X Play, Don’t Play. Walala’s immersive maze left us puzzled

Anyone who knows me well will know that public art is one of my passions. As a director of Brockley Street Art Festival, the work of designer Camille Walala has inspired me again and again, producing brilliant examples of how enjoyable and accessible art is right there on the street. Her incredible Dream Come True mural for Splice, brightening up the Shoreditch streetscape. Her inspired Southwark crossing, bringing colour to an everyday pedestrian journey during last year’s London Design Festival. To say I’m a big fan is an understatement. So imagine how excited I was to hear that she’d been commissioned to create an immersive installation of her trademark colours and patterns, at one of my local galleries, just in time for the school holidays.

Described as a ‘temple of wonder’, Walala x Play sees the creation of a maze-like installation at Greenwich Peninsula’s lesser-known NOW Gallery, inviting visitors to fathom out the anomalies and asymmetries in the design, by exploring every nook and cranny of this compact three-dimensional space.

Due to popularity, visitors must pre-book a 15 minute slot to view. Visiting with my daughter (age 6) and our friends (with children aged 6 and 2), the glass aspect of the gallery on approach slightly spoilt the surprise. However, there was still plenty of enthusiasm as we neared the entrance, even after the steely front of house had read and re-read us the rules.

Take a wrist band.
Shoes off.
No running.
Do not touch the walls.
Do not sit on any part of the structure.
Children must be accompanied at all times.
Children aren’t allowed to view the maze from the mezzanine level.
This is an art installation and not a soft play area.

We get it. But did they need to be so heavy-handed that they forgot to welcome us in any way? Or tell us to have fun? And what about the artist and the work? Did they not warrant a mention? Looks like they forgot about that too.

Once inside, we found ourselves amongst some of the most playful ‘don’t-play’ art that we have ever experienced. It was impossible to stay together, as our young companions darted through narrow passages, only to emerge in the most unexpected of places. We gazed into mirrors, but our reflections were elsewhere. Instead of corners, we found dead-ends. Instead of space, we’d been squished. We were fooled again and again, and it was bending our small, medium and large minds. This, together with the dazzling colours and patterns, soon made us feel like we’d been sucked into a human kaleidoscope, twisted and spun around and around.  It was so much fun (sorry), and a brilliant way to experience the creative conundrum that goes on inside this incredible artist’s imagination.

Spat out of the labyrinth and back into the foyer, we marvelled at the super cute mechanical model of the neighbouring Emirates Air Line, high above our heads, before peeking our noses into the cosy cinema. Don’t be fooled by the writing on the wall though, there’s no Timelapse of Walala x Play happening in here. It’s just a hangover from the Walala opening night. There is, however, a clever Minecraft style interactive map of the Greenwich Peninsula and its surrounds, worth a play if you’re allowed and have the time to linger. Outside in Peninsula Gardens there is also more fun (not) to be had, in the form of two unique ping-pong tables adorned with Walala’s lively designs. Bats and balls are apparently available to borrow from the Now Gallery reception. That is if you’re brave enough to go back in and ask for them, or indeed, old enough to play.

Walala x Play is in at NOW Gallery, Greenwich Peninsula until 24th September. 
Opening times: Mon to Fri 10am-7pm, Sat & Sun 11am-4pm.
Admission Free.
15 minute viewing slots should be booked via the eventbrite.

Whilst you’re there: As well as nearby Emirates Air Line, take a 15 minute walk down East Parkside and get close to nature at Greenwich Ecology Centre. From here you can double back along the Olympian Way river path, spying the many flotsam and jetsam sculptures. 

Finding more than fair-weather fun at Serpentine Pavilion

I’m usually first past the post to visit the annual Serpentine Pavilion. In fact, i’d go so far to say that I anticipate it.

Over the years I’ve seen more than a few internationally renowned artists take up the challenge of designing a 300 square metre structure to take pride of place alongside one of London’s most exciting contemporary art galleries. With the intention of creating a cafe-cum-social space by day, and an entertainment space by night, I’ve always enjoyed putting the resulting structure through its paces with a young companion in tow. So imagine my disappointment this morning, as we drew closer to Francis Kéré’s bold blue structure, and my 4 year old decided to drop the clanger “I’m not going in there”.

