Boston

Nick Cave, Bunny Boy,
2012, HD video, color,
sound, 14 minutes.
From “PlayTime.”

Nick Cave, Bunny Boy,
2012
, HD video, color,
sound, 14 minutes.
From “PlayTime.”

“PlayTime”

Peabody Essex Museum

Nick Cave, Bunny Boy,
2012, HD video, color,
sound, 14 minutes.
From “PlayTime.”

On paper, the Peabody Essex Museum’s “PlayTime” looks like an innocent exhibition of fun contemporary art for the whole family to enjoy—ideal for this Salem, Massachusetts, institution known for its allergy to pretention and its enthusiastic outreach to as wide a community as possible. And curator Trevor Smith’s dramatic opening gesture seemed to fulfill that promise: The museum’s oldest, grandest gallery is occupied entirely by Lara Favaretto’s Instagram-ready Coppie Semplici, 2009, an installation of colorful car-wash brushes spinning in pairs. It seems to be a cheerful photo op until you notice that these brushes, without a car to wash between them, are in fact slowly grinding one another into heaps of dust left carefully undisturbed at their bases. And that each pair is named for a human couple known personally by the artist.

Mom and Dad out of the way, the show proceeds to demolish several mainstays of childhood: Video games, costume play, and puppetry all take a hit. First up is Cory Arcangel’s Totally Fucked, 2003, a hack of Super Mario that leaves the poor guy motionless in the center of an empty blue field, on top of a giant question mark that reinforces his hopeless situation. His head turns left, his head turns right, but he goes nowhere: It’s a game that the young Sam Beckett might have enjoyed.

In the same gallery, Nick Cave’s fourteen-minute video Bunny Boy, 2012, is presented inside a long box of diminishing height, at the end of which the eponymous pink-bunny-costumed boy dances, writhes, and slithers in the even narrower confines of a single pool of light. “This is creepy,” said a kid next to me, watching with his mother. “Give it a moment,” the mother said, while we continued to watch. “It’s still creepy,” said the kid, after a time. He wasn’t wrong.

Around the corner, Paul McCarthy’s Pinocchio Pipenose Householddilemma, 1994, offers a rather more adolescent nightmare via puppetry, while Cao Fei’s Shadow Life, 2011, spins hand shadows into allegories of greed, despotism, and environmental destruction. No fun, as Iggy Pop would say. The final gallery is dominated by what sounds from a distance like a truly playful musical piece—its rat-a-tat-tat percussion and power chords can be heard throughout the exhibition. But once Pedro Reyes’s Disarm Mechanized II, 2012–14, comes into view, its gunmetal colors and jagged components make clear that it’s no cakewalk, either. Made of repurposed weapons seized from Mexican drug cartels, the piece is steeped in violence, and given its prosthetic approach to generating sounds, even the “disarm” in its title could be taken as a threat (at least to a human drummer like me).

“PlayTime” is far from child’s play, in other words—the closer one looks at its candy-colored works, the darker the vision one sees, which makes the show truly reflective of this very unamusing moment in history, when the only ones laughing are on their way to the bank.

Damon Krukowski