Photograph of child sitting on box in the installation ‘The Seeing Hands’ (2022) by Katie Schwab.

Are You Messin’?

Installation view of ‘The Seeing Hands’ (2022) by Katie Schwab. Photograph by Brian Roberts.

‘I’m going to make a tiger! Then a sofa for it to sit on!’ is the first thing I hear upon entering the Bluecoat. From the outset, the content, volume and announcer of this assured statement sets this gallery experience apart from most, before the miniature orator speeds past, skidding across the floor of Gallery Two towards a pile of stackable geometric shapes. This is the Bluecoat’s ‘special exhibition for children and their adults’, Are You Messin’?, comprising four galleries dedicated to children’s creative play.

From its origins in the early twentieth century through to the family-magnet of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, participatory art as we know it has mutated and now manifests with different levels of viewer involvement. A growing awareness and drive by cultural institutions to democratise their spaces, highlighting accessibility, has led to a more embedded approach to ‘family’ programming. The Bluecoat in particular continues to integrate children and the family into the fabric of the institution, setting a precedent for Are You Messin’? with Abacus in 2017 – another interactive and collaborative exhibition that ‘encouraged visitors of all ages to break the traditional rules of a contemporary art space’.

In Gallery One, Liverpool-based artist Gregory Herbert’s inspiration comes from studying the relationships between organisms and environments, in particular models of coexistence and collaboration that can be found in lichen, fungi and sea slug colonies. These influences have been distilled down and elaborated on during a nine-week engagement and consultation period with the Bluecoat’s Out of the Blue after school art clubs to create ‘Sensory Room’ (2022); a calming, immersive space not unlike a Pipilotti Rist work, minus the intimate references – experiential, highly saturated, and with abstract imagery and comfortable surroundings in which to absorb the sights and sounds of the video work on show. This sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition. Yes, it is designed for children, but these spaces are still very much works of curated art.

With a turfed floor, lighting akin to a hazy summer’s day and varying-sized bean bags designed to imitate rocks, the double-screen film animates the space, bringing it to life with images of nature and the outdoors. The crisp woodland soundtrack adds another sensory angle and reinforces the sense of calm in this beguiling microcosm. With three of the senses satisfied in this deliberately immersive environment, it was a shame to miss the olfactory (which was originally included at the point of installation with a lavender scent in the astroturf), as it would have been a welcome addition.

Five white children playing in a room with large grey beanbags on green carpet and soft lighting.
Installation view of ‘Sensory Room’ by Gregory Herbert (2022). Photograph by Brian Roberts.

Gallery Two contains a joint commission with Collective, a contemporary art centre in Edinburgh. The space is split in half with geometric openings punched through the dividing wall that can be looked at, walked, crawled, hopped or carried through. Both halves are part of ‘The Seeing Hands’ (2022) by Katie Schwab, whose work draws from early- to mid-twentieth century design and craftsmanship. One side houses a pile of fabric offcuts of varying sizes, materials, textures and colours, flanked by colourful plastic boxes – some with cushioned lids to seat weary adults. The central mound of textiles is aesthetically reminiscent of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ ‘Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA’ (1991) and his other candy works, or Roelof Louw’s ‘Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges)’ (1967). It is also a demonstration of Duchamp’s proclamation that art is completed by the viewer. In this case the viewers throw, pile, sort, wear, sculpt, sink into and animate the fabric, shrieking with joy at an amount of freedom they are potentially not even afforded at home. While Duchamp’s work was not known for its interactivity or child-friendliness, his statement rings true for Are You Messin’?

The expected gallery rule, ‘Please do not touch’, continues to be turned on its head in the second half of the space which consists of brightly coloured, geometric walls and soft, freestanding, portable building blocks where a tiger and his sofa are being constructed. Both spaces are inspired by Bruno Munari’s The Tactile Workshops book (2004) where he put forward the idea of a children’s tactile library. Here, there is also a nostalgic nod to the iconic 1950s Carter of Poole ceramic tile interior of Liverpool’s once renowned department store, Lewis’s.

