Compton Verney is an elegant Grade-1 listed mansion built by Robert Adam circa 1760 in a leafy corner of Warwickshire a few miles from the fragmented Shakespeare theme park at Stratford-upon-Avon. Virtually derelict a decade ago, the neoclassical exterior now contains a sleek contemporary venue that has already established an unusually pastoral foothold on the contemporary art scene. Twenty exhibition spaces have been constructed within the existing shell by the architects Stanton Williams (with a local firm supplying restoration expertise) ranging in style from the renovated Georgian grandeur of the ground floor to more flexible spaces on the upper levels. Permanent collections reflect the tastes of the multi-millionaire football pools benefactor responsible for bankrolling the project and include several impressive Chinese bronzes and an engagingly random display of British Folk Art. An inaugural exhibition was held last year featuring ninety-two suitcases and the shamelessly pretentious filmmaker Peter Greenaway.
This year my main motivation for visiting was to get another look at the deceptively child-like gouaches by Roger Hilton painted on his deathbed while an immobilizing sickness striped his skin and robbed his eyesight. The gouaches are part of the thematic exhibition 'Only Make-Believe: Ways of Playing' which marks Compton Verney's second open season. Curated by Marina Warner, this provocative exhibition maps a variety of connections between modern artistic praxis and the child's world of 'make believe' through a short history of play. It's the sort of show where educational toys designed by Friedrich Froebel and Maria Montessori share gallery space with paintings by Mondrian and Kandinsky. But it's much more than a curatorial exercise in juxtaposition. Through an intricate and imaginative jigsaw puzzle of exhibits - whether scissor-cutting exercises or surrealist dollscapes, miniature storybooks written in childhood by the Brontes or a beach buggy by Gerrit Rietveld (surely the envy of many six-year old boy racers back in the early 1920s) - Warner attempts to expand our conception of the importance of play while also documenting those paradoxical intersections where the art of play meets the work of art.
The dark side of play, those nightmares and catastrophes buried beneath the bright surfaces, become more explicit in that part of the show housed (intentionally?) in an uncompromisingly modern extension. A music box soundtrack accompanies Mat Collishaw's 'Snowstorm' - a floor-level video projection of a snow-globe containing a sleeping figure who occasionally shifts position under the swirling flakes. Gradually, I realize that this footage is not a whimsical performance piece but actually a homeless man freezing to death on a street in midwinter. The room also contains props from two Brothers Quay films and includes the 'Piano Tuner of Earthquakes' - a Christ-like automaton assembled from an abandoned cabinet of curiosities and old gramophones and topped with a crown of thorns presumably retrieved from the depths of a gothic forest in Mittle Europa.
More recent Mittle European horrors attach themselves to Zbigniew Libera's unsettling Lego Concentration Camp. Authentic-looking product packaging offers the miniaturized architecture of the death camps while separate boxes feature accessories such as a gallows, a tiny gas chamber, experimental medical equipment, nightstick wielding stormtroopers, skeletal white figures with death's mask faces, piles of abandoned possessions, amputated limbs, plus a concentric pit filled with yet more skeletons. Libera turned down a potentially lucrative offer to be included in the Venice Biennale because the censoring of this particular work was a participating condition. I guess if you've got specific reactionary tastes and impulses then these artworks might transgress those vague boundaries of what constitutes appropriate material not only for children but also for paying adults. But walking through this weird amalgamation of playground and apocalypse the mechanics of repression and hypocrisy that filter our own restrictive notions of work and play, good and evil, history and memory, art and life, suddenly felt radically exposed. Meanwhile, the sentimental melody of the music box echoes sickly around the room.
'Only Make-Believe: Ways of Playing' is at Compton Verney until June 5th 2005.
Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London