Reality, what was that again?

A sunny day in Rotterdam and three different exhibitions that connect in an interesting way by asking questions about our perceptions and understanding of the world around us and the differing realities that we experience in our minds.

Gek op Surrealism‘ (Mad about Surrealism) in the Boijmans museum in Rotterdam was the first port of call, followed by ‘Hyperrealism‘ and ‘ Human/Digital‘ across the park in the Kunsthal.

The Surrealism show featured work from the museums own collection and from several private lenders. Dalí, Ernst, Miró and Magritte were all well represented in the three hundred plus works on show. Seen as a group the exhibition presents an extensive and at times confusing collection. Maybe this is inevitable and not entirely inappropriate for an art movement made up of individuals with such diverse approaches.  Paintings, drawings, collages, film, photographs, poetry and texts all feature.

It was principally the work of René Magritte that I wanted to see. His simply executed paintings have always drawn my attention, particularly the ones where he seems to be questioning our interpretation of what we see and what we experience as real and as image.

Then it was on to the Kunsthal for the Hyperrealism show with the seventy, other quite large scale, works from the early days of the photorealists through to the present day.  Chuck Close and Audrey Flack amongst others representing the ‘old guard’ along with a selection of more recent followers of this tradition.  Photorealist work is a bit of an island in contemporary art.  In many ways, the development in terms of subject matter and content doesn’t seem to have changed so much.  Artists still seem drawn to the reflective qualities of shiny materials and light sources.  They also seem often to continue to be captivated by the otherwise rather insignificant apertures that they open on everyday life.  This might be a contemporary still life of bottles on a restaurant table or children’s toys.  Equally it might be a light reflected in the polished body work of a car or reflected neon in a wet road surface.

There does seem to be the challenge of creeping towards a better sense technical excellence, but whether this ultimately brings us towards anything more than an increasing ‘wow’ factor is the question.

Don’t get me wrong though, I did enjoy the exhibition. Yes, there is that constant feeling of a double take as you approach these images that lurk somewhere between a painting and a photograph. Ultimately though, what I find most interesting is the way that all the images seem to force us to stop and consider the reality of the familiar world around us.  The trivial, the unnoticed and yet constantly present, thrown into quite literally sharp focus, in these often incredibly polished works.

Downstairs in the Kunsthal is the ‘Human/Digital’ exhibition. An exhibition of recently produced digital artworks.  Here too we are often forced to consider and reconsider the reality around us alongside digitally created realities. These can be places that may or may not actually exist, but through the ever-improving technical advances challenges us, like the Surrealists and the Hyperrealists to ask questions about the world around us and the layers of perceived reality in which it is built up.

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High heels and creativity

High heels and creativityThe kunsthal in Rotterdam has been experimenting with audience participation in its exhibition planning. What would you like to see as a theme for a future exhibition? That was the first question. Shoes, Victor Vasarely and dinosaurs were the options on offer. Perhaps not surprisingly, shoes came back as the popular choice, although I dare say that the under twelves voted differently!

Subsequently, further choices were offered that related to the presentation of the shoes, pr and advertising issues were also open to a degree of consultation. It is not so very different to an assignment I might offer the older pupils I teach (16 year olds) in their cultural education lessons. Choose a theme for an exhibition, research the artworks that you want to include, plan a layout for the exhibition and design the advertising campaign with a poster or a information folder.
The end result in Rotterdam is very good. In dimly lit spaces created in the basement hall of the Kunsthal close on five-hundred shoes are displayed. Exclusively women’s shoes, and as my wife pointed out, almost exclusively high-heeled. There is huge variety, from the familiar and practical, to eccentric and surely unwearable.
Though I am unlikely to be able to take my own pupils to see the exhibition, the costs involved and the cancellation of too many lessons, stand in the way of that. It is the sort of display I would like them to see. There are a number of reasons for this, reasons such as:

  • The familiarity of the objects on display. We all buy and wear shoes and are used to the selection criteria we impose on them when choosing.
  • The shear quantity on display, it’s a chance to see an impressive variety.
  • The pupils are perhaps more ready to come with their own opinions and evaluation than with some other areas of the arts where they perhaps feel confused or pressured by the opinions of others to like or value something they struggle to understand.
  • But perhaps the nicest aspect of hundreds of shoes placed side by side is insight into creativity it gives when working within a restricted frame of reference, in this case a pair of shoes.

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Let me expand on this last point a little more.
We all like to have choices and it is not different in education. Teachers are encouraged to built elements of choice and differentiation into their lessons. As an art teacher we can offer choices of two-dimensional or three-dimensional, traditional materials or digital media, painting or drawing, collage or printmaking techniques, large or small, the list goes on and on. The choice of how exactly, and with which material, to develop an idea can definitely be an integral part of the creative process. But it can at times be an awkward distraction as a pupil struggles to choose and maybe struggles also to fully explore the numerous creative possibilities a material or process offers.
We want our pupils to be creative and we want to give them the chance to be creative. The shoes exhibition provides an excellent contained frame of reference of creativity. Everything in the exhibition is a shoe, to be worn on a woman’s foot. That’s the frame of reference, but within that frame there is huge variety and examples or designers stretching the creative possibilities. Just how far can you in being creative with a sole, a heel and upper of the shoe. Some of the results border on the sculptural while others seem quite conventional, but the interesting dimension here is the range.
Back in the classroom, by offering pupils endless diversity in the choices on offer you don’t necessarily extend the creativity in the work they attempt. My experience is often quite the opposite, they become restricted by the choices.
We hear often enough that children and young people like to know where the permitted borders lie. The challenge for the art teacher, and maybe others too, is to set the frame of reference wide enough to offer challenges and choices in finding creative solutions, but not so wide that it ultimately inhibits the very creativity that you what to stimulate.
It’s a long while since I did a shoe design assignment with one of my classes, maybe it’s time to have a go at it again.