I wrote a BLOG post about my third visit to the Venice Biennale and my first as director of Children’s Art school 2 years ago. Children’s Art school in Venice – Mother as curator
About a month ago I returned to La Biennale di Venezia 2017 – Viva Arte Viva and found myself reflecting on my past four visits and re-thinking who I am and what I do? I intended to write as soon as I got back, but life has taken over and I have only just found the time to reflect on the trip.
It’s been 4 years since I left my post as Education Curator at the Whitechapel Gallery to run Children’s Art School. Am I still a curator? Still a mother, teacher, educator, a little more of an artist. Children’s Art School is my art practice, a form of participatory practice alongside my less developed work that I play with in spare moments. Im trying to find my voice in this field but time is a real issue.
If curating is about working with artists to nurture and understand their work and give them a little space to do this – thats what I strive for when inviting them to work with the groups of children that chose to work with me. I am particularly interested in working with artists who are mothers, parents or who have a particular affinity or interest in the ideas of children when developing their own work. This is the curator in me at work and – I like to think – my specialism. I love watching artists at work with children, their very particular way of teaching, facilitating and approaches to education that they champion and how it complements the dominance of formal education.
I’ve definitely been struggling with how to give status to what I am doing, how to make it fit with life as a mother along with how to live a life that is productive, purposeful and contributes financially to the household whilst remaining happy, fulfilled and balanced – that’s hard when so much of what you do is not so well paid, unpaid, or generally undervalued by society.
I have been lucky enough to be able travel a lot this year helping me to think and keep up with what artists are doing globally and see what the big issues are. This is integral to what I do. I want to be able to talk to a wide range of people both in work and socially about the breadth of the artist experience, what this means and inspire those around me. I want to inject a little of this into the work of Children’s Art School and help children to think big about what they can do with art. It is here that I feel like a curator again, researching, selecting, grouping – making sense of the work I do in relation to the work of others and the work of the children artists and parents I work with. It’s a shame I feel the need to justify these travels under the guise of ‘work’ but the boundaries between work and pleasure are so slippery for me now. This is sometimes a good thing but sometimes problematic in how I see myself and how I think others see me.
When looking at art I find myself drawn to work that has an element of play, social engagement or references the work of children, women and motherhood. I look for ideas to develop into courses for children, themes to explore or new techniques to experiment with. I am also conscious of trying to organise what I see into big themes, so I can think about what might be interesting to explore with children.
These big themes are often dark, intellectually challenging and difficult to deal with. I guarantee that I will have have a bit of a personal crisis during these trips whilst sorting it all out!
There were plenty of references to war and the possibility of impending disaster.
The refugee crisis – very present 2 years ago was still very evident with artists reflecting on our inability to live together harmoniously without destroying the planet and each other.
This is when it’s good to have children as your focus, when you feel powerless to do anything and look for hope amongst feelings of hopelessness and crisis!
The guide book for the exhibition begins….
My high points began quickly with Great Britain’s representative, Philida Barlow. A mother of 4 children she occupies the British pavilion with Folly – gargantuan sculptures that literally burst out of the building. They conjured up for me hours spent playing with cardboard boxes, paint, tape and toilet rolls with my own children which in turn fed into the development of courses like Collaborative Design and Build and Thinking in Three Dimensions, which allow children the freedom to build and make on a variety of scales. The sheer joy of experimenting with materials is apparent here and celebrated on a grand scale in a grand location. I loved it. It filled me with positive energy.
The simple pleasures of playing with a cardboard box, winding things in wool or tape. And building with toilet rolls is literally given giant status here as the artists playful combinations tower over you. I wanted to climb them, push them and play in her playground.
Elsewhere in the exhibition the sheer pleasure in materials and craft, traditional and contemporary was celebrated. The sense that people are craving making came through loud and clear. Experiments with wool, thread, ceramics and paper are used to explore bigger issues and the artists preoccupation with cultural exchange, tradition and storytelling comes through, often highlighting the unspoken or forgotten issues for cultures disappearing through the effects of globalisation. The survival of traditional crafts and cultures are celebrated and their struggles lamented.
The inevitable march of progress and the effects of technology on our lives are referenced often alongside works that use technology as their medium like these in the Russian pavilion. Blocked Content by Recycle Group invites you to metaphorically release blocked content on the internet using an app. You wave a device at the sculptures to ”unblock” the poor internet sinners in a contemporary version of Dante’s hell.
I was curious about what was happening here and how the work was made to help with a continued struggle to understand art that might engage children (my own included) who are tech obsessed. I found the sentiments of Shimabuku more engaging though. He exhibits iPhones alongside rocks the size and shape of neolithic tools and a mac book air with a sharpened edge is comically made into to an axe to compare ancient and modern tools, commenting on how we inevitably adapt to our changing environment.
These beautiful drawings by intuit artist Kananginak Pootoogook complement Shimabuku’s work beautifully and are absolutely captivating. They also illustrate cultural change, celebrating tradition and progress, capturing the transition of lifestyles with dignity and delicate irony.
With a different slant Guan Xiao from China uses a quirky film about Michelangelo’s David to comment on art tourism and how our world is mediated by virtual experiences. Its a comment on seeing but not really looking - now this IS something our children do need to learn – to slow down, look and think about the images that they are perpetually bombarded with. The accompanying song reminds us ‘we don’t know how to see him….only recording but not remembering’. I have been in many situations where I find observing the phenomena of crowds swarming around celebrity works of art with mobile phones more captivating than the work of art itself.
