. These works mash up the historical dimensions of a (self-made and particularly Scandinavian) plaything with the contemporary (mass-marketed and Anglo-American) aesthetics of a fashion doll.

Pinebie (2012)

In the first This is Play exhibition, I stressed six familiar play themes in particular, and chose to put them in writings on the walls namely anarchy, creativity, fantasy, mimicry, parody and spontaneity. I spread these texts as suggestive clues around the gallery leaving it to the viewers to decide whether the works communicate these dimensions. Play(fulness), according to my idea, manifests itself in my pieces in humorous ways, inviting viewers/participants to spontaneous, imaginative play. In my work I have played dress-up (cosplay), engaged in media play involving characters known from a popular transmedia context and explored the affordances of toys by displaying and narrativizing my toys. In this way, manipulating the ready-made has opened up new understandings of playthings as designed, visual and material artefacts that encapsulate playful potential.

There Are No Rules

Games differ from free form of play – paidia – in their rule-based nature. Compared to games, toys usually do not come with given rules. Thus, games belong to the area of ludus, as stated by Roger Caillois (orig. 1958). Games, says Sutton-Smith, can be distinguished from play by the presence of external rules. However, the existence of rules is not a clear-cut criterion to distinguish play and games (Smith, 2010, 11-12) Toys are often seen as playthings that facilitate open-ended play. Thus, the outcomes of play may become unexpected, even subversive. In a way, playing with toys can be compared to the viewing and interpretation process in relation to art experiences; players/viewers are expected to let their imagination free in the name of either solitary, or socially shared object play. What distinguishes play with toys from playing with artworks is the most central affordance of toys: they are expected to surrender themselves to free-form manipulation of sorts, whereas an in order to manipulate an artwork in an exhibition context requires a permission from the artist.

Vappu & Anni explore There Are No Rules (2011)

The origins of my ‘sandbox’ type installation filled with colourful dice, There Are No Rules (2011), were grounded in the idea of complete freedom to play in the box as one pleases. After having exhibited this piece at several exhibitions (and always allowing others to participate in the installation), it soon occurred to me that what Unt claims in her doctoral dissertation is true; playing itself is a rule-making process (2012, 106). Adults interacting with my unexpected research instrument – the bubblegum pink sandbox – have proven to use the artwork in similar ways that one would use a construction toy such as building blocks, whereas children have tended to use it as a platform for a rougher type of play, e.g. paralleling play inside a ball pit. For adults, it has been typical to leave a built structure after them compared to children, who have clearly been more interested in exploring the physical affordances of the dice – and their own bodies.

Prototypical Nature of (Toy) Research

Overall, my toy-themed and toyetic artistic work as presented above represents for me both a play(ful) and prototypical approach towards toy research and has, in my case, proven to open paths to new understandings of the subject. Toys as material, visual and in many cases narrative artefacts seem to afford a multitude of suggestions for play which are in many cases consciously designed into the objects, but sometimes come to manifest in unexpected manners. By playing an artist and by toying with the camera, mass-marketed dolls, action figures and soft toys and ultimately, myself, has turned artistic play into a research instrument serving a toy researcher in multiple ways. These ways ultimately resulted in a doctoral dissertation on adult play(fulness) in contemporary toy cultures, including the realm of institutional art. What is certain as I have reached a post-doctoral stage in my life is this: I will continue playing with art. But by making my own rules as I go, because, This is Play.

My Playground (2014)


Brown, Stuart L. 2009, Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul,New York: Avery.

Caillois, Roger (orig. 1961) Man, Play and Games, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Heljakka, Katriina 2013, Principles of Adult Play(fulness) in Contemporary Toy Cultures. From Wow to Flow to Glow (dissertation) Aalto University publication series 72/2013.

Henricks, Thomas 2008, “The nature of play: An overview” American Journal of Play 1:157-180.

Power, Pat 2011, “Playing With Ideas. The Affective Dynamics of Creative Play” American Journal of Play, Summer 2011, pp. 288-323.

Rossie, Jean-Pierre 2005, Toys, Play, Culture and Society, SITREC, 2005.

Smith, Peter 2010, Children and Play, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell.

Sutton-Smith, Brian 1997, The Ambiguity of Play, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press Cambridge.

Unt, Liina 2012, Landscape as Playground (dissertation) Aalto University publication series 40/2012.