The fact that there is no explicit instruction on how to engage with the work displays a confidence, trust and genuine relinquishing of control on behalf of the Bluecoat. Such control is often gripped on to by institutions and frequently results in purgatory spaces for children, where they are encouraged to explore but still tethered by instructions and guidelines. The ubiquitous activity sheet is a prime example – still valuable, but in different ways to the openness promoted here. Whilst worksheets can provoke more directed learning and allow for a deeper engagement with specific themes, free play involves more creative, open-ended possibilities. However, although the spaces are available for this independent use, the Bluecoat also programmed a schedule of live and pre-recorded workshops and group sessions, performances and readings for children from 0-11 years old throughout the school summer holidays.

Children’s participation is at the heart of this work, and in some cases the outputs point to impressive, if unintentional, references: precariously balanced towers of blocks become Andy Goldsworthy’s ‘Balanced River Stones, Brough, Cumbria’(1982), children sprawled across shapes in uncomfortable-looking configurations allude to Bruce McLean’s ‘Pose Work for Plinths 3’(1971) and carefully placed minimal cubes echo Sol LeWitt’s ‘Two Part Piece 221’(1975). But then, not all masterpieces are calculated and premeditated. Where in children it might be considered ‘luck’ or ‘random’, in adults it could be ‘instinct’ or ‘Surrealist automatism’. Children’s consideration for shape, space, colour and composition isn’t always so far removed from adults’, seen here in the results if not the process, furnishing the space with more artworks for the grown-ups to engage with and consume, with the children deserving credit for their creations.

Gallery Three hosts the Artist Studio where Montessori-style creativity sits alongside an exhibition of work focusing on technique and process by artists from Liverpool and the wider North West, including Penny Davenport, Kate Hodgson, Aliyah Hussain, Fauziya Johnson, Josie Jenkins, Kohenoor Kamal, Emily Lansley, Niloo Sharifi and Linny Venables. The accessible materials and varying heights of desks and chairs, custom-made by Crown Building Studios, reinforces the Bluecoat’s commitment to Are You Messin’? as an exhibition that prioritises children and further encourages children’s autonomy.

Displaying artwork alongside space for creative activity recreates the juxtaposition of inspiration with documentation and labour with creation that often typifies the artists’ studio, and demonstrates a respect for the comprehension and engagement of children. There is also a joy in seeing a group of works selected, presumably, purely for their visual, formal and textural appeal aiming to attract and inspire a broad spectrum of children to simply create.

Photograph of the Artist Studio in the exhibition, showing tables, chairs, and artwork on the walls.
Installation view of the Artist Studio. Photograph by Harry Meadley.

Finally, upstairs, there is the Library Space. From the lofty ceiling, reminding us that we are at an art gallery, hangs a sculptural work by Liverpool- based Millie Toyin Olateju. Olateju’s usual practice uses abstract geometrics developed through free play, but here those 2D shapes have been magnified and then made modular, each one suspended from a single tether to give gentle motion and a constantly changing view of each piece. Simplified versions of these shapes are replicated as designs on the walls to embellish the reading room and to ground the knee-heigh bookshelves brimming with literary and illustrative joy.

As parents are brought stacks of books, excited children nestle into the bean bags and window pods that overlook the street below, examining new books or watching Olateju’s mobile dance across the ceiling. These books have been meticulously selected to reflect their context in an exhibition that has children, exploration, independence and experience at its heart. There are classics, different languages, various age ranges, diverse characters, a broad selection of illustration styles and topics including identity, relationships, sustainability and kindness – topics that younger generations have typically tended to demonstrate a deeper engagement with than those before them.

The book selections, the omission of rules (bar one that attempts to keep sticky fingers at bay – ‘please don’t eat in the spaces’) and the ‘open world’ approach, combined with the sheer amount of prime space that Are You Messin’? has been given, exemplifies the Bluecoat’s dedication to engaging and welcoming children. There is still space in the art world for esoteric, white cube experiences, but it is by creating genuine opportunities for children to explore galleries as exciting, safe spaces, that we develop the artists and audiences of the future.

Are You Messin’? is on display at the Bluecoat, Liverpool, 3 July – 18 September 2022. Galleries are open 11am – 5pm.

Laura Biddle is a community project manager, curator, collection coordinator and writer based in Manchester, currently working at Venture Arts.

This review is supported by the Bluecoat, Liverpool.

Published 07.09.2022 by Jazmine Linklater in Reviews

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