I’ve always relished having kids that were open to everything, but here I was, in front of what was intended to be one of Serpentine’s most inclusive pavilions, and she had bailed. What on earth was I to do? I knew you’d be relying on me. I knew I had to think quick.

The artist was particularly keen on ensuring visitors to the pavilion remain ‘in nature’ whilst they view it, which means there’s plenty of scope to circumnavigate the space, without really feeling like you’re “in”. This was helpful. I could at least talk her into a scoot around the outside, and with four separate entrances and free-standing perforated walls, i’d at least get a good peek inside.

The whole structure is inspired by the canopy of a tree and its role as the centre of community in the artist’s native Burkina Faso. The focal point of the community, the tree offers shade and shelter, but it is also a social space, a meeting place where everyone in the village can come together.

Three quarters of the way round and we struck gold, in the form of a mound of plywood which had been fashioned into what appeared like a slide. A simple accessory to the centrepiece was shaping up to be our main event. Grateful for being thrown a lifeline, I dashed inside to check the rules of engagement with front of house staff, and at the wishes of the artist, we were free to explore. She slid down its shiny surfaces. She reclined in the (not quite) sunshine. She circled it like a mountain, and jumped free from its summit. So much more than a slide, this humble addition successfully recreates the collective gathering of children under the tree, a virtual kindergarten, allowing us ‘villagers’ the time and space to look on, to talk and to share stories.

Now sold on the structure, we ventured inside to the sweet smell of coffee. The central courtyard which kept us connected to nature, was the next big draw and we both loved seeing and feeling the outdoors inside. The seating here is strictly for bottoms and don’t allow the same level of adventure, but the wind in our hair and the stones under foot soon had us lost in our own thoughts, as if we were on a distant beach. All we needed was to be free of the overcast skies above and the world would be perfect.

Keen to quit whilst ahead (and grateful to have turned a thumbs down into a thumbs up), we headed off, over the road to the Diana Memorial Fountain for a paddle.

As we moved away from the pavilion, I could finally appreciate the expanse of the funnel-like roof in all its glory, ready and waiting for the dark clouds above us to kick it into action. Bound to nature, this creation really comes to life when it rains and any water collected on the roof is channeled into a spectacular waterfall effect, before being evacuated through the floor for later use within the park. This surely makes this one of the most simple, yet useful, pavilions we have ever visited.

Whatever the weather, it goes without saying that Serpentine Pavilion should be high on your day out ‘hit list’ this summer. Free, family friendly and lots of fun, it’s a visual feast that neither a grumpy pre schooler nor the British summertime can spoil.

Serpentine Pavilion is open until 8th October 2017.
Admission Free, Open daily 10am to 6pm.

Inspired by Francis Kéré’s stories of gathering, debate and community the Pavilion will become host to a series of picnic talks this summer, every Wednesday at 1pm until 23rd August.

There is also a Family Day on 22nd July. See website for details

Review: Barbican’s Japanese House provides a warm welcome

We might be a little late to the party, but after a busy period of Easter holiday fun, we finally gave ourselves the time to visit Barbican’s first major UK exhibition of Japanese domestic architecture.

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, promises a feast of modern and contemporary design. The exhibition features over 40 renowned architects as well as a centrepiece in the form of a full-size recreation of the 2005 Moriyama House, designed by award-winning architect Ryue Nishizawa.

If like us, your knowledge of contemporary architecture could scarcely fill the back of a matchbox, do not fear. The beautiful thing about this exhibition is its accessibility. You definitely don’t need any prior knowledge to appreciate what’s on offer, all you need is a love of design, an interest in the built environment around you and a keen sense of adventure to let yourself and your companion explore.

So, what should you expect?

A brilliant activity sheet
Anyone who has visited Barbican Art Gallery before will know that it is a sizeable space. On this rare occasion, however, the team have played an absolute blinder and devised a fantastic activity sheet to guide you through the more technical upper floor. Starting in the upstairs gallery Inhabiting the Experimental, there’s a chance for little ones to choose their favourite house, peer inside curious models and take some inspiration to draw or design their own.

