The photos I couldn’t possibly post….

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To be honest I felt that these photos were photos that I couldn’t even take, and so decided not to……Why? Well that will perhaps become clear.

It was a school excursion to a museum, the pupils were having at this particular photographic opportunity, a lot of fun, they were laughing hysterically in fact. I suspect it is going to be an excursion that hangs in the memory for quite some time.

It was an excursion day for a relatively small group of sixteen year olds. Twenty four pupils in all. The whole group were pupils who have chosen art as an exam subject. As part of the course my colleague organizes a couple of times a year museum visits as an extension, and enrichment, of the classroom program.

Last Friday we were visiting Rotterdam, first a session in the Kunsthal and after that the Boijmans van Beuningen museum.

In the Kunsthal we saw the Hyperrealist sculpture exhibition. It was an exhibition with a wow factor, certainly for our pupils. They had never seen anything like it. Duane Hanson, John deAndrea, Ron Mueck and many others. The strange confrontation that these life like sculptures bring, the permission that they give to stare at the human body without embarrassment and the slightly alienating effect of it all had our class transfixed.  They were focused in a quite different way than I think I have ever seen pupils in a museum before.  It was a good start to the day, the pupils left the museum for lunch talking about what they had just seen, which as a teacher is exactly where you want them to be.

But then there was still the afternoon part of our city visit still to come…..

We regathered on the steps of the Boijmans museum ready for our second cultural dose.  We were principally there for the museum’s permanent collection and had arranged two guides to lead our pupils through some of its high points.  As we had hoped, particular attention was given to the museum’s collection of Surrealist art. Although, my group also had a really nice discussion with our excellent guide about performance art.  Time was nearly up when our guides brought our two groups pretty much simultaneously to one last work, a piece by the Vienna based artists’ collective Gelatin.

They explained that it was an art work that invited a form of participation, although it was entirely up to visitors as to whether they actually did.  There was no pressure to do so if you didn’t want to.

We entered a first space with what at first glance looked like racks of clothes.  Well, they kind of were, but kind of weren’t!  But they were garments of sorts, designed to be pulled on over your normal clothes.  Rather than describe the rest at length, maybe it’s easier to just add a link to Gelatin’s own website showing photographs from the opening of the exhibition in Rotterdam just a few days ago.

Link to Gelatin site 

I have to admit to being a little surprised, partly by the artwork itself, but more so by the reaction of a significant number of our group.  They just couldn’t wait to get involved and pull some of the outfits on! Thereafter there really was little to be done to control the hysterical laughter. This really is going to be an excursion that is going to be discussed for years!

The artists themselves clearly want their work to have a sharp element of humour. But it is also about dissolving hierarchies by, in a way, equalizing physical appearances, through imposing a sort of artificial nakedness.  Most of the girls couldn’t wait to try on the male outfits to huge comic effect. They were happy enough to take photos of themselves and each other, but somehow it just didn’t feel the right thing to do myself. Restraint seemed appropriate.

It also felt extremely appropriate not to join in with the artwork myself…..I feel absolutely sure that my pupils wouldn’t have been able to show the same restraint had I pulled on one of the skin coloured overalls. It would certainly have been a photo that would have been shared throughout the school and that would have subsequently followed me round forever!

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The frustrations of an art teacher…seeing it for real

You hear it often enough, ‘You have to see the real thing, it so different’. As an art teacher you know this well, the days of scratchy slides in a half darkened room may be long gone, replaced now by large scale digital screens at the front of the classroom.  The possibilities on offer to an art teachers (and all teachers of course) have improved enormously during the last decade. But still, the chance to see art, design, architecture, theatre, dance, music and other cultural forms for real, first hand, offers so much more.

A fabulous case in point is an exhibition of the Dutch fashion designer Jan Taminiau that I have visited today.  I’ve referred to his work in my lessons at school in the context of a fashion design assignment that I use with my groups of 15-16 year olds. Examples and cultural references are important in my work as a teacher. Not in the sense of showing pupils what I expect them to do. It is more a question of firing the imagination and showing them the possibilities; possibilities that often go way beyond their wildest imagination. There is so much that I’d like to show and share with them.

But the limitations of the classroom, even with its generous display screen at the front and pupils with tablet, laptop or phone screens available to them, can’t match seeing the real thing.  What it would mean to be able to bring my groups of budding fashion designers to the Centraalmuseum in Utrecht to see Taminiau’s exhibition?

The exhibition oozes qualities that grab your attention. The elegant silhouette’s that he creates, the rich use of colour and the, quite literally, dazzling textures and structures of the surface of the fabrics. This would have been the most amazing teaching aid to the above mentioned assignment.

I have photographically documented as much of the work as I can.  I’ll be using it next school year I’m sure.  Teaching fashion design is just a little outside of my comfort zone, but I do like to do it once in a while.  But oh, how I would like to let the pupils see such an exhibition. But then the same is true of so many of the shows that I see.  The museum world in the big cities, certainly in Europe, is booming. The challenge is finding a way to be able to get pupils to visit them in the context of the educational programs that they are following.  More often it seems to  happen in a rather detached sort of day out to the city that often seems to have rather vague educational aims……the fully focused and contextualized field trip is a sadly underused and rather squeezed out aspect of contemporary education. But the detail of that is a post for another day.

Parallel Worlds

There was a strange symmetry to today. I was sitting in a hall with about one hundred of our eighteen year old pupils taking their final English exam. Meanwhile, about twenty miles north of where I teach, my daughter was sitting down simultaneously to take the very same exam.

Such a parallel activity inevitably makes you stop and reconsider the pupils in front of you. They sit there ploughing their way through the selection of texts and trying to answer the questions that are designed to split the narrow gaps in possible interpretations. It’s an intensive business, especially on warm afternoon.

Today’s exam was two and a half hours long. Most of the other exams during this two and a bit weeks long test period are three hours long. The sheer length of the sessions all seems rather extreme.

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Still Life on corner of exam candidate’s table, May 2018

Many of the pupils present this afternoon are ones that I have taught in the past. And, if I’m honest, have had to work hard at times to keep them focused and motivated during a sixty-minute lesson.  It does kind of beg the question ‘what are we doing sitting them down for such a massive test of concentration?’ Yes, I know it is also a test of knowledge and insight, but make no mistake here, this is a level of concentration that is rarely, if at all, practiced for.

It is certainly not easy for a school to clear sufficient space in timetables to spend too much time giving them three-hour dry runs.  But these are young people who are used to having their days broken up into mostly forty-five or sixty-minute chunks.  Most people simply find sitting still for 180 minutes pretty challenging.

Imagine if you had a driving test that went on for three hours!  Its perhaps not any entirely fair comparison, but it does seem that footballers run into trouble as soon as a match goes beyond the regular ninety minutes that they train for and are used to.

Maybe I’m just seeing the world through my daughters eyes this year a bit too much. Could we not be constructing slightly shorter test? Could we simply cut them into two smaller pieces?  Maybe we should actually be looking at different ways of test altogether….I guess in my heart of hearts that’s really what I think.  But one thing that I feel sure about three-hour exam sessions and sometimes two in a day does seem rather like some form of punishment as a last experience in a child’s secondary school career.