Heidi Pollard’s “Eames Redux: House of Cards Homage” brings Gallery 51’s window to life.

“Toys are not really as innocent as they look. Toys and games are preludes to serious ideas.”  —Charles Eames

The Difficulty of Play

While North Adam’s MASS MoCA celebrates the grand opening of Building 6 this month, just down the street Gallery 51 embraces its playful side as guest-curator Corwin Levi tackles the most ambitious of art enterprises: participation.

The centerpiece of Babel’s Bricks, a block-themed group show, is a series of pedestals covered with colorful Legos, wooden blocks, Tinkertoys, and other pieces, which the public is invited to assemble into playful configurations. The result is a lively miniature landscape—think Montessori visits the Island of Misfit Toys. Levi, who admits he loved “building new worlds” out of mismatched block sets as a boy, invites us to participate in a social experiment meant to channel our inner child.

After spending three hours at the show’s opening, I concluded that we adults are pretty horrible at play. Even when signage made it clear that visitors were not only allowed to touch the toy blocks, but encouraged to do so, some guests still asked for permission, as though they suspected some cruel artistic prank. Younger viewers, unsurprisingly, didn’t hesitate to dive in. Their impulse to build, destroy, and rebuild came naturally. Play has not yet been schooled out of those young minds, and art-world decorum has not yet instilled a fear of breaking the rules. (I have to wonder if Connecticut artist Bob Gregson has faced similar hurdles with his current interactive show, Out of Order, a “playscape for adults” with colorful moving parts that also relies on audience participation.)