Plenty of video installations
For my young companion, any screen based installation is a big draw, and there’s plenty of this on offer to keep wide eyes mesmerised. There’s film snippets of Japanese home dramas – devised with minimal plot to simply show off abodes, and a host of beguiling manga cartoons, with video cleverly peppered throughout the exhibition, allowing you time and space to take-in the panels on the wall.

An awe-inspiring Japanese House
Downstairs, the exhibition centrepiece will be met with a shriek of excitement, followed by an opportunity to weave a curious path through Mr Moriyama’s house and garden. Whether marvelling at his well stocked kitchen, perusing his extensive belongings or giggling at his tiny bath, there’s more fun than Ikea to be had here. Move from room to room and ponder the incredible use of space, as well as exploring its garden pathways, hidden terraces and private courtyards.

A tea house as good as a tree house
Set within the garden of the Moriyama House, the tea house is a new commission designed especially for the Barbican by architect and historian Terunobu Fujimori. Featuring a beautiful hand-charred timber exterior, visitors are invited to play ‘house’ through climbing up inside its stark plastic interior and peering out of the circular tinted windows, waving at fellow visitors below.

The gallery environment is also transformed every 30 minutes by lighting that mimics dawn to dusk, ensuring that every visitor can experience the magic of these buildings across any one day.

What should you be aware of before visiting with young children?

Rules are rules
Although very family friendly and highly interactive, the ‘no touching, just looking’ rule should still apply. Yes, you can weave through the arches, climb stairs and explore rooms, but discourage little ones from touching the models or moving items found within the house. If cushions, futons and bunny chairs are devoid of items, you’re welcome to try them out for size, but steps obstructed with books and nik-naks stuck down with glue, give a good indication of what’s acceptable here.

Stick to the paths
The garden area has some fun pathways marked out by stones and interesting doorways to pass through. Be mindful not to walk on the stones, or open and close doors, to protect little fingers and delicate exhibits.

Lose the shoes
When entering the tea house, shoes have to be removed and set aside, but should be hastily put back on as you exit. It’s also one way in and one way out, with numbers limited at busy times.

With such a wealth of space beyond the gallery itself, from the foyers to the fountains, the conservatory and the Curve, the Barbican is such a fantastic destination for families. It is, however, easy to be put off by the often over-zealous front of house team, or the unfavourable reactions of the regular patrons. The experiential nature of this exhibition, however, appears to have turned this temporarily on its head, attracting far more younger visitors and with it, a slightly more relaxed approach from the hosts. Add this safety in numbers aspect, together with the peace and serenity that ensues from exploring a home unscathed by tut and toys, and this house will feel like a home in no time, and one you’ll want to return to again, and again, and again.

The Japanese House Architecture and Life after 1945 is at Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre until 25th June.
Admission Adult £14.50, Children 14+ £10, Children under 14 Free.
Sat to Weds 10am to 6pm, Thurs & Fri 10am to 9pm.
Bank Holiday times vary. See website for details

Review: Tate Modern’s Ten Days Six Nights is fun while it lasts

If only it was on for longer, I thought as I exited BMW Tate Live: Ten Days Six Nights at Tate Modern this morning. This ten-day extravaganza of installations, performances, film, music and choreography, is also a huge missed opportunity, given it finishes before the Easter holidays, despite the mammoth efforts of their curatorial team.

Since opening the new Switch House last summer, performance has been right at the heart of Tate Modern’s refreshed offering. Staged in the unique space of The Tanks, this exhibition celebrates them coming into their own, proving that art can create participation, and can be experimental, yet informal, playful and fun.

So what can you expect to see in daylight hours?

Isabel Lewis will be taking over the Tanks with her site specific installation, which unfolds between the Lobby and the East Tank as the days go by. Dotted with strange plants and impromptu dancers, she aims to host any visitors with everything from music, to food and scent, ensuring that you don’t leave without taking part in some way, shape or form. Her beguiling piece Occasions 2017, was housed in the East Tank today, providing an even greater expanse of foliage and choreography, to the backdrop of Fred Moten and Wu Tsang’s night-time musical and poetic accompaniment.

