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. 

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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

Tate’s new Turbine Hall commission promises to be a grower for families

Now, I have it on good authority, that scaffolding isn’t just the obsession of my 5-year-old daughter. I think it might be due to its appearance as the ultimate climbing frame, but everywhere we go, from South London to the South of Spain, scaffolding is excitedly drawn attention to. So if your child shares this strange obsession, the inaugural Hyundai Commission in the Turbine Hall of the Tate, is definitely one for you.

Unveiled today, Empty Lot is the first in a new series of site-specific commissions by renowned international artists, to occupy the iconic space, whilst they work towards a new Tate Modern due for opening in June 2016.

Best known for creating sculptural works from local and natural objects, artist Abraham Cruzvillegas has created two giant triangular platforms, propped up by a network of scaffolding towers to hold a geometric grid of 240 wooden planters filled with compost and soil contributed from parks and gardens across the capital.

Taking inspiration from a number of the artist’s interests, from seed bombing and guerrilla gardening to his Mexican heritage, including ancient ‘chinampas’, small grids of earth used to grow corn, peppers and tomatoes in an area that later became Mexico City, the artist is keen to instil the idea that anything can be useful and beautiful.

From the main viewing gallery, look out across the sea of curious planters, each waiting patiently for nature to decide their destiny from the many seeds or bulbs that could have found their way into the soil donations. Whatever grows will be welcomed; flowers, mushrooms, weeds and they also provide a fantastic reason to revisit the gardening experiment over the next 6 months to make new discoveries.

Family visitors might be disappointed that closer exploration of the planters isn’t possible and I expect every young visitor will want to walk amongst the rows to make their own discoveries, but rest assured; the world beneath the platforms gives way to other adventures.

Head down the steps and you’re treated to a maze of dimly lit structures, where the run-away space of the Turbine Hall that you’ve been used to has been transformed into an exciting network of pillars in which to hide and seek, or shelter from the strange world above. Using the colour key on the wall as a guide, look up to the underside of the platforms above and you can make out a map of London as it contributed to the project in colour spots. In the spirit of unity and accessibility, council estate collections are given equal place in the project alongside that of Buckingham Palace Gardens, with neither holding any certainty for what might grow and when. Part of the task of the work has been to question the relationship between city and nature, and this area creates the perfect underbelly; transitioning you into a space where light is less abundant and personal space minimised.

Although the artist was keen to respect the boundaries of his sculpture and keep the public off the paths, Tate will be updating their community on any discoveries that they make, plus there’s nothing stopping you making your own contributions to the planters. Tate is not actively encouraging seed-scatterers, but rumour has it that some cheeky visitors have already thrown in a few surprises. So with a sporadic plan for irrigation and the warmth of the growth lights, alongside the curious scrap-material lamps, who knows what surprises lay in store as time goes on? Bring a pair of binoculars and a curious mind, and see what you can spot.

Hyundai Commission 2015: Abraham Cruzvillegas: Empty Lot will be in the Turbine Hall until 3rd April. Opening Hours: 10am-6pm Sun-Thurs, 10am-10pm Fri & Sat. Admission Free.

London Design Festival: 6 Amazing Family-Friendly Installations

The London Design Festival started last weekend, with a view to promoting everything that is great and good about the city’s creativity. The event is running at various venues across the capital, and as well as a host of dedicated family events, including an 80’s Pop-Up Dress Up & Dance performance and Alice in Wonderland inspired workshops, there is also an immense collection of family-friendly installation work.

Here’s 6 of the best on display until the festival closes this Sunday.

1. The Drawing Room, Faye Toogood
Literal depiction of a drawing room, where visitors can relax in an environment that evokes a derelict country house, where surroundings have literally been drawn in.
West Wing Galleries Somerset House, 21-27 Sept Mon-Wed & Sun 10am-6pm, Thu-Sat 10am-9pm, Free

2. My Grandfather’s Tree, Max Lamb
When an old ash tree on his grandfather’s farm started to rot, Max was keen for it to take on a new life beyond its original roots. The result is 130 logs all created from sections of the tree and laid out in order of diameter, with the 187 annual growth rings clearly visible.
The Embankment Galleries – Mezzanine & Studio, Somerset House, 21-27 Sept Mon-Wed & Sun 10am-6pm, Thu-Sat 10am-9pm, Free

