Adventures of the Black Square: Changing the world, and changing the rules.

It’s no secret that we’ve been frequenting more than a bit of abstract art, from Sigmar Polke at Tate Modern to the more recent Reiner Ruthenbeck at the Serpentine Gallery. With the arrival of Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract and Society 1915-2015 at the Whitechapel Gallery, I relished the opportunity to extend our interest, visiting something with lower stress levels, where more work would be hung on the walls, than on the floor, tempting toddlers.

Smack bang in the heart of the East End, the Whitechapel Gallery stands proud, a magnificent building with one toe in today’s trendy Shoreditch and the other in the scruffy Whitechapel of old. 10 minutes early, we had just enough time to guide the creation of the first ever babychino in the café, before starting our journey around the downstairs gallery.

Bringing together over 100 works by modern masters and contemporary artists, the show is presented across 6 galleries with 4 themes, each looking at the role of abstract art in society during this time; Utopia (starting with the headline act – Malevich’s Black Square), Architectonics (looking at space), Communication (impact on social change) and Everyday (role in everyday culture).

The collection was vast and daunting. Seeking out the familiar, it was no coincidence that the most popular pieces for us seemed to be recognisable shapes; Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red, the familiarity of Dan Flavin’s Monument for V. Tatlin (previously seen at the Tate), the playfulness of Painted Wood cubes by Rasheed Araeen and the obscureness of Blinky Palermo’s Blue Disk and Stick. The surprise hit of this gallery, however, was Oskar Schlemmer’s The Triadic Ballet. Unclear whether it was was the novelty of the headphones, the theatrical costumes or the wonder of the shapes cast by the tippy-toed ballerina, but this installation soon became unmissable, and one to return to again and again.

Feeling relieved that we had almost made it around the whole of the downstairs, without a warning from gallery staff, my heart jumped into my mouth when I turned around to see my youngest making her way across an area of large grey slate set across the floor. I dashed after her apologetically, but was soon reassured that it was artist Carl Andre’s intention for visitors to walk across his 16 Pieces of Slate. Hmmm, I thought. How do I explain that slate is ok, but Araeen’s Painted Wood is most definitely out of bounds? The same conundrum faced us as we looked at Andrei Monastyrski’s cuckoo clock up on the wall. Do we stick our fingers in it? Or don’t we?

It was time to flee the confusion and move to the upstairs gallery, but not before passing more interactive uncertainties on the stairscase. Annie Ratti’s social sculpture You and Me was begging to be sat on, two sumptuous red chairs, face to face in a huddle. It says ‘social’, but it doesn’t say ‘sit on me’. What to do? The answer was to steer clear and keep our eyes on Tobias Rehberger’s spectacular above us. Adaptation 13, was a worthy distraction, an incredible series of lamps built from brightly-coloured acrylic, creating an incredible light feature born out of simple utility.

Upstairs the exhibition really came to life, with the magnificent knitted achievements of Rosemarie Trockel’s Who Will Be In ’99? and the loudspeakers of Zvi Goldstein’s Element C-14, just begging to be shouted into. Next we were treated to a whirling kaleidoscope in Gunilla Klingberg’s Spar Loop. We stop to identify all the shapes present in nature, a star, a flower, a Tesco, an Aldi, before moving on to Sarah Morris’s epic film focussing on the 2008 Beijing Olympics. This cosy installation theatre showcasing padding ducks and dazzling ceremony, was proving difficult to extract the little ones from.

Browsing the penultimate pieces, there was just enough time for the kids to be encouraged onto Andrea Zittel’s Bench. Looking strikingly similar to a John Lewis rug display, it was now really becoming a challenge trying to understand when to get involved and when to stay back. Where have the white lines gone? And what about our ‘rules of the gallery’ that I tirelessly drill into them on every visit? (No touching, just looking).

Thank heavens for David Batchelor’s closing pieces, bringing us back to spectator-status as we admired his fantastic felt pen skills in the form of The October Colouring-In Book, a customised version of the long-running monochrome art journal.

Adventures of the Black Square is an immense journey, following abstract art from its beginnings, to its development across the globe, it’s a place to appreciate not just the contribution of the headline acts, but also give dues to some game-changing work from lesser known artists too. With a century-long exploration of paintings, sculptures, film and photographs, the mix of media here is impressive, however, it’s the mix of messages, from protection to interaction, that family visitors could find a challenge from room to room.