Moten and Tsang also provide a superb contribution to daytime proceedings, with their interactive installation Gravitational Feel. Using fabric and sound to trigger ‘chance events’, they’ve filled the rear of the Transformer Galleries with knotted fabric rope, suspended from the ceiling on moveable heads, inviting visitors to touch and animate the strands by passing beneath and between.

CAMP, a collaborative studio founded in Mumbai in 2007 are also sharing the space, demonstrating the power of a ‘window’ in a range of interesting ways. From their CCTV spy films taken at the Arndale Centre, to their oversized LED representation of an overheard conversations, their work challenges us to think about the role of electricity and surveillance in our modern lives. Particularly fun is Windscreen 2002, whereby standing in the space between the framed paper squares and the wall fan, will quickly reveal you as the subject of the work.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is Fujiko Nakaya’s immersive fog sculpture, taking pride of place outside on the first floor terrace. The daughter of an inventor of the artificial snowflake, it’s ironic that her work now centres entirely on creating fog. The misty water vapour cuts a ghostly figure of those who choose to interact, creating something similar to Gotham City from the impressive skyline behind (complete with shrieks of terror by water-soaked bystanders).

What’s great about Ten Days Six Nights is that for once, visiting families can put aside their usual feelings of FOMO. With so much of the fun happening in the day, you’re bound to chance upon something fun, even if you’re dropping in as part of a random South Bank mosey. As the name suggests, however, there are also six nights of spectacular work, so if you’re lucky enough to get a night off, re-live the nineties, with Lorenzo Senni’s laser and sound installations, focussing on the hypnotic and repetitive aspects of trance music.

Ten Days Six Nights is at Tate Modern from 24th March until 2nd April 2017
Open daily 10am-6pm, until 10pm Friday and Saturday
Admission Free
See website for details of what’s on each day and each night

Last chance to see: Siobhan Davies Dance: material/rearranged/to/be

We absolutely love the Barbican. Granted, we are very guilty of forgetting to check-in on what’s on most of the time, but if you’re brave enough to venture into quite a grown up domain and wade through the sea of remote workers, you’re sure to be rewarded with an awe-inspiring space for youngsters to explore, as well as a brilliant (if a little sporadic) programme of family friendly theatre, film and art.

Inspired to reacquaint yourself with the space? Well be quick, because for just over a week (finishing this Saturday) Siobhan Davies Dance has transformed the superb (and free) ground floor Curve gallery into a wonderland of installation and performance art, which plays out as an ever-changing moveable feast.

So what’s it all about?

Having evolved from a dance company into a contemporary arts organisation, Siobhan Davies Dance: material/rearranged/ to/be is a performance installation which explores the relationship between science, movement and the mind, as well as the interaction of art with the space itself. The installation features 10 artists, each performing different works at different times, and in different sections of the Curve. Generally there will be more than one performance going on at a time, with film projections and sculpture seen alongside the performance art.

What’s to love?

The performance art itself is absolutely mesmerising for younger viewers. It was thrilling when Helka Kaski made eye contact with my little one as part of her performance Figuring, while the giant shadows cast behind Charlie Morrissey during his performance Actions from the Encyclopaedia of Experience, made this work all the more compelling. It was interesting to see how much my youngster was keen to copy and mimic postures.

Being completely free and on a 4 hour loop, it’s a much less intense gallery experience for you and the kids. With so many performances going on as you journey through the space, we spent a good half an hour exploring, before moving on to have a break in the cafe and a mill around the site, returning later to see new and different material.

Notes for visiting families

Gallery attendants at the Barbican look panicked by the very presence of youngsters, so reiterate the rules of the gallery with little ones just before you head in (no touching, just looking) and reassure them that nothing will be compromised.

The moveable set which forms a backdrop to the performance pieces, can be tricky to negotiate but forms a really interesting layout, and don’t worry if you want to move past before the end of the work. Plenty of visitors were braving a quick pass in front of projectors to get to the next piece. You’re not spoiling it any more, just because you’re choosing to move on with children in tow.

