Finally, back to an unlocked-down Museum

It’s nearly a year since I’ve been into a museum.  My escape days to recharge my cultural batteries.  The opening up of a post-lockdown world is finally allowing it again.  It’s not quite as it was before, you have to book you entrance time slot and the number of visitors is restricted.  It is also true to say that the exhibition programming of the museums has, I’m sure, been mangled by the repeated stop start of the last 18 months.  But despite all this it has been fantastic to return to the Kunstmuseum in The Hague today, possible my favourite regular destination of all the big Dutch museums.

Apart from the regular collection, and despite the disruptive effects of the pandemic, the museum had a couple of exhibitions that had drawn me here, ahead of perhaps an Amsterdam of Rotterdam visit.  First and foremost a solo exhibition by the Dutch abstract painter Bob Bonies.  I remember discovering his work as a student in London back in the 1980s.  The hugely reduced visual arrangements that the artist uses fascinated me. The way he worked with form that was physically absent as much as what was present influenced my own student work. Much of the work is of a reasonably large scale, but relies on the most subtle of tensions between the complete and incomplete form, the flat and the spatial, the physical and the illusionistic.

Bonies work is clean, sharp and draws you in.  Immaculately made these geometric statements feel totally at home in this particular museum with its equally sharp and geometric design, created by Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856-1934).

Maybe the difficulties of exhibition planning in the Covid effected world has lead the museum to present an exhibition about its own building, or maybe it was planned all along.  But it is certainly interesting to see how the building came about, Berlage’s influences, planning and maquettes.  It is a piece of architecture that is always a pleasure to wander through, it’s heavy doors, repeating structures and wall paintings.  But for me today, and maybe partly because I had just been gazing at Bonies work, it was a set of photographs by Gerrit Scheurs of the building that particularly caught my eye.

The photographs, like paintings by Bonies, play with the geometry.  In this case, within the rectangle.  Yes, if you look carefully you can pick out easily enough which part of the museum is actually pictured.  But these images too have more than their fair share of spatial and illusionistic games going on……all with the cool diffused light that the museum always has.

One of the other spaces in the Berlage exhibition makes use of large, black and white photographs of exhibitions of the past.  Often blown up to wall filling scale.  The pictured museum spaces seeming to open up mirrored rooms, but ones that take is into the past, peopled by visitors exploring exhibitions held in the same gallery space maybe fifty or sixty years ago.  You share the space for a moment, but find yourself reflecting on the different times and indeed the different world going on outside the walls of the museum.

When needs must, Covid, creative and educational choices…Minecraft in and out of the classroom

For a number of years in the winter months I run a series of lessons with the fifteen-year olds that I teach about architecture that focus on aesthetic beauty in contemporary buildings.  We spend time looking at the architecture found on the streets of our local towns and villages as well as the work of leading architects on the world stage.  Most pupils are interested and surprised when being introduced to the work of the likes of Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and Peter Eisenman, and seeing work that is a long way from what we find closer to home.

Once the theory and written assignments are out of the way we dive into what are some of my favourite lessons of the year.  Pupils begin work on a architectural design process that first involves them working out on paper a layout for the interior of a building, puzzling out how to make best use of a space with fixed parameters of a building’s footprint.  This is followed by a second part where following a short lesson on how to use SketchUp, the pupils use it to design the exterior to accompany their interior plans.  We sit for several lessons at the computers at school, first working on the basic form, and then focussing of pushing the level of detail and refinement in the design as far as we can.

This year though, with a lockdown in place and lessons being given online this practical assignment presented a problem.  Many of our pupils, when at home, only have access to their iPad, the chosen digital device that we have been using at school for a number of years.  There may be a computer at home, but during lockdown, the whole family may have claims on this.  To get round this problem, as an art department, we reorganized the assignment (like we have done many times in the last year!).  The new version offered a whole series of possibilities:

  • The SketchUp option (for those who could install and use computer)
  • Tinkercad 3D design software (that does work on the iPad)
  • A physical maquette made of wood, cardboard, paper, plastic, etc.
  • Two architectural drawings

Or, and this turned out to be the real crowd pleaser…..

  • Using Minecraft to design the building

I have to admit that was a little a little sceptical at the beginning.  Would the limitations of the Minecraft blocks simply be too much of a restriction and result in designs with little flair and imagination?  I need not have worried, encouraging the pupils to work big in their Minecraft worlds meant that this really wasn´t too much of an issue.  Pupils seemed only too keen to put the necessary hours in and show off the hours that they had already invested over the years mastering the building possibilities. 

video 20210425 93604 PM c36ea098 – YouTube

Ckv modern school building – YouTube

There has been much reinventing of the educational wheels this year.  Multiple assignments have been adjusted, redeveloped or simply thrown away to be replaced by others that may work in an online teaching world.  This is just one such example. 

An assignment to keep in for next year?  Given the choice I’ll head back to SketchUp with these older pupils.  But the idea of using Minecraft within an art program is a possibility for sure.  The software is a bit geared up for a particular type of architecture, but maybe heading off in a different direction altogether and using it to create abstract sculpture could be very interesting, and the pupils might be less drawn to following tutorials on YouTube.  I have also just thrown down a challenge to the 12 year olds I teach to try using Minecraft to recreate Renaissance architecture as it is to be would in the paintings from 500 years ago…….I’ll be posting the results in due course!

“Do you think everyone will actually go for a walk?” – getting the landscape into the classroom

Pupil “M” in one of my third year (14-15 years old) is always good for a quote.  She has the habit of saying out loud exactly what she’s thinking.  Her comment related to my new art assignment.  I wanted to get the pupils doing some work that connected to the landscape around them, where they live and go to school.  Also, having had so many online lessons sitting behind their computers this year, I decided to try and be as specific as possible and actually send them out for a walk as part of my lesson.

That was the plan and I carefully put the idea of a walk into an artistic context by showing the work British artist Richard Long has made in the past documenting walks and using maps in his artworks.  My assignment was broken up into several parts with a few specific criteria:

  • Your walk must be a minimum of 1km in length, I was tempted to say 5km, but I did want the walk to be potentially able to be completed in one of my one-hour long lessons
  • Your walk should take you to a mature, full grown tree that you must photographically document with a series of 20 photographs that will later be used as a part of the documentation of the walk
  • Record the walk itself in the form of a hand drawn, imaginably presented sketch map

In my mind these were relatively simple instructions, and ones that would undoubtedly be easiest and quickest to carry out by doing the walk with the camera of the pupil’s mobile phone close at hand to photograph the tree plus a few other points on the walk.  Which was why I was a little surprised by the “Do you actually think everyone will actually go for a walk?” comment. No, actually I wasn’t surprised at all, teenagers are a contrary lot and most teachers and parents alike will recognise the way many choose to take an alternative route, even when the recommended one is easier.

Remember, some of these are the same pupils who complain sitting behind their computer all day doing online lessons is boring.  I already have some evidence that some have tackled my assignment by, you’ve guessed it, by spending some more time in front of the computer screen, searching the internet for sets of photos that look like they could be made of a single tree on their walk……some more successfully and believably than others!

Others have of course done exactly what was asked and will I’m sure produce good work.  I’ve seen some nice photographic collages; GPS tracks of walks and the hand drawn maps will come.  We’ve already moved onto some tree drawings when it is the turn of particular small groups to physically present in class, good artistic results will, in due course, come.  But it would seem, for some at least, sitting at home behind the computer isn’t so bad, at least, not quite as bad as having to go for a short walk!!