The uncanny return of repressed history in Jonathan Hobin's In the Playroom: playing beyond the pleasure principle

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Author: Lisa Farley
Date: Winter 2014
Publisher: University of Winnipeg, Centre for Research in Young People's Texts and Cultures
Document Type: Article
Length: 6,964 words
Lexile Measure: 1480L

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Jonathan Hobin's photographic series In the Playroom represents a vast range of events that made headlines in news media around the globe, involving historical violence, political conflict, and environmental disaster. On the level of content, they are sadly familiar. What is unusual about Hobin's photographs is that all the subjects in them are children. In one image, children stand under stormy clouds by a backyard pool amid blow-up toys and life preservers. The acronym stamped onto the flimsy surfaces of these objects points to the failure of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to save those caught in the swelling aftermath of hurricane Katrina ("The Saints"). In another image, in which two children play with toy planes and trucks, the hooded child sits poised to crash his plane into a skyscraper made of blocks. The blond child sports a firefighter's hat, his toy truck extending a ladder into the burning tower ("The Twins"). Surrounded by animals emblematic of the Canadian Arctic, two more children sit before a spread of candy that spills from the belly of a seal pinata. Both children sit atop a white rug in an ice-blue, snowflake-adorned bedroom. The black child has just bitten into a chocolate heart. The second child, who wears a parka and holds a "Team Canada" hockey stick, bears an uncanny resemblance to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a detail that, among other things, suggests that the portrait indexes the triviality of the terms of the Prime Minister's engagement with the North ("Seal Heart"). Hobin describes the series as a commentary on "the darker side of childhood" (Vuorio) in which he locates the larger oeuvre of his work. (1) With specific reference to In the Playroom, Hobin adds a layer of commentary about the child's relationship to a "new era of constant media" that carries representations of trauma, mass violence, and cultural controversy across borders in swift and highly accessible ways (Frank).

Hobin's photographic series appeared in galleries across Canada, and the images continue to be available on many photography websites. Heated debate emerged on television and on blogs soon after the series was launched at the White Water Gallery in 2011. The impact of Hobin's series is compounded by his use of children as photographic subjects, sparking critiques that his images cross an ethical line between art and exploitation. One blog comment describes Hobin's work as "tasteless" (Sami) and at least two other commentators use the term "inappropriate" (see "Art or Exploitation?"; Hobin). A survivor of 9/11 characterizes Hobin's reconstruction of traumatic events as "insensitive" (Kelby). Still others question why parents would allow their children to pose for photographs imitating tragedy in the name of art (Abby; Robson). The media frenzy began when a psychiatrist appeared on a major American news network (itself known for spectacle journalism): on 22 April 2011, Dr. Alvin Poussaint suggested that it was "inappropriate" to stage children in scenes of violence that they do not "really understand[]" ("Art Exhibit"). Whether or not he is right, the debate...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A425349577