Beware of Matthias Sperling’s Loop Atlas. This sequence is all about the relationship between the mind and the body, but Sperling’s bearded appearance, accompanied by dark glasses, together with the repetitive movements had a slight air of insanity. It’s brilliant to watch but did slightly spook my sensitive 3 year old.

Finally, it took us a while to work out that the headphones on the audio installation aren’t just for grown ups. They are on a pulley, which means they can actually be lowered and listened to by those in wheelchairs and those under 4 feet tall, and we all know how much kids love a bit of audio.

Siobhan Davies Dance: material/rearranged/to/be is on at the Curve, Barbican Centre
Exhibition runs until 28th January
Admission free
Mon to Thurs 12 to 6pm, Fri 2 to 8pm, Sat 12 to 6pm

Pee-hoo! Moomin retrospective is a very fine adventure

I have hazy but happy memories of the Moomin TV series from the seventies and eighties, yet through having my own children it’s been fantastic to relearn and relive some of these magical tales in print. Taking things a step further, from now and until April 2017, Southbank Centre is giving visitors young and old a chance to step inside the world of the Moomins, in a brand new immersive exhibition.

Part of their year-long exploration of Nordic arts and culture Nordic Matters, Adventures in Moominland is the first major UK exhibition devoted to these adorable hippo-like characters and also provides fascinating insight around their artist and creator Tove Jansson and the era in which they were devised.

So, what’s to love?
No having to digest lengthy information. This exhibition is a guided experience, which really helps simplify some of the more complex themes for younger visitors, as well as providing memorable storytelling and group camaraderie!

It’s a multi sensory experience mixing audio, visual and at times the aromatic! The variety of worlds created (in partnership with set design specialists Front Left), are complimented with lively narrative (featuring Sandi Toksvig), evocative music, brilliant animation and even tropical rainforest smells, breathing life into the humble drawings and archive materials from Tove’s studio in Helsinki.

Permission to play. You’ll be asked to interact in so many different ways, from seeking out a hidden ruby in Moominvalley Forest to jumping up and down on the raft. Together with the tactile arrangement of the Moominvalley Forest in Room 5 and the enticing picnic in Room 8, you’ll struggle to drag them out after the average 6 or 7 minutes allocated per room.

What do you need to know before you book?
The exhibition has an age restriction of 7+. This is justified, especially given the darkness of some rooms, and the themes (and sounds) of war explored in Room 4: The Cave

The experience is almost an hour long in total, with one route in and out. There are emergency exits in each section of the show just in case you need to bail, but using the toilet isn’t going to be the best reason to put these into action, so make sure they go first! This is yet another supporting reason for the age guidance.

Passages are narrow and rooms themselves are small. You will need to consider how claustrophobic you or the children might be, especially when passing through in a group of up to 13. Wheelchairs users can enjoy the exhibition but wheelchairs will need to be less than 80cm wide to pass through. Buggies are not permitted. This is a group experience but there must be a minimum of one adult for every three children.

The exhibition is already selling into March next year, but there’s no need to worry that it will all be trashed by the time you get to it, especially with the frequency of tours running. Southbank Centre has made a contingency by operating for only half the day on a Monday, giving them valuable time to reset and restore.

Outside of celebrating some core Nordic principles such as equality, diversity and play, the exhibition also highlights what a pioneering woman of her time Tove was; working, travelling and braving new relationships, in an era of immense social and political change.

Where Adventures in Moominland also triumphs is in its ability to capture all the excitement and playfulness of these beautiful stories, without losing any of their beauty or serenity. According to Artistic Director Jude Kelly, it also serves as a timely reminder of how important it is to provide fertile thinking space for families to enjoy the arts together, with every single one of us being capable of drawing on our own personal story, to bring out the artist inside.

Adventures in Moominland is on until 23rd April 2017
Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX
See website for details of admission times and charges

A pop-up Moomin shop is now on site and there are also participatory activities and workshops running as part of Imagine Children’s Festival in February half term

Other events and exhibitions have also been planned for Dulwich Picture Gallery and Kew Gardens.

