Other than the very strange short film that formed part of Duncan Campbell’s recent Turner Prize showcase, I had no prior knowledge of Sigmar Polke, and consequently no expectations as to whether Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010, a collection of his lifetime of work at Tate Modern, would be suitable for young visitors. Having recently been bought Tate membership for my birthday, I find myself in the enviable position of being able to attend any talks, events and exhibitions that take my fancy, without the anxiety of wasted admission fees and shortened visits if one of the little ones loses interest. With this in mind, I decided to take the girls for a quick nose around.
Room 1 provided a very strong start. Early work was based on the artist’s experiences of growing consumerism in post-war Germany, featuring a plethora of every day products in a mock pop-art style. The Sausage Eater (1963) was particularly good for a giggle, and it didn’t take the girls long to spot the images of socks, shirts and biscuits.
I was hurried into Room 2 by my pre-schooler who had fallen in love with one of the headline pieces of the exhibition, Girlfriends (1967). It was the pretty young ladies that initially caught her eye, but as we moved closer we noticed that this particular piece had been painted onto fabric, and contained thousands of tiny dots. Standing so close the image had become harder to see, so we held hands and took ten steps back, watching the image emerge from the canvas as intended. This really caught on, and became a really fun way for us to enjoy many of the dotted ‘raster’ and fabric pieces featured in this and later rooms.
Nobody could have prepared us for the excitement of Room 4, not even the nervous looking security guard, wondering how long Polke’s Potato House (1967) was going to last with us in the room. Made from garden lattices reinforced by hundreds of real potatoes, this magnificent lean-to wooden house is flat-packed and reconstructed at every destination, with new potatoes being added each time. We were lucky enough to stand under this amazing structure, using it exactly as Polke intended; a temporary shelter from which to look out onto the world. Unlike the ‘dissident dweller’ that inspired its creation, I was grateful that the girls were restrained enough to be completely respectful of authority, always looking but never touching.
We hurried through the space-like section in Room 5, and found ourselves inside the surprise hit of the show: Polke’s first film The Whole Body Feels Light and Wants to Fly (1969). Appearing to send up the seriousness of early performance art, its sentiment was working, quickly producing questions such as “Mummy, why is that man so serious?”. Both girls then became completely unmovable, transfixed for at least 10 minutes, whilst Polke performed with various objects, tying himself in string like Spiderman and waving around antenna.
This was a really hard act to follow, with rumbling tummies and fatigue limiting our enjoyment of the rest of the show, with the exception of the imposing Watchtower pieces, and the striking pink featured in Season’s Hottest Trend (2003) and Uranium (Pink) (1992). The hunger distraction was also great excuse for me not to have to explain any of the pornographic drawings in the penultimate room.
Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010 is a substantial exhibition, and one I would highly recommend, even if like us, you only get to appreciate half of it. More accessible and engaging that you would initially assume, there is a lot to inspire viewers of all ages. In the style of Sigmar Polke himself, experiment with the work, wander each of the rooms and see what captures your imagination. I’m sure he would forgive you for taking some bits and leaving others. As with every major exhibition I attempt to see, my best advice would be to enjoy this in the spirit of the great Andy Warhol, one of Polke’s great influencers. Go along, take the kids and be reassured by his belief that “if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning”.
Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010 is at Tate Modern from now until 8th February 2015.
Adults £14.50, concessions available. Under 12s go free.