Childish Things, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh

A menacing counterpoint to the innocence of childhood

Any temptation to sentimentalise the so-called sweet innocence of childhood should be resisted. This is the message transmitted with daring, wit and wild inventiveness in Childish Things – and nowhere more weirdly than at the beginning of the show. Here, Jeff Koons enlarges a bear that might originally have been a comforting, diminutive toy so that the creature looms high on a plinth, staring down with eye-popping intensity at a young policeman.

Although the bear grins, he exposes vicious teeth and seems set to devour his companion. But the policeman gazes up adoringly at the predator, who has taken his whistle and plays with it suggestively. Walking round Koons’ sculpture (pictured), I realise the policeman is about to drop the truncheon in his hand. He has become a passive, compliant victim, and Koons plays the role-reversal game with hilarious yet disturbing flair.

The rest of the show builds on the entertaining creepiness of “Bear and Policeman”. Take Paul McCarthy, who invites us to enter a darkened, empty room where The Sound of Music is screened on the end wall. This enormous movie is projected upside down and in reverse – hence the provocative title “cisuM fo dnuoS ehT/The Sound of Music” – and the result is alarming. The scene beside a picturesque lake, where Julie Andrews sings and dances with the children, was intended to be delightful and affirmative, but these weirdly inverted figures appear to be submerged in the water. They move backwards away from Andrews rather than bonding with her. The dialogue and songs are reduced to alienating gibberish, and when Christopher Plummer arrives he looks downright sinister.

Then, quite suddenly, the film cuts to a dark interior where Andrews, in her sombre and strait-laced nun’s outfit, is with the Mother Superior. They might be singing “Climb Every Mountain”, yet McCarthy makes it impossible to identify, and both upside-down women look menacing in their black outfits.

The sense of alarm intensifies when I approach Susan Hiller’s installation along a narrow corridor. Rounding the final corner, four big screens confront me on different sides of her room, and “An Entertainment” begins. Music strikes up and the camera travels across several painted backdrops of merry toytown streets culminating in film footage of Punch and Judy shows at their most raucous. Hiller reveals how remorselessly violent Punch and Judy can be. At one point, a woman cries: “Horrible baby!” Her voice is quickly supplanted by the maniacal screeching of puppets. After appearing quite small and on just one screen, they are transformed into bloated grotesques who emerge like phantoms on all the screens.

Elsewhere is Louise Bourgeois’s glass vitrine of stitched, doll-like figures that dramatise Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex with unflinching power. The most visceral of these images shows the death of Oedipus’s father, stretched out on a block with a weapon piercing his back, and the distraught head of Oedipus himself, blinded by pins in his eyes.

Toys are included in Mike Kelley’s “Innards”. These knitted forms elude easy identification. Scattered across a blanket like severed bodily remains, they resemble the aftermath of a massacre. Kelley must be ruminating on a child’s impulse to use toys as combatants: they end up vulnerable and broken, testifying to the destructive urges that lurk within – even at a very young age.

The show makes us ponder the darkest and most mysterious regions of childhood experience. It does so nowhere more arrestingly than in Helen Chadwick’s “Ego Geometria Sum”. Made in 1983 when she was 30, these objects chart her life from birth to the age of six. Adroitly using photographic emulsion on plywood, she applies images of her infancy and girlhood to sculptural forms that evoke an incubator, a font, a boat, a wigwam and a bed. Elusive moments caught in family snapshots are given a permanent structure. But Chadwick, who explained that she wanted to “lay my ghosts”, had no illusions about her underlying vulnerability. These monumental objects still look frail, and the bed is eerily akin to a coffin.

Chadwick died at 43. This funereal child’s bed seems to prophesy her untimely end.

‘Childish Things’ runs until January 23.

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