The day I met Anselm Kiefer – Using narratives and personal history for getting attention in class

“Look at me, listen to me, be quiet, this is important” thinks the teacher quietly to themselves at the start of the lesson. Yes, that’s what you want, but anyone who’s tried starting a lesson like that will know that it doesn’t often work, certainly not on a week to week basis. So how to start?

In his book, Oops! Helping children learn accidentally Hywel Roberts talks about the importance of the lure….doing something to draw children into learning. A kind of educational strategy that grabs the attention of the pupil and leads them towards the intended learning experience, maybe via a roundabout route, but by using a successful ‘lure’ you capture the attention, imagination or focus of the learner.

‘Tell a class a story’ you are often advised during teacher training. Yes, kids live a good story. For me it’s often a chance to sneak a bit of art history into my practical art lesson, a real or made up story connected to a theme being studied works fine. But I would go one step further, the best lures or educational hooks at the start of a lesson are the ones with a strong narrative line, but the very best ones are the ones with a personal narrative line.

The natural inquisitiveness of a class can be unlocked by a teacher seemingly opening up a little personal history to them. Discovering the teacher has a life outside of school seems to me to be the ultimate lure, the challenge for the teacher is to link something out of their own biography to the lesson material.

I certainly wouldn’t claim everything out our personal lives can be used! But carefully thought out small doses can work fantastically well. We all have incidents and encounters that make for an engaging storyline. A few of my personal favourites that regularly find their way into my lessons are:

  • My brush with the immigration authorities and foreign police when moving to the Netherlands and what I did when told that I would have to leave the country very soon
  • Being first on the scene of a fierce house fire at midnight
  • Going to the cinema and being completely alone in the auditorium
  • Rolling my friends glasses up inside our tent and stuffing the tent into my rucksack at the start of a month long holiday…..with the worst results
  • Meeting world famous artist Anselm Kiefer and discovering after one sentence I had no idea what to say next
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Anselm Kiefer, Zweistromland (1986-89)

I could go on, each one of these basic storylines in a lesson situation can be built into the most captivating and lesson related narratives. Yes, with a bit of extra embellishment from time to time, but does that matter? It’s all about bringing the class to the point that you want them to be so that the most effective learning can take place.

I would also add that a little bit of metaphorical undressing of your personal biography rarely does you any harm in terms of a good working relationship with a class.

More on getting the attention of a class can be found here.

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Bouncing off the work of others – Tim Walker and Loving Vincent in the Noordbrabantsmuseum

There is a very strange double bill of exhibitions in the Noordbrabantsmuseum in Den Bosch, the Netherlands. Both, in their different ways, lean heavily on the artworks of Dutch masters from the past. British fashion photographer Tim Walker presents a series of larger than life photographs that take as their reference point Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. Meanwhile, in the neighbouring galleries there is The Loving Vincent exhibition, a display of a cross-section of the thousands of paintings made for the Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela film of the same name. To say that these lean heavily on the work of Van Gogh, would be a massive understatement.

Art in general rarely escapes referencing the past in one way or another. All of those who have any form of creative or artistic practice have their own influences that touch and inform their own production. Having said that though, these two particular exhibitions are extremely explicit in their referencing of influences and acknowledging the creative forces that lie behind their projects.

Let us start with Loving Vincent. I’m used to seeing museum spaces filled by paintings made by Van Gogh. I’m a regular visitor to both the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and my local museum the Kroller Muller in the central Netherlands. Both have excellent collections and both have galleries filled with both the Van Gogh’s art and crowds of visitors. From a distance the experience in Den Bosch looked similar, walls filled with vibrant, loosely painted images and crowds of people. There is though a difference, here there is not a single painting made by the famous Dutch man. It is a strange experience. Like the film itself it is rather a strange experience. If there ever was a painter whose work seems, through its inherent vibrancy, not in need of being animated it is surely Van Gogh. Yet the film does have a sort of hypnotic attraction. The relatively course animation techniques seemingly allowing the paint to flow across the cinema screen. Some parts work better than others and shear visual experience does tend to occupy your attention, at the expense of the narrative that the filmmakers were also trying to present.

The whole project is a Labour of Love. An infatuation with these iconic images. With this as a backdrop, and with the film in the back of my mind, the technical process is kind of interesting to see. But does it all warrant a place in a museum. Is it more than an advertisement for the film? I’ve always maintained in my teaching, even to the youngest pupils that art is about the ideas. Are there ideas here on display here?

