I have to admit I was a bit unsure when the publicity team for Artes Mundi asked me if I’d like to bring my family along to review this year’s exhibition. My children are fairly cultured (I hope!), but I worried whether it would be too much for them. Contemporary art has a reputation for being controversial and even some top artists think children should be banned from art galleries. Is this biennial exhibition of work from some of the world’s leading contemporary artists, and the UK’s biggest arts prize, really somewhere I want to take my almost five-year-old, three-year-old and seven-month-old?
I needn’t have worried. Not only does Artes Mundi welcome children, they have a whole series of workshops especially for families, with staff on hand to help young people respond creatively to what they have seen.
The workshop we attended at the National Museum Cardiff today marked not only the start of the Artes Mundi exhibition, but also of The Big Draw, an annual national campaign to encourage people to take part in creative activities.
Led by the lovely Sera Wyn, our task was to contribute to a collaborative art work in response to Carlos Bunga’s installation, Exodus. The Portuguese artist is famous for his large-scale site-specific works, inspired by the space in which he is working.
Made from cardboard, duct tape and white paint, Exodus is certainly an impressive structure. Sera tells us it was inspired by the two giant pillars in the gallery space. Little E and Little O thought it was fantastic, like some kind of giant castle. An information panel nearby tells us that the title, Exodus, “suggests mass migration and diaspora, nomadic lives and the constant flux of a transient lifestyle”. I openly admit that’s not what popped into my head when I walked between the cardboard pillars, but there was something about the way the simplicity of his materials contrasted with the oppressiveness and scale of the installation that intrigued me.
It certainly dominates the gallery, which also features Theastre Gates’ A Complicated Relationship Between Heaven and Earth or When We Believe, a commentary on ritual and religion. This included a goat’s head on a wheeled pedestal, moving around a railway track. I was worried my children would find this a bit scary but they just liked the circular track, as it reminded them of the one they have at home.
We avoided Omer Fast’s video installation, as it deals with the Afghanistan war and is violent in parts so I didn’t think it would be suitable for my young children.
From there, Sera guides us, and two other families, through Renzo Martin’s fascinating display of self-portrait models made from chocolate by plantation workers in the Congo, as well as Renata Lucas’s Falha (Failure), a number of large wooden floor panels with hooks and hinges, which allow visitors to create their own sculptures, and into an art studio learning area at the back of the gallery.
Light and airy, and brightly decorated with children’s artwork, this is a wonderfully creative space, which I imagine is used mostly by school groups. Here, we were asked to choose from a selection of cardboard boxes and given pieces of card in various shapes, sizes and colours, tape, glue and scissors, so that we could create a room. All the rooms made over the space of the week will then be put together to form a piece of art.
Little E and Little O argued over which size box to choose, eventually settling on a smallish box that had already been painted yellow inside. They quickly decided they wanted to make a bedroom. Little E set about creating a bed and Little O wanted to make a wardrobe. I suggested we could make some glow-in-the-dark stars to go on the ceiling, like their bedrooms at home, while Cardiff Daddy was concerned the bed needed some covers and pillows. Perhaps a teething Baby I was to blame for his preoccupancy with a comfortable night’s sleep! From there, Little E wanted to make a rug, which she soon decided would look better as a painting on the wall; while Little O made a pirate plank. Because obviously every bedroom needs a pirate plank, and this is contemporary art, after all.
Cardiff Daddy and I let Little E and Little O take the lead, helping where we were needed and making sure that, as the elder sibling, Little E didn’t dominate too much. Little O can sometimes get frustrated when he can’t quite do the things his sister can, so we tried to make sure he had just as much chance as her to contribute at his own pace.
They were thrilled with their final piece, and also excited to see what the other children had created. One little girl had made a living room, complete with coffee cups on coasters (she has been taught well!), while two sisters made an enchanting fairyland. The rooms looked great all placed together and with similar workshops taking place throughout half-term, it will no doubt be very impressive by the end of the week.
I’m not sure how much my children understood about what the artists were trying to say through the works, but they certainly enjoyed themselves and it got them thinking creatively. And as for who should win the prize? Little E was adamant that all the artists had worked hard and they were all good, so they should get one each. As we parents are all too fond of saying, it’s the taking part that counts… and in our case, the taking part, rather than simply viewing, helped our little family understand the world of contemporary art a whole lot more than we did before.
The Artes Mundi exhibition runs from October 24 until February 22, 2015. It is split between three sites – National Museum Cardiff, Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff and Ffotogallery in Penarth. Entrance in free. The winner will be announced on January 22, 2015.
The Big Draw family workshops run until Sunday 2nd November at 11am, 1pm and 3pm at National Museum Cardiff. The workshops are free but you need to pre-book on the day at the information desk in the museum foyer. Please note, the museum is not open on Mondays. For details of other family-friendly events, visit www.artesmundi.org
invited me to view the exhibition and to take part in the workshop. I did not receive any payment for this post and all opinions are my own.