3. The Wave, Alex Rasmussen with Neal Feay
The West Wing Galleries will be awash with 700+ anodized aluminum panels, invisibly fastened to form a structural swell, reflecting crystalline shades of Pacific blue.
West Wing Galleries Somerset House, 21-27 Sept Mon-Wed & Sun 10am-6pm, Thu-Sat 10am-9pm, Free

4. Tower of Babel
A monument to the great British pastime of shopping, the tower stands 6m high and comprises of 3000 bone china shops, each depicting a real London shop as photographed by the artist.
Brompton Design District, Medieval & Renaissance 1350-1600 The Paul and Jill Ruddock Gallery, Room 50a, Level 1, Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, 19-27 Sept, Mon-Sun 10am-5.45pm, Free

5. The Cloakroom
Don one of the 150 navigational Toogood coats from Room 55 and be guided to 10 places in the Museum galleries where unique sculptural garments offer a response to items in the Museum’s collection.
V&A Museum, Britain 1500-1760, The Clore Study Area, Room 55, Level 2, Cromwell Road, 19-27 Sept, Mon-Sun 10am-5.45pm, Free

6. Curiosity Cloud
Supported by Perrier-Jouet, enter this playful installation exploring the interaction of humans and nature, comprising of 250 mouth-blown glass globes set in a darkened room, 25 of the which contain insect species either extinct, common or newly discovered.
V&A Norfolk House Music Room, Brompton Design District, Gallery 52b, British Galleries, Level 2, Cromwell Road, SW7 2RL, 19-27 Sept, Mon-Sun 10am-5.45pm, Free

Carsten Höller @HaywardGallery: What every parent should know before they visit.

There’s no mistaking the big draw of Carsten Höller’s new exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. With my eldest referring to every non-conventional slide as a helter skelter, we couldn’t wait to be one of the first to slide down ‘the slide to end all slides’. So there there was a bit of making up to do before we’d even set foot in the door, when we collected our tickets and found out that the much heralded Isomeric Slides were 100% not for little people.

Passing trade or speedy bookers will have missed the disappointing news that the slides carry a minimum height restriction of 120cm/4ft, and given that the slide marks the exit of the exhibition (and there isn’t a child relocation service!) this news will also disappoint accompanying parents when they have to bow their heads and take the lift instead. And if you’re thinking of enjoying this whilst your baby is in the pram fast asleep, your luck is out too, you’ll need to take an alternative entrance. It’s not the greatest start to my review, granted, but it’s important to state this up front.

Now, hopefully you are still reading, because what you also really need to know that slides aside, you are just about to witness one of the most awe-inspiring and family friendly exhibitions I have seen in a very long time. Hayward Gallery, you are very much forgiven.

So much is great about this exhibition, it has to be seen to be believed, so I don’t want this review to turn into a series of spoilers. Believe me, however, when I say, that if you brave only one exhibition with the kids this year, brave this one, because even to a seasoned kiddy gallery-goer like me, it’s the most relaxed I have been in a major gallery for a while.

Here’s my top 3 Arts Aloud highlights:

Flying Mushrooms – Alice in Wonderland fans will love these fairytale mushrooms, strung upon a mobile structure that can be manually swung in different directions to spin above your heads. The only thing that interrupts the hallucinogenic feeling for parents, is the consciousness that visitors of a certain height can be knocked out or decapitated by them at any time.

The Forests – Comparable with that moment on an aeroplane, when finally the in-flight entertainment comes on; a rare moment to focus on your own destiny. No head is too small to don the 3D headset and headphones to embark upon a night journey through a snow-covered forest, which eventually forces you to see double. If that’s too much for your 2 year old, the Start and Reset buttons are hours of fun.

Fara Fara – A bit like standing in a multi screen cinema without the seats, this two-screen video installation is based around the music scene in Kinshasa, Congo. Before you even get in the room it sounds like there is an all-night party going on that you need to be part of. The spirit of this piece picks you up and keeps you there. My 2 year old groover had to be dragged out kicking and screaming.

In summary, Decision offers visitors just that; a choice. A choice when, how and why to interact with a series of installations, devices and situations designed to throw all the gallery rules out of the window and liberate even the most inhibited audience.