William Kentridge: Thick Time – A quirky sideshow you’ll never want to end

I was hugely disappointed to not be able to attend the opening of William Kentridge: Thick Time at the end of September. Work commitments, children’s parties and general life admin took over and before long it was mid-November and we still hadn’t made it to the Whitechapel Gallery for this acclaimed exhibition by the South African artist.

Drawing inspiration from across the entire arts spectrum, from early black and white cinema to animation, puppetry and literature, with content universally suitable for all and set out at scale in 6 installation-style rooms, this exhibition showed a lot of promise for family visitors.

After pondering the intriguing (yet static) Untitled, Bicycle Wheel (2012) for a moment, we could hear exciting things happening just around the corner. Heeding the caution from the gallery staff regarding the volume of musical accompaniment, we were met by The Refusal of Time (2012); a multi-sensory installation centered around a loom-like generator, whose audio intensity might feel somewhat intimidating for the very young.

We joined the installation at the point where the metronomes began to gather pace alongside the industrial sized breathing sculpture, drowning the room in hypnotic sound and building to a crescendo so irresistible, we were quickly drawn in to keep time. By this point my young companion (age 3) needed to escape, yet the hypnotic nature of this installation meant that she continued to drag me back at least three times, allowing us ten more minutes of the total thirty minute mediation on time and space.

Moving past the giant tapestries (which were a surprise hit), we huddled into a cosy corner to watch Second-hand Reading (2013), a mesmerising flip book film of illustrations which sprung to life on the pages of the Short Oxford English Dictionary, all accompanied by a dreamy soundtrack reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky.

Don’t miss the cleverly doctored staircase as you head up to the brilliant (but slightly creepy) miniature model theatre, Right Into Her Arms 2016. You’ll no doubt be side tracked by the social sculpture on the stairwell, a permanent exhibit which never seems to tire as a secret hideaway for younger ones exploring the space.

It’s the second floor where things get really playful; not just in the form of a sensor activated sewing machine for those who get too close, but in the intriguing array of doors which pay host to Kentridge’s politically charged O Sentimental Machine (2015) – a five-channel video installation with four megaphones. The doors are obviously out of bounds, but visitors are welcome to contemplate this atmospheric montage of historical events on the rug or the chairs provided.

There’s nothing more fascinating than watching an artist at work, and the show culminates with our personal highlight from Gallery 9, a 9-channel video installation, capturing the creator. Here, work is both created and uncreated, from magical vanishing murals to child-like animations such as Journey to the Moon, this work feels so alive, we were convinced that when the artist comically climbs a ladder in 7 Fragments, he would pop right out of the top of the screen and right into the room beside us. Every screen captured my little one’s imagination, so much so that it gifted me at least ten minutes to absorb what was on offer here and even more time enjoy and discuss it together.

Exciting to navigate and highly visual, Thick Time has the feel of a curious and quirky sideshow that you’ll never want to end. Enjoyably noisy and endlessly entertaining, this exhibition just keeps on giving, and for once you’ll have the luxury of being able to soak it up in a ‘low risk’ set up, perfect for those visiting with kids of any age.

Whilst The Infinite Mix has been the highlight of our arts calendar this year, this audio visual extravaganza comes a very close second. So don’t drag your feet to the tune of a super-slow accordion, get yourself there quick, before it all ends on 15th January.

 

William Kentridge: Thick Time is at the Whitchapel Gallery until 15th January 2017
77-82 Whitechapel High St, London E1 7QX
Tuesday to Sunday 11am-6pm, Thursday 11am-9pm, Closed on Monday
Admission from £11.95, children under 16 free, concessions available

 

Want to visit with a little one under 3? Book now to enjoy Whitechapel Gallery’s brilliant Crib Notes session on the 7th December led by Sofia Victorino 

Whilst you’re there: Alicja Kwade’s Medium Median makes a brilliant compliment to the celestial aspects of Kentridge’s work. This mobile installation features twenty four 21st century mobile handsets revolving in 3D, vocalising passages from Genesis as the sky charts receive information from GPS satellites on the current locations of stars.

What’s nearby? A few doors down, the brilliant and spacious Grounded does great coffee, superb breakfasts, healthy salads and yummy cakes. The team are welcoming and extremely family friendly. Spitalfields City Farm is also a short walk away.