Elsewhere, the material and tactile qualities of materials quite literally occupy the imposing spaces of the great Arsenale hall and other venues around Venice.
Karla Black uses commercially available materials in a graceful installation that somehow reminded me of the chaos left by children’s workshops. Piles of half used paper tossed about in a tactile frenzy of experimentation. Of course this beautiful sculptural work is more purposeful than that and reminds us that meaning can be found in the choice of materials – here, commercially produced, ubiquitous materials like face powder, sugar paper, cotton wool and cellophane replace more traditional ones.
Just as we are getting weary with all this thinking, giant, tactile balls of wool invite us to rest contrasting with the harsh forms of the Arsenale Architecture (although we aren’t actually allowed to curl up on them).
Its ok though – Ernesto Neto weaves us a beautiful, web like tent from polyamide material, a utopian sanctuary to sit and contemplate the mornings work – regroup with our companions and think about what we have seen. This structure echoes a place for sociality and political meetings used by the Huni Kuin Indians of the amazonian forest. We are invited to imagine how society can be transformed.
And this is of course the very best way to look at art – with friends – and we are reminded (elsewhere in the exhibition, by the education team of course) that it is through these conversations that things happen and the art work is completed.
In my search for references to children and play I found several lovely examples.
In a project where public space is re-claimed as a place where art can happen, Turkish artist Nevin Aldag positions musical instruments in playgrounds, and orchestrates them to be ‘played’ by the environment, the playground furniture and natural elements. I know my kids would have loved that, which always ticks a box for ‘good art’. It also reignited an idea that I am developing to run a course on art, music and sound. See my post Marks to Music.
The Chinese pavilion referenced animation which I have also been working with this year. A beautiful, ongoing participatory project was shown here where children from all over the world paint their ideas of the sea. The artist combines thousands of paintings, adding ink drawings of his own to make one animation. A lovely collaborative piece.
These poetic little tableaux’s of destruction play with memories and scale, using children’s toys to make a point about the human condition and also reminded me of the scenes and stories my children used to make from their own toys – often similarly chaotic and cataclysmic!
I meditated with balloons floating on the sea – then played at virtually popping them from the shadows behind screens.
The Polish pavilion showed a film made as part of an educational program from a Youth Socio-therapy centre – great to see at an international art event. As I watched, I hoped these confident, positive young women on the verge of adulthood had been responsible for making the film themselves and was pleased to learn they had. The haunting sound of their voices repeating love, peace, hope, hate still rings in my ears.
And just when we were flagging again there was the Austrian Pavillion where we had tremendous fun with a caravan and a lorry. The invitation to play and think about serious issues surrounding migration at the same time in a light hearted way was most welcome.
Moving on to women and motherhood and one of the highlights of the trip for me – the Swiss Pavilion.
When art makes you angry and sad its doing its job at its best. A beautiful, 2 channel film Flora, told back to back on 2 screens from 2 viewpoints – her ageing son’s account and a reconstruction of her life. We learn the story of Giacommettis lover Flora Mayo an artist in her own right overlooked by history who’s desire to make something beautiful was eventually thwarted. It reminded me of so many women who struggle to do something meaningful with their lives but are held back by lack of time, societal constraints and many other issues whilst the Giacometti’s of this world get blockbuster shows at Tate Britain. A reconstruction of her bust of Giacometti - now destroyed – is exhibited in the pavilion titled Women of Venice.
I adored the work of Romanian artist Greta Bratescu who reflects on female subjectivity through works such as Mother Courage and Demoness.
I found these 2 pavilions far more appealing than work grouped in the Dyonysian Pavillion which claimed to celebrate ‘the female body and its sexuality, life and pleasure, all with joy and a sense of humour’. It included a giant womb like installation which I found very difficult to engage with.
Finally, as my time is running out two of my favourite installations show two extremes of thought.
The pavilion of Azerbaijan was just amazing. Under One Sun was an uplifting combination of works that highlights an example of a country that has seemingly mastered the art of living together. A sensually beautiful and complex work with a simple and uplifting message.
From this to an exploration the depths Faustian darkness in the German pavilion – a performance that lasts hours and physically transforms you into a voyeuristic creature. You jostle and compete with your fellow art tourists for the chance to peer through glass screens at fellow human beings constrained by their surroundings climbing, perching, singing and sometimes throwing things at you. These improvised or scripted scenarios comment on power, torture and institutionalised behaviour, physically transforming you into part of the work itself.
So this is an attempt to show my journey through the Biennale this year, there was much, much more but I have run out of time. This is my way of making sense of it for my particular context and recording it for future reference. I hope others my find it useful when unpicking their own relationship with the art they see.
Lets see what happens in the next 2 years.
Big thank you to all those who helped me get the most of this trip, without whom I would have been stumbling around in the fog!
Rebecca Morril, Ania Bas and Helen Higgins for great recommendations - the filtering is invaluable and the food and drink recommendations essential!
Adelita Marchant for being a great Art companion – you have a brilliant mind. Please come next time.
Felicity Tarrasiuk, you can’t miss it in 2019!