For me it was the ultimate meeting of art and science, theatre and fun all wrapped up with a healthy portion of visitor camaraderie – something you don’t experience much of when you visit galleries with under 5’s. So if you are lucky enough to experience the Two Flying Machines high upon the roof or exit by hurtling down the Isomeric Slides (and not through the gift shop), you might have a rare moment of peace to ask yourself the age-old question; “..but really, is this art?” The Decision is yours.

Decision is at Hayward Gallery until 6th September 2015 (Mon 12–6pm, Tues, Weds, Sat & Sun 11am-7pm, Thurs & Fri 11am-8pm, Standard Admission £15, Children under 12 free).

Nearby: Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love has more explorative installations on the riverfront terrace, as well as pop-up theatre, live music and daily free activities for kids of all ages.

Carlos Amorales invites kids to create a boom with a view

Granted, Margate doesn’t immediately spring to mind when you’re asked to name some of the country’s most spectacular settings to enjoy live music, but a brand new exhibition by Mexican artist Carlos Amorales at Turner Contemporary is about to change that.

Until September, as part of the British Council’s Year of Mexico in the UK, visitors to its magnificent Sunley Gallery will be treated to an interactive installation; We Will See How Everything Reverberates (2012), whilst they enjoy the unmissable vistas of the North Sea from its double height windows.

Inspired by the work of 20th century sculptor, Alexander Calder, over 30 suspended cymbals have been brought together to create a large-scale mobile structure and a unique musical instrument in its own right.

Once an hour (for 15 minutes) visitors young and old (but mainly young) are given beaters and invited to play the cymbals in whichever way takes their mood. Little ones found it so much fun to walk amongst the structure playing their own instinctive tunes, crashing along perfectly to the waves visible beyond, and creating the perfect soundtrack to our rainy May Bank Holiday Sunday.

It didn’t take long for my pounding head to work out why the 15 minute time limit is applied. Reclaiming the beaters also provided the perfect opportunity to restore order to our gallery conduct, after this brave masterpiece allowed us to break all the rules.

Carlos Amorales: We Will See How Everything Reverberates (2012) is on at Turner Contemporary, Margate until 6th September 2015. Admission Free.

Conrad Shawcross is sending kids loopy in Dulwich Park

Just yards from South London’s popular Dulwich Picture Gallery, Dulwich Park has built a reputation for extending resident exhibitions and providing a platform for public art.

Three years ago the park’s bowling club house became adorned with a brand new mural, a result of a collaboration between the gallery’s Ingrid Beazley and street artist Stik, recreating old masters on the streets of the area. This popular piece is still highly visible close to the children’s playground (currently undergoing a refit). Over the years the park has also been home to a unique Barbara Helpworth sculpture, Two Forms, designed in 1969 and installed in 1970, that is until it was stolen by metal thieves in December 2011, leaving a dearth of public art in this popular family space.

Conrad Shawcross’s work Three Perpetual Chords, commissioned by Southwark Council, hopes to address this with a brand new collection of cast iron sculptures, forming a permanent installation in the park and promising to be theft proof. The sculpture work was unveiled last weekend, and was launched to coincide with his exhibition Counterpoint, currently on display in the Gallery’s Permanent Collection.

As fairly local residents, we were lucky enough to be early on the scene for giving them a test run, and I have to say, they proved popular with children of all ages. All three of the imposing knot-like sculptures are visible from a single viewpoint, creating an exciting challenge for kids, as they follow the trail to negotiate the progressively more complex frames.

Interestingly, on our visit, there seemed to be a trend towards navigating the structures barefoot to try and gain some traction, something that I am sure will have the health and safety teams at Southwark Council holding their breath. But, like a breath of fresh air against a newly ‘gentrified’ playground of tree houses and exposed wood, these felt like a nod to the old-school climbing frames of the 1980’s, the ones that were almost impossible to negotiate, no matter how old you were.

Shawcross’s exhibition is only on until 14th June, but thankfully these interactive wonders are here to stay. And for once, it’s the adults standing on the sidelines looking confused, whilst the children, like some kind of second nature, seem to understand exactly what to make of them.

Conrad Shawcross: Counterpoint is showing at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 14th June 2015 (Tues-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat-Sun 11am-5pm, Admission £6, Children under 18 go free).

Three Perpetual Chords are closest to the Court Lane Gate, Dulwich Park.