Alexander Calder’s Performing Sculpture is a hard act to follow

I couldn’t help but have a giggle at The Guardian’s Adrian Searle admitting that ahead of reviewing Performing Sculpture, which opened today at Tate Modern, he had long before relegated Alexander Calder’s work to ‘child’s play’, characterised by ‘New Yorker cartoons and twangly mobiles dangling over the trust-fund infant’s cot’. ‘The irony’, I thought. It was actually these qualities that I would be using in order to entice the kids to experience the sheer wonderment of this incredible exhibition – much of which has never been seen before on British soil.

One of the truly ground-breaking artists of the 20th century, Calder was born into a family of artists (his mother was a portrait artist and his father was a well known sculptor). With them keen for him to get a ‘proper’ job, he initially trained as an engineer, before enrolling at the Art Students League in New York. Following his dream, Calder eventually moved to Paris where he settled down and made a host of artistic friends, before developing the unique wire sculptures, which were soon to become his signature work.

I was hooked from the minute I entered the gallery. I almost completely overlooked the intricacies of his early work, having been immediately drawn to the wire sculpture portraits of art heroes such as Fernand Léger and Joan Miró, staring down at me from a great height. As with traditional sculpture, you can’t help but move backwards and forwards in front of them, peeking through the gaps in their caricature faces, desperate to see a nuance or change in the shadow reflected on the wall behind.

This early body of work also introduces Calder’s fascination with the circus and performance art, having been commissioned to illustrate the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus whilst jobbing on the National Police Gazette. With the mind of an engineer he was fascinated by the mechanics of the circus, the placement of wires and how (to the viewer on the ground), it was achieving something impossible, suspended out of reality and defying all logic.

Calder went on to set about creating an entire circus, complete with a full complement of characters that are bound to excite younger viewers. These early works are playful and figurative – such as Circus Scene (1929) and Acrobats (1927), but even the later mechanical pieces which are boxed in glass, require little more than a child’s eye and an active imagination to bring them to life, making many of the accompanying video demonstrations seem slow and clunky by comparison.

Calder’s work really came to life when he met abstract artist Piet Mondrian in 1930, and he began to imagine what could be achieved by bringing Mondrian’s famous geometric landscapes into the 3D space, setting them free to move about. This combination of strange shapes and glorious colour gave rise to the invention of the Mobile in the mid 1930’s, and a host of other ‘framed’ mobile sculptures, that now teeter way up high, safely away from curious little fingers, looking very much like illustrations of molecular science or abstract micro-worlds.

The splash of colour continues in a room dedicated to Calder’s ‘panel’ works, never been shown together before and typical of some of the artist’s more experimental work with painting and sculpture. This is a great room to allow kids some interpretation; I spotted a butterfly in Blue Panel (1936) and a gliding bird in Form Against Yellow (1936).

The centrepiece of the exhibition is Black Widow (1948), recently restored and standing in stark isolation before you exit through the gift shop. For me, however, the crowning glory is in the penultimate room, which from the moment you enter casts you out into an incredible universe of mobiles, a sea of drifting forms all moving on the natural air currents in the space.

Suddenly, instead of the usual rushed-parent desire to push on to what’s next, you’ll all be looking up in a zombie-like fashion, enjoying a rare, almost meditative, opportunity to be ‘in the moment’ at an art gallery, safe in the knowledge that anything of any value is safely strung up out of harms way. “Look a Snow Flurry!” and “How many circles are in Triple Gong?”, “If you stand for 5 minutes more it might come around again”. Games like these could run and run.

There’s so much to see here, it’s hard not to divert in different directions, almost completely missing exhibits like Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere, hidden in the nooks and crannies. The abundance of space between each exhibit makes you want to dash from piece to piece, but what I especially loved about Calder’s work was how he liberates the viewer by celebrating the unpredictability of what you’ll experience on your own personal visit. There’s no right or wrong view and it’s unlikely that you’ll ever see a piece in the same position twice, with sculptures free to thrive on the excess energy that you might bring to a room, or simply be still in the wake of your exit.

If that isn’t akin to how the average family experience an exhibition, then i don’t know what is.

Alexander Calder Performing Sculpture is on at Tate Modern until 3rd April 2016.
Sunday to Thursday 10am-6pm (last admission 5.15pm), Saturday & Sunday 10am-10pm (last admission 9.15pm)
Admission: Adults £18, Under 12’s free, Concessions and Family Tickets available

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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.

Richard Tuttle @Tate Modern: 15 minutes of play-filled peace

As many of us have discovered, Tate Modern is always a reliable choice for art-loving parents who want to combine a lovely day out spotting boats and buskers on the South Bank with introducing their children to modern art in a relaxed and inspiring environment. Well this autumn, Tate Modern is rewarding us richly with a magnificent sculpture in the Turbine Hall by American artist and poet Richard Tuttle.

I Don’t Know. The Weave of Textile Language, is a major collaboration to celebrate the work of Tuttle, who has made his name through his delicate and playful work, combining sculpture painting, poetry and drawing, often using every day materials such as cloth, paper, rope and plywood. This commission in the Turbine Hall, features in conjunction with a major exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery surveying five decades of his career.

The sheer size of the structure, measuring over twelve metres in height, draped with brightly coloured fabric, drew an immediate “wow” from my two young viewers. From the viewing gallery beyond the main entrance hall, the section suspended from the ceiling was, to them, like the most exciting bridge you’d ever want to cross, whilst the larger support section rising up from the lower ground floor formed a giant beanstalk in their imaginations. Down in the vast hall itself, the kids loved running underneath it, seeing something different each time they looked up.

The good news is, for once, you don’t need to rush as the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition is running until 14th December, and the sculpture will remain resident at Tate Modern until 6th April 2015.

Want to see more? This bite-size beauty is perfect if you don’t think the kids will manage a whole room or exhibition at the Tate, but if you do want to see more, the Whitechapel Gallery is hosting one of their fantastic Crib Notes sessions on Tuesday 4th November at 10am. The session dedicated to parents and carers with children under 5, costs just £5 and includes a tour of the exhibition with Assistant Curator Poppy Bowers. For those of you with a buggy, the majority of the exhibition is on the ground floor, but there is a lift that can take you to the work featured on other floors (although be warned, the rest of the building can seem some-what maze-like). Failing that, you are welcome to leave your buggy with the cloakroom.

Whilst you’re there: Just along the river, enjoy a free lunchtime concert at the Southbank Centre with Mastercard’s Friday Lunch sessions. From classical and jazz, to folk and world, this is a great opportunity for the little ones to experience live music in a family-friendly (and easy-to-escape) space.