There is clearly an audience for the exhibition, but I have to confess to feeling strangely perplexed by the visit. What are we actually looking at here? A series of paintings made by artists, or are they illustrators, who are all working in a style that is as close as possible to the way the Dutch master handled his paint 125 years ago.

Tim Walker’s exhibition in the same museum in Den Bosch is rather different. He too reaches back into art history. This time though, to a single work, The Garden of Heavenly Delights by Den Bosch’s most famous citizen, Hieronymus Bosch. Walker acknowledges in the forward to the display that he has always had a fascination for this particular painting. Is it an image of “naïve joy and freedom” or “playground of corruption and sexual deviance” is one of the introductory questions.

Having seen the work in the show I definitely feel that Walker comes down heavily on the latter choice. These are disturbing images. Staged photographs with a painterly quality, figure compositions that ooze a depraved sexuality and nightmarish menace.

Coming as he does from a fashion industry perspective with its slick images of perfection this does come as something of a contrast. Yes there are certainly elements of his fashion roots to be found. Overly theatrical….perhaps, but the photographs in the Noordbrabantsmuseum make for uncomfortable viewing, for me at least. It begs the question, would Bosch’s original work have offered still more uncomfortable viewing for its original audience? Being as it is, a warning of the hellish world that could be waiting for these original viewers back in the sixteenth century, in the afterlife.

Related post:

Hieronymus Bosch, Chris Berens and Oss

Don’t change a winning team…..a classroom film project

Or if you prefer, ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’. There is a great deal in education that is in a constant state of flux, we hear much about the atmosphere of constant change in our schools. There are many good reasons to remain critical of our classroom practices, to improve and refine. Maybe as a result of this situation is comes as something of a relief when you have a lesson element, or in this case a series of lessons, that works so well within its aims that you feel little need to adjust it.

This is very much the case with the ‘remake’ project that use with our film module that we teach to our fifteen and sixteen year olds. This practical assignment follows on heels of a more theoretical part that has involved discussing various film making practices and skills and watching a movie in class together. In recent years we’ve spent time in class discussing the boundaries of truth and fiction in movies and have made use of films such as:

But to get back to the film making practical, the set up is simple and involves taking an existing short film as the basis and dividing it up into short fragments of, say fifteen seconds. Each group involved is then asked to analyse the fragment that they are allotted, with particular attention being given to what exactly the camera is doing. Are we talking about a zooming or panning shot, a close up perhaps or a birds eye view and how long does each shot last exactly? Having recorded all the camera work detail in a storyboard the groups get down to filming the action as precisely as they can (quite a challenge for some groups!).

This year we’ve been working with one original film, five different classes and something like 120 pupils. 18 groups were formed and each had to deliver just 13.5 seconds of edited film that remade a section of Love Sick, our original short film by Kevin Lacy. Love Sick is very well suited to the project because the storyline is simple and very visual. The that fact that all our actors involved in the remake change every 13.5 seconds can potentially produce quite a lot of viewer confusion, but given this simplicity I think the result still bridges these continuity problems quite well.

Once I have all the fragments, I put them in the right order, take the original soundtrack and add that to the pupil version. Normally there is a little extra editing needed at this stage to try and make sound and image match up as well as possible, but I try to keep that to a minimum. Using the original sound sidesteps the thorny problem of pupils trying to record sound with their mobile devices and in practice works as a sort of glue in holding all the fragments together.

To say that the pupils are keen to see the film at the end of the production is a bit of an understatement! They are desperate to see it! And it provides an entertaining and often very funny element of a diploma presentation evening that we have with the classes at around the same time that the project reaches its conclusion.

Last year’s project

Winning an award….well, nearly

Awards and prizes in education should be taken with a pinch of salt. How can you possibly choose a teacher of the year? Even it was possible to for one organisation to actually somehow consider them all, what criteria could you use to say, this particular one is the best. I don’t dispute that the teachers who win such prizes are indeed very good teachers and worthy of being allowed to stand in the limelight and enjoy the recognition. But singling one out as the ‘best’ seems a little odd.

