Ikon Gallery
West Midlands

What are the rules of engagement when exploring art work in a gallery? Generally speaking, galleries are spaces with clear codes of conduct; we don’t touch unless invited, we walk and don’t run, we look in silence or talk in quiet murmurs. Instead of clear spaces awaiting transformation, galleries are already charged with their own laws before the art work even enters the space. So what happens when you introduce a group of people who challenge all our preconceptions about the way we engage with art? Children, three and four year olds for that matter, do not tip-toe around the space… they barge right through it… and with this attitude they force us to question all of our ideas about what a gallery is offering. If galleries are places for the public to engage with art, then who should make the rules?

The Ikon Gallery is not a place for running, yet when children enter the clear space at the entrance of the Clare Rojas Exhibition, it immediately lends itself to movement. As this initial reaction to the unusual environment subsides and the children are reminded of our pre-visit pep talks, their next response is to take a closer look. Surrounding us are huge colourful paintings stretching from floor to ceiling, and the once quiet space is transformed into a hive of discussion and activity. One of the girls asks “How did the paintings get up there? Are they paper or cardboard?” For the children the gallery seems to be a giant puzzle that needs to be unpicked, and the history of the space is just as important as its present. In an effort to unravel this mystery, the children want to physically explore the piece. It seems to be an important way of working out what it can do for them. So how do we engage with art without touching it? I try to break down these ‘no touching’ boundaries by offering a selection of tools which are seized enthusiastically. Different perspectives are explored and analysed as children lie on the floor and look up with binoculars, or get as close as they possibly can to the painted surface with magnifying glasses. The variety of processes the children adopt to explore the space, even in these first few minutes, makes me question my own role as a viewer in this environment. When we look at art as adults are we really looking at it, or just scratching the surface?

Attention turns to the content of the paintings themselves. The bright colours, bold shapes and geometric patterns do not detract from the strange characters within the canvas. These people become the centre of our discussions, as personalities are created and debated amongst children and adults alike.

“I don’t like that grumpy man…” Child

“You don’t like that grumpy man?” Teacher

“No!” Child

“Why do you think he’s grumpy?” Teacher

“I don’t know… He’s grumpy about me…” Child

“What about these people here?” Teacher

“They’re sharing flowers… I don’t like that grumpy man!” Child

The subjects of the paintings become vehicles for the children to explore negative emotions. Loneliness, fear and anger are reoccurring parts of our exchanges, yet the children are not fearful of the paintings themselves. They are simply exploring the idea of empathy and relish the opportunity to talk about important subjects that perhaps we as adults do not want to associate with childhood.

Real emotions become intertwined with imaginary scenarios, involving princesses, wicked witches and royal thrones, echoing the artist’s interest in folklore.

“What about that girl in the chair up there?” Teacher

“She’s feeling lonely” Child 1

“I think she’s scared!” Child 2

“What do you think she’s scared of?” Teacher

“Monsters!” Child 2

As we journey through the two other exhibition spaces, fantasy is used more dominantly to create a context to the work. The third space is lined with small framed paintings hanging from pegs. One of the girls goes on a quest to find as many princesses as she can in these frames, and when that isn’t enough, she draws her own. Meanwhile, another child dubs the gallery assistant’s stool as “the King’s Chair!” The children are not looking at the work as a finished piece, but something they need to take further and in this quest every element of the gallery comes into play. The window looking out to Birmingham is just as much a part of the experience as the artwork itself. In the same vein, one of the children exclaims “Look!” excitedly as she discovers a small, metal cover on the gallery floor. She returns to this spot several minutes later armed with a series of drawings that echo the shape of this cover. When a power point cover is just as inspirational as the artwork itself, we must question; is the gallery is offering the viewer enough? Or is it simply that the reoccurring theme of patchwork within the exhibition is suggesting to the children that the entire space needs to be stitched together?

Instead of exploring the space as a humble guest, children demand to know; what can you do for me? With this attitude they transform the gallery environment into a laboratory for research. The children constantly make connections, analyse and come up with new hypothesis about the work, through dialogue and open ended tools. Taking time to look through their eyes, the world seems so much more exciting. Frames are in conversation with each another and a bird depicted in a painting is brought to life through drawing.

“I drawed like a bird… It’s flying (flaps her arms)… Bird is flying over it… It fall-ed down… stands up… he’s still flying.”

The atmosphere is not quiet or traditional, but full of life. Personally, if I went to a gallery with that atmosphere, it would so much easier to engage with the work than a silent, vacant space. It’s understandable that protecting the art work is essential and some boundaries need to be present… but how close is too close? How noisy is too loud? How many different journeys can we go on around the space? Children’s sense of awe and wonder at everything has questioned the very fabric of the gallery. So I suppose the real question is this… To fully appreciate art do we all need to be a bit more child like?