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THE INNOCENCE of children’s alphabetical building blocks takes on a fresh meaning with artist Peter Jenks.
“Of course, there is also an edge of humour – if small children have small blocks, then grown-ups would have big ones,” he laughs.
He says it began with a thought about the stereotypical view of old-age dementia: that of “a second childhood”. This led him to think what if it really is “a second childhood”, what would the toys be?
“Inasmuch as childhood is an ongoing process of learning and diminishing care (by others) into adulthood and personal responsibility, so many of those in late of age suffer the reversal, of diminishing responsibility, abilities, forgetting, and, for some, the need for total care by others.
“I had this crazy vision of old-age toys mirroring those of childhood. So the toys would be the same, but adult-sized, with themes that relate to that stage of life rather than those of childhood,” explains Peter.
He adds that, on the other hand, these are educational toys, so in his mind they became toys to educate younger viewers about late old age.
“Such are the themes of old age – look and consider what you are viewing. ‘Second childhood’ is not the light-hearted casual thing one jokes about; there are real, unpleasant aspects that become a feature of that stage of life.”
Peter has most successfully through his artwork drawn on the various impacts of the gradual physical and mental declines that accompany human ageing. Individually, he says, each element refers to a physical support often necessary to assist with these losses.
“These are broken down as days of the week with M T W T F S S, and repeated on the opposite side of the block. A walker reflects joint and bone decline leading to arthritis and walking difficulty; a hearing aid represents hearing loss; a denture brush, loss of teeth; a magnifying glass, vision impairment; an enema bulb, digestive and bowel problems; a grab-bar (typically installed on the side of a bathtub), loss of muscular strength; and a knotted handkerchief symbolises loss of memory.
“The collective organisation of these elements, with accompanying evocative sounds, form an installation which, despite its mundane objects, is intended to provide a disconcerting spatial experience and to stimulate the viewer to consider and question how the physical effects of the ageing of the body impinge upon the conditions of the aged and their psycho-social development,” says Peter.
“The whole artwork is a reference to the fact that for many people, by the time late old age arrives, there is a daily ritual of medication, strict observance of which is necessary to maintain health and a comfortable existence and to cope with, and mitigate, the effects of the problems.
“On each block, on the opposite side to the object picture, there is another shape, being that of a pill of some sort (there are seven varieties, and painted the same colour as the objects). In this, I guess, I must admit to a degree of activism about ageism: in a youth-oriented culture such as ours, it’s easy to ignore and avoid the aged. Apart from the obviously visible effects which everybody sees (and nobody wants), I think there is little understanding or even sympathy – except by those closely involved with the aged – of the reality of the physical existence of those in the latter stages of life.”
Peter, in his creative 60s, says the harsh reality of ageing is the loss and decline of physical (and eventually mental) faculties.
“The fact is, and I think it’s true for everyone, no matter what age, one’s mental attitudes and internal image of oneself is that of a younger person. Quite simply, you don’t feel or think you’re as old as others may see you. The problem is that despite what the mind wants, or is capable of, in many ways the body simply can’t do what it used to do, a biological reality which can be very frustrating.”
He reckons, though, that once you’ve accepted it, there’s the bliss of freedom. “Acceptance of the reality of ageing produces a different view of the world and one’s place in it: experience and maturity give one a distance from the frantic scrambling for procreation, status and money, freedom from the enormous burden of raising and caring for children, but being able to fully enjoy and interact with grandchildren without the accompanying responsibility.”
He says when you’re 22, ageing is a vague concept and impossible to contemplate. “Remember Fame (the musical about performing art students)? It said it all with its signature song: ‘I’m gonna live forever’. Ageing is also a subject most people wish to avoid, but a fascinating one, and I don’t think I’ve even begun to scratch the surface.”
Dark Side of the Moon is the Michaelis component of the yearly reciprocal exhibitions initiated by 2nd MFA from UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art and the Wits Fine Art Department.
l Jenks exhibits with Bridget Simons, Gabrielle Alberts, Jeffrey Dooley, Jill Joubert, Jody Paulsen, Kira Kemper, Nike Romano and Darren van der Merwe until July 10 at Michaelis Galleries, University of Cape Town, 31 to 37 Orange Street. Call 021 480 7170.