Having said all that, it didn’t stop me entering a competition a while back for innovative approaches to language teaching here in the Netherlands. Together with Pasi Kirkkopelto, my online art teacher collaborator (who up until now I have never actually met), I had worked on a project last year that seemed to fit the criteria of the competition rather well. It’s a project that I’ve posted before about:

Stating the obvious – language as a tool of communication

Photography, language and communication (a clil assignment)

I filled out the application form, without even mentioning it to Pasi. I was uncertain, it fitted the criteria in my view, but would it do so for the judges? It was a competition that seemed more geared up to full blown language teachers, rather than art teachers who squeeze language education into their lessons on the side.

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Two weeks ago, I received a mail to say that our project had been shortlisted and would have to be presented to jury and public at the National Conference for Language Education. Presentation is something that I do feel at home with, so two weeks later I found myself with a stand at the conference with our ‘Photographic Exchange’ project presented as stylishly as I could, given the fact that I had only very limited time to plan how to do it.

Maybe I’m just a bit shy, but I did feel a little like a gatecrasher……as an art teacher at the languages conference.  Perhaps I’ve never quite got over just how bad I was at languages at school, and here I was presenting a project for innovative approaches to language education at a national conference. It’s funny how things turn out!

Anyway, to cut a day long story of conversations with a great many visitors short, the project that we had put together last year was awarded second prize in this competition for good educational practice.

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I still think that educational competitions should be taken with a pinch of salt. I know full well that there are other excellent projects out there that for countless reasons never even got as far as being sent in for consideration by the judges.  But what I do know is that we had a good project, one that we as teachers and our pupils worked well with. I also have to say that having your moment on the stage in a huge theatre in front of your peers is, well kind of fun.

The things they didn’t mention during teacher training – No.2, sugar and its effect (or not) on children

I’m not a scientist, I’ve done no research into this area, but for me, the facts of sugar on the behavior of children could hardly have been more visibly seen than it was last week.
I was traveling on a school trip with a group of 115 twelve and thirteen year olds and eight colleagues on a five day trip from the Netherlands to Swindon in the UK by boat and bus. This meant two days of travel and three days of activities in England.

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Generally it was a successful week, not without its incidents, but everything we wanted to do has been successfully achieved. However a recurring discussion amongst the teachers team was around the amounts of sugar, sweets and soft drinks that the children had brought with them, purchased during our day out in Oxford and were consuming relentlessly every time that they returned to their rooms.
Children always are boisterous and excited on trips like these, it is a trip that we have done many times before and we are more than familiar with such behaviour. But this year seemed different, they were so hyper at times, pumped up almost tangibly by the sugary rush that many seemed to giving themselves throughout the day.
As I write this it seems almost naïve of us to allow them free reign with their sugar enriched diet. It does look sometimes like the inclusion of a large bag of sweets is an almost obligatory part of any Dutch school outing. Parents seem more than happy to facilitate this and we regularly see children arrive with a suitcase that has obviously been packed by a parent also being a suitcase that is overflowing with packets of sweets, biscuits and chocolate just to get them through the five days away!
Having got back home I have done a little research into scientific evidence of ‘sugar highs’. Surprisingly, although I could have found articles of support, the majority of the articles talk of ‘sugar highs’ and ‘sugar rushes’ being something of a myth. My evidence is very much of the anecdotal type, but it certainly felt like a pretty real thing last week. Yes, the kids were wound up by the general experience of being away, but somehow something more seemed to be going on!
For me and my colleagues a limit has been reached this week, absurd amounts of calories have been consumed with apparently resulting sugary kicks. We have agreed that the time has come to enlighten the parents on the problems we face when trying to calm and slow the children down at the end of the day at bed time. It may or may not help us in future, but there are of course numerous other extremely valid reasons for trying to reduce the intake of sugar in or young people.

Love and Mercy – the Brian Wilson bio-pic in class

Was I sure that this particular film, the Bill Pohlad bio-pic about Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, was going to work with the twenty-eight fifteen year olds of class V4D? No, not at all. Both our lessons each week are right at the end of the day when pupils are tired and concentration less focused; no, I really wasn’t sure.

But I wanted to show the film because on the surface it ticked many of the boxes that I wanted to refer to in the short film studies course that I offer around this time each year.

Part of the reason for choosing it was that being a bio-pic, the film narrative sits nicely in the global theme that we were dealing with of fact and fiction in the cultural (and in this case in the film) world. But added to this, there were the interesting other issues of:

  • The popular culture of the past being introduced to my pupils
  • The extensive use of music in the film
  • Mental health perspectives being explored
  • The lengths that the filmmakers have gone to, to get the ‘look’ of the film and the actors right

All good reasons to show the film to my pupils and discuss with how the filmmakers involved had set about presenting the story of Brian Wilson to us.

