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The Art of Playfulness

"Designer Camille Walala’s immersive maze is about as close as you’re ever likely to get to a whistle-stop tour of Alice in Wonderland."

Back in 2008, the New York Times Magazine published a seminal front cover picturing a dozen or so kids engaged in couldn’t-care-less-who’s-watching kind of fun, above the headline: “Why do we play?” Play, argued the editorial, is a serious business, much less an extravagance, and something wise parents will go to the ends of the earth and back to ensure is a staple part of their children’s education.

But what about adults? Almost a decade later, we’ve finally caught on. Grown-up playtime has become a thing. We’re not talking that kind of playtime (fans of 50 Shades can find that sort of stuff on websites of an altogether different variety). We’re talking about the kind of grownup playtime that saw 12 million adult colouring books sold in a year. That enabled David Beckham to casually let the Sunday Times Magazine in on his LEGO-to-combat-stress hobby. And that created an entirely new industry based on a whole heap of experts whose startup consultancies can be hired to inject more fun into your life, home or business.

Camille Walala: The artist bringing playful to the NOW Gallery this summer. Photography: Charles Emerson

The data for adult play is compelling. In Denmark — officially the happy-go-luckiest country in the world according to every survey going — employees regularly break off from their to do lists to join colleagues in a game of hand ball, before clocking off at 4.30pm to dash to chess club or even a choir evening.

And if insider descriptions are anything to go by, Googleplex — the California campus of the world’s leading search engine, number one on Forbes’ list of best places to work in 2017 — is less an office, more a giant Rubik’s cube of fun and games in which engineers are paid to play with toys for inspiration. As psychiatrist Dr Stuart Brown puts it: “The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.”

All this is evidence enough for the NOW Gallery, where this summer they are presenting an exhibition that invites you to delve into a mind and body-altering state of uninhibited, unadulterated playtime.

The maze is a corridor of colours, pattern and mirrors. Photography: Charles Emerson

Designer Camille Walala’s immersive maze is about as close as you’re ever likely to get to a whistle-stop tour of Alice in Wonderland, its labyrinth network of dazzlingly colourful corridors and enclosed spaces inviting you to ‘spot the difference’ within a playground of brain-teasing patterns.

Seek out secret spots affording new views of the installation, and put your body and mind through its paces as you navigate a network of surprising spaces (if only there were a “drink me” potion on hand to help you squeeze through that tiny archway).

Photography: Charles Emerson

Mindful of the NOW Gallery’s Greenwich Peninsula setting, the eagle-eyed explorer will recognise in the shapes and curves of Walala’s work, both in the waves of the Thames and the angles of nearby buildings. But the piece offers as much to its location as it borrows: “We love having colour in our gallery space, it glows through the glass and resonates on Peninsula Square,” says curator Jemima Burrill. “Camille Walala is the queen of colour and her patterns will create another world for all in NOW Gallery. We are creating a playful place where — as is in our past exhibitions — we give people time to linger, digest and unpick puzzles giving space to let the installation resonate.”

Photography: Charles Emerson

Can grownup playtime, as that NY Times piece once theorised, really bolster your creativity, your social agility and your overall mental wellbeing? There’s only one way to find out.

WALALA X PLAY is at the NOW Gallery from 14 July to 24 September 2017. The exhibition is free and suitable for all ages.