Don Driver’s 1994 work Game (from which the present exhibition takes its name) is, like most of the artist’s work, a meditation on borders and boundaries: between painting and sculpture, between the abstract and the figurative, and between materiality and thought. A large tarpaulin is appliqued with circular and rectangular patches of fabric, its dirty, creased surface suggesting that it has lain untended in a shed in some rural Taranaki farmstead or workshop for years, perhaps decades. Attached to this banner are a wooden board supporting three ping-pong paddles and a set of goat’s horns, as well as a hanging implement constructed from a further pair of horns and a branch, its purpose unclear—perhaps a makeshift ritual sceptre, perhaps a homemade stopgap tool. The subtle play of composition and colour are pleasing in their own right—Driver was a sophisticated student of modernism, after all—but the work, existing as it does in an uncertain, liminal space, raises more pressing questions: what is the game, referenced in the title? Who are the players? And what are they playing for?
Wittgenstein famously uses games as an example of his theory of “family resemblances,” arguing that there is no common feature shared between all games, but rather a series of overlapping similarities that together constitute what we call the category of “games.”¹ However, in his 1978 book The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Bernard Suits argues against this assessment, laying out a definition of games that is predicated on three core features: First are “prelusory goals,” which are the outcomes outside of the game itself by which a winner or loser can be judged, like achieving checkmate in chess or kicking a ball into a goal in soccer. Second, games share “constitutive rules” that constrain the players’ ability to efficiently achieve the “prelusory goals” by putting obstacles in their way—for example, the rule in soccer which prevents the players from handling the ball. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, games require from their players a “lusory attitude,” by which Suits means that the players need to accept the constraints placed on them by the rules of the game. Suits argued that games have value because they represent a “voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”²—a description that could apply equally well to art.
Is Driver’s game, perhaps, art itself? Like a game, art is an activity that does not directly contribute to human survival, but that is nevertheless a source of value, meaning and satisfaction. However, unlike most games, art has no clearly defined goals, in the sense that Suits sees them; rather, it has a shifting array of possible outcomes, depending on the artists, viewers or institutions involved. Likewise, the rules of art, if they exist at all, are opaque and nebulous. Perhaps art, like life, is a game that the participants must play at least partially blind.
However, this does not mean that the optimal solution is not to play at all. As Suits points out, a crucial component of what makes games function is the attitude of the players, their willingness to engage with the system and to accept its outcomes. In addition to Don Driver, this exhibition includes work by Dan Arps, Mitch Cairns, Tom Kreisler, Oscar Perry, Kim Pieters and Jake Walker. Each of these works articulates and describes the artist’s creative process—the assembling of materials, the connection of ideas to one another, and so on—in effect, the systemic functioning of the art-game itself. John Danaher argues that the procedural nature of games—the act of playing—is part of what makes them valuable, and that the fact that their goals are arbitrary contributes to their value.³ By playing the art-game, these artists are also documenting and critiquing it, offering a para-textual invitation to the viewer to play along themselves.