 

Yet sitting in the classroom watching it together I still really wasn’t sure. It’s a fairly long film and we had to spread it over three lessons on three different days, not and ideal setup. If I’m honest, the first 30-40 minutes are a little slow and, for a younger audience perhaps a little confusing as the narrative jumps backwards and forwards between the nineteen sixties and late eighties. Time is spent setting the stage for the main body of the film. That first lesson the class watched with me, they were a little twitchy at times. Sometimes they seemed to be finding Wilson’s unpredictable behaviour funny rather than disturbing.

Were we going to make it to the end of the film, to start with I really wasn’t sure. But I wanted to persist. One of my big aims with the film studies course is to offer material that is outside of the pupils’ normal area of experience. I want to stretch and draw them into new areas, but without going so far that it switches them off.

We returned to the film the following lesson, and slowly, you could see them being drawn into the film. The room went quiet and they became more settled. By the end they were thoroughly engaged and wanting to see how the creeping tension that is built through the film is played out.

Now, two weeks later I am reading the 1000-1200 word essays that the pupils wrote about the movie. I was curious, I felt I really needed the proof, the confirmation that they had enjoyed it as much as I had secretly hoped.

It would seem that my uncertainty about the film was misplaced, almost without exception the reports have been both enthusiastic and well written. A couple of points stand out. The styling of the visual appearance of the film is greatly appreciated. Having shown them a few film clips of the real Beach Boys they see the parallels and the efforts that has been made to create the look of the past and the appearance of the main characters. The focus on the mental health issues experienced by Brian Wilson throughout his life hit home in the minds of the pupils. It made for fascinating reading. The appreciation of the huge difficulties and abuse that Wilson suffered made a very strong impression and undoubtedly broadened their understanding in this area.

 

The film continually jumps from the sixties to the eighties, with two different actors (Paul Dano and John Cusack) playing the role of Wilson. It was interesting to hear which section of the film engaged the pupils most. For me it was Dano and the younger version of the musician. This was partly for the performance, but mostly for the music and the look at the creative process that it gave. However for the bulk of my pupils it was the older phase of Wilson’s life that drew the attention. Why? Well two reasons I think, partly the love story that was being played out with Melinda Ledbetter. But more so for the sense of jeopardy that was being created, was Melinda going to be able to save the hugely vulnerable Brian Wilson from the manipulative clutches of Dr. Eugene Landy?

All-in all reason enough to use the film again next year? The answer is simple, yes certainly.

Gregory Crewdson: Cathedral of the Pines

The silence is almost deafening. Crewdson’s frozen moments in time are peopled views of small town America on the fringes of the mysteries and secrets of the forest. They are immaculately constructed compositions with a huge amount of attention given to detail both in terms of their technical achievement but more significantly the way in which each of these large-scale photographs are packed with elements that seem to be so consciously placed. Where and who do those footprints in the snow lead to? Why are there so many apples in the grass when there is not a single apple on the tree and what, if anything, has just been said?

In this collection of work at The Photographer’s Gallery in London the human relationship with nature seems often to be present, but is not wild and beautiful nature, it is nature that seems always to disclose a human resonance, a production forest, remnants of a previous human industrial intervention or simply the detritus of daily life left discarded.

The photographs draw a variety of parallels from the simple domesticity of a woman at a sink in front of a window, that has more than a little Vermeer about it, to the visual connections with Edward Hopper’s often equally silent interiors. But it’s more than compositional parallels, the rather dark sense of mystery that hangs around these carefully positioned individuals brings more than just a little connection with my memories of watching David Lynch’s Twin Peaks all those years ago.

But for me, viewing them from a perspective that includes twentieth century Dutch art history I am reminded also of the work of Carel Wellink, with their seemingly film set like sense of reality, a disquieting sharp focus where you struggle to feel comfortable with the view that you have stumbled on.

Crewdson’s work is, for me at least, a fascinating discovery and offer some food for thought for future education based projects.

Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy, London

Jasper Johns’ work has always been an enigmatic presence at the back of my interest in painting. At the art school I attended (Wimbledon School of Art in south west London) he was a figure who regularly enough was referred to. But at the time he was also an artist who always seemed difficult to categorize and place in an art historical context. His early work was a reaction to and a moving on from, the abstract expressionists, taking painting into new areas. Yet in the art world of the sixties and seventies his work never falls easily into any of the dominant directions of the time. There are relationships to aspects of minimalism, conceptualism and pop art, but there are as many differences as similarities.

The retrospective show at the Royal Academy in London only underlines the slightly divergent route that Johns has taken throughout as he has built his own reference library of motifs and symbols that he draws on again and again in his work. Seen as a whole the work feels extremely autobiographical in the end, as he ends up almost coming full circle chasing his own personal and art historical story.

The title of the exhibition is “Something Resembling Truth“. In the early work it’s easy to see an observer at work, and one that questions the visual world around us. He asks us to reconsider the visual truths that we perhaps take for granted but are actually rather more layered and offer multiple interpretations, as in the early flag, targets and text work.

As you progress through the show that is arranged in a roughly chronological order you become increasingly aware that the visual symbolism and references that Johns makes use of are becoming increasingly personal. This might be in the form of being objects and items found around his studio, the trappings of his artistic practice as in the painted bronze that shows us a representation of his brushes. Or it could be the ‘devices’ that play a physical part in the manufacture of the image. Later it might be reference to his friend Merce Cunningham or is fascination with favourite artistic connections, be those Munch, Duchamp or Newman. The artist builds up a visual library that he continues to add to but he gets older increasingly dips back into, to reference himself.

In a sense it is the luxury of an artist of an older generation. Is there a continuing sense of visual exploration and discovery in the work? Perhaps not, or at least not as there once was. Previously the visual content had been refined to create full resolved and engaging pieces. Resulting in pieces, such as Between the Clock and the Bed, one of my own personal favorites, from the series featuring the crosshatching motif.

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However what there is to see in the later work are paintings and prints that reference the artist’s own history, his own visual language and what it is to be an artist with such an extensive personal back catalogue. In that sense the exhibition is certainly offering something resembling truth.

From a personal perspective I do like the way Johns repeatedly explores a recurring motif for an extended period. It’s something I recognize in my own work and something I was encouraged to do back at art school in Wimbledon as a student by the then head of the painting school, John Mitchell…..John was, incidentally, another big Jasper Johns admirer.

Mail art…….a nostalgic return

When I was an art student back in the late eighties and early nineties artists’ journals and magazines used to be full of mail art projects. The need to connect was clearly there long before we all got online. Some of the projects were initiated by large and recognized arts institutions, others were very much smaller in ambition being the work of individuals.Looking back I can’t actually remember taking part in any of it, although I did find the idea of linking up with others in some artistic way quite attractive. I think the problem I had though was that it was all rather invisible and seeing and experiencing the results was always rather a weak link in the process.

Mail art rather faded away with the arrival of the internet. All sorts of online forums offered so many possibilities to share, collaborate and exhibit. This blog itself is of course a good example of this sort of development.

Yet here I am, many years later, in our digital world, enjoying being a participant in a mail art project with a group of creative people spread round the globe. The project involves a black hardback drawing book making a journey from one artist to another. Each in turn fills a series of pages with a documentation of a single day, in whatever way they choose before sending the package on to the next participant in the series.


I received the book earlier in the week with it already having passed through Australia, Vietnam, Poland and Sweden. When I’m finished I’ll be sending it on to the next participant in Canada. Today I’m traveling from my home in the Netherlands to visit my parents who live just north of Cambridge in the U.K. It provides an interesting day to document as I make the trip using buses, trains and the boat across the North Sea.

So what has lead me to participate in the project? Well, Margot, the organizing strength behind the initiative asked me, and others, directly to participate….that certainly helped! But things have changed from the old days of mail art, because the digital world enables us to follow the project, chart its development and in the end to witness the results. A very informal chat group around the project has developed and Margot has set up Flickr pages for the depositing of imagery. All this has undoubtedly helped us all feel an engagement in the project.


Having said all this I was kind of surprised this week by the pleasure of having the book itself drop through the letterbox at home. To sit down with a cup of coffee an read and look at the work of the others in the group and to consider the journeys that these pages, as a visual document, have already made.

I have been adding my experiences of a day as I have been traveling. It’s been interesting to participate, and who knows, maybe there will be some form of a follow up project. I have to admit to having one at the back of my mind.