Playful ‘Play War’ exhibit puts ‘battlefields’ in new light
By Catherine Fox
for the AJC

Friday, June 26, 2009

"Speedball," by Ruth Dusseault

When my firstborn son was little, I refused to buy him toy guns until he started walking around with a fork in his pocket. At that point, I concluded that my ideals were no match for genes and G.I. Joes. The incident came to mind when I saw the photographs from Ruth Dusseault’s “Play War” series at Hagedorn Gallery.

The popular game Paintball is the nominal subject. Its denizens, mostly male, battle each other with air guns, shooting pellets that explode on contact into colored paint with enough force to require protective face gear. Played in indoor facilities and on sometimes vast outdoor arenas, the game is largely team-based and ranges from capture-the-flag type competition to elaborate “scenarios,” which involve sets and costumes.

The Atlanta artist wasn’t aware of all this when she happened upon one of these outdoor arenas. She was fascinated by the makeshift structures that dotted the field and began photographing as examples of folk architecture. Her interest deepened and broadened after she saw kids play the games and was able to talk to them. Dusseault began making portraits of the participants, and the series became an examination of a cultural phenomenon.

Dusseault, best known for her series on the construction of Atlantic Station, is particularly sympathetic to architecture, and the aesthetically strongest photos highlight the creative energy applied to building the “sets.” The image of an overturned pool tank used as a fort benefits from the geometry of the composition as does the photo of scavenged pieces of highway infrastructure, drain pipes etc, arranged like tinker-toys into a battlefield.

But it’s the images of the participants —- the sniper in a gilly suit, the teens in T-shirts looking sinister in their protective goggles —- that brings home the idea that this is a children’s game and provokes the larger question: What is this will to bear arms and shoot them at each other?

Like a journalist, Dusseault reports the story and poses the question but doesn’t editorialize. This gives the viewer room for thoughtful meandering. Because I’m squeamish about guns and mindful of child conscripts turned into killing machines in Africa, the fact that the game attracts millions of enthusiasts and spawned a whole industry is creepy. Yet, given national pride in our soldiers, others may regard it no differently than a military academy. Indeed, Dusseault tells me that the U.S. Army sometimes mans a booth at tournaments, giving out hot dogs and such.

Maybe it’s somewhere in the between —- simply another iteration of kids playing Cowboys and Indians or Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker —- an outlet for aggression. You know, boys will be boys. The beauty of these photographs is that they make you think about it all.

Exhibit review

“Play War: Homemade Recreational Battlefields”

10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays; 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturdays. Through July 2. Hagedorn Foundation Gallery. 425 Peachtree Hills Ave, No. 25. 404-492-7718.

From Critics Blog
Playing War: Ruth Dusseault at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery


The history of photography is chock full of singular, memorable images, ones that distill an event or thought in a camera click. You know, a picture worth words by the thousands. More often, it takes multiple good pictures to really tell a story. Case in point: "Play War: Homemade Recreational Battlefields," from a work-in-progress series by Ruth Dusseault at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery.
The Atlanta artist has traveled around the region taking photos of Paintball arenas and the people who play this battle game. Some of the photos focus on the "sets" for sometimes elaborate fantasy wars -- an army tank made of plywood, an overturned water tank that becomes a fort -- and the creative energy they represent. Dusseault also makes portraits of rifle-toting players in their army camouflage and protective goggles.

The photos, especially the architectural ones, are strong visually. Yet they need each other to give them meaning. Or meanings. Like Paul Shambroom, whose photos of high-security military sites and the like were shown last fall at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Dusseault plays the dispassionate sociologist. Is this high-developed war game merely a product of X and Y chromosomes, or a symptom of American culture? Harmless release of aggression, or instigator of real-life violence?

This project has the makings of a book.