If you’re keen to know where you stand, don’t by-pass the famous Black Square but focus more on the work in the upstairs galleries. Or you could just relax and enjoy David Batchelor’s Monochrome Archive commission in Gallery 2 (Admission free). Here you are treated to a walk amongst a multi-screen installation, showcasing all 500 images from his commission, following what appears to be a global urban phenomenon; the ubiquitous white rectangle.

Alternatively, you can save your visit for their Family Day on Saturday 14th February (12-4pm, Admission free) where, alongside various activities, artist Abigail Hunt promises to help families navigate the gallery and explore the exhibition. Those with kids under 5’s might want to book ahead for their popular Crib Notes session on Wednesday 4th March (10am-12pm, Admission £8.50, includes refreshments), where Assistant Curator Candy Stobbs will guide you through maze of exhibits, signposting what’s what for you and your curious companions.

Further family listings can be found on the Whitechapel Gallery website.

Adventures of the Black Square is running at the Whitechapel Gallery until 6th April 2015 (Admission £13.50 gift aid, £11.95 without gift aid, concessions available).

Reiner Ruthenbeck @SerpentineUK: Everyday abstract that left us all guessing.

‘It’s a giant pile of earth’ . It was a strong start.

There’s nothing better than taking kids to abstract art exhibitions where they can actually identify what they see. Sculptor and conceptual artist Reiner Ruthenbeck’s current exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery features just that, numerous everyday objects and materials presented in a way that challenges the viewer to find something new or unusual about their appearance.

And the giant pile of earth, was actually an ash heap, with two other neighbouring ash heaps, strewn with galvanised metal to form his Ash Heap series. We enjoy standing for a while, contemplating whether anything will pop out of the metal boxes that sit on top, making it look a bit like a mole hill or a rabbit warren.

We move into a passage way, pulling back a curtain to step into a pitch black room. The only thing that can be seen is a simple filament lightbulb. As we have in past exhibitions, we wait for something to happen. We stand there guessing what is to come. But it really is just a lightbulb. A single lightbulb in a pitch black room, designed to challenge the stark brightness of the everyday gallery. The pre schooler can’t wait to escape the darkness, but later, like some morbid obsession, she names it as her favourite bit.

We walk past a suitcase merrily playing a composition by the Fluxus experimental musician, Henning Christiansen. The next room is full of interesting exhibits, the most fascinating of which is two intertwined ladders. After our morning visit to the Princess Diana Memorial Playground, my little one takes some convincing not to climb them. They remind us of the magic rings trick that we received in our Christmas crackers, and we try to work out how on earth you would separate them.

Evie: ‘Mum, look at this, quick!’. I head into the last room.

Me: ‘You didn’t knock all those chairs over did you Evie?’.

The gallery attendant smiles.

Evie: ‘It’s just a pile of papers and some chairs’.

She’s not wrong.

We seem to be frequenting these very installation based exhibitions at the moment, but Ruthenbeck’s work is particularly refreshing as it is as everyday as you can get. Rather than trying to guess what we are looking at from the beginning, or me having to pretend that I know, it’s evident. Instead, the guessing comes later as we review what else we can see, what we would like to see and what (if anything) the artist is trying to tell us. It’s all good fun.

I look around and the toddler is fast asleep in her buggy. I feel sad that she’s missed out, but on this occasion, it’s probably for the best. With so many familiar objects and items, we might have seen more than just a few chairs that needed tidying up.

Reiner Ruthenbeck is at the Serpentine Gallery until 15th February 2015. Admission free.

Nearby: Rain or shine you’re in a fantastic location to make a day of it. 

Shine: Indulge the kids with a few installations of a different nature at the Princess Diana Memorial Playground. Set within the beautiful Kensington Gardens, the playground features everything from a life size pirate ship to colourful tipis and giant totem poles. Admission free. 

Rain: Less than 15 mins walk away is the superb Launchpad at the Science Museum, where curious children of all ages can explore over 50 hands-on exhibits from the world of Physics. From making water freeze, to thermal imaging and bouncing light. Recommended age 8 to 14 (but youngsters will love it too). Under 12s must be accompanied by an adult. Admission free (Recommended donation £5)