Art galleries are my go-to place for rainy day run-arounds. All those big empty rooms. All those long corridors. I am not going to pretend that my two year-old has any interest in the art that is hanging on the walls, but then again why would he? They sit two feet above his head. Contemporary art, sculpture, and multimedia installations, however, used to pique his interest. I remember following him around the Alice Maher exhibition, which was staged at Earlsfort Terrace while the Royal Hospital premises was being renovated. The gallery space was paradise for the curious child: light installations beckoned you into the small rooms that lined the long central corridor, and an enormous ice sculpture – like The Snow Queen’s chariot – sat in the middle of it all. Nearly all the pleasure of our visit, however, was spoiled by the vigilance of the invigilator, who followed us around barking, ‘don’t touch. Please keep the children back etc.’
So, it was with some astonishment to come across the work of Hélio Oiticica this week, at a fabulous retrospective at IMMA. I actually visited the exhibition first alone, on a rare child-free afternoon, and I was so absorbed by the opportunity to read the blurbs uninterrupted, that it took me a while to notice that the entire exhibition was a direct invitation to touch and experience the installations. I returned a couple of days later with a group of friends and their toddlers (all under 3), genuinely curious as to how the kids would react to the work, and also what the limits of participation were. Would the invigilators intervene if they started throwing the stones that lined the indoor beach?
The exhibition is called Propositions, and it compromises brightly-coloured architectural mobiles (kites, my toddler called them, and when I probed further he said one looked like a bird), geometric pattern paintings, and a series of installations. The first one that piqued the children’s interests was Penetrable, a wooden cabinet with sliding panels that was an invitation for hide and seek. Although the toddlers couldn’t move the panels themselves (their parents barely could), they understood implicitly that the work was designed to disguise and reveal. (We also had fun playing sardines and managed to squeeze three toddlers and two mothers, one heavily pregnant, into a double compartment).
Entrance into the next section of the exhibition was via what we dubbed The Jellyfish: a wide doorway from which dozens of long blue plastic cables hung like tentacles from the ceiling. This was terrifically sensorial. The plastic was soft not hard, and the toddlers swished and swashed and grabbed the cables, playing peekaboo and pretending to be monsters. My seven-month old buggy-buddy absolutely loved this. Apart from the teasing texture on his skin as we passed through, the cables created an attractive dappled light effect as you immersed yourself in it. Two more rooms offered the opportunity to parade around in costumes in front of a large mirror, and to view more hanging sculptures, but upside down, from the vantage point of mirrors on the floor.
The main corridor of the exhibition was dominated by Nas Quebradas, a deliberately unstable gravel hill, built upon unsteady bricks that loved underfoot as you mounted it. As my wily toddler navigated the “wobbly” mound, the invigilators made themselves known for the first time, providing a caution about slipping on the unsteady surface. However, they retreated as suddenly as they emerged, leaving us parents to supervise. (Incidentally, my little boy – who could climb Kilimanjaro but needs to be dragged to the local shop – was the only one who was interested in this particular exhibit). This precarious structure paved the way for Tropicália, an indoor beach, with a secret beach hut, a sort of large-scale be-ribboned sensory box, and two live parrots.
The undoubted hit with the toddlers, however, was CC2 Onobject, a dark room kitted out like a soft-play centre. To a Yoko Ono punk inspired soundtrack, against a backdrop of Nietzsche projections, the toddlers moved giant sponge cylinders, squares and triangles around, and generally went a little crazy. Propositions is an invitation to the viewer to interact and immerse themselves in his environmental artworks, and I cannot imagine a group more willing to throw themselves whole heartedly into the experiential possibilities of art than toddlers.
During the summer months, IMMA are offering hour long workshops to families inspired by the exhibition, although the workshops are geared for an older demographic than our party. We had an enormous amount of fun, but I was left wondering how to talk about our experience with my toddler: how to introduce the idea of art into the equation? Over dinner that evening we described our day for Daddy. We paid particular attention to texture, colour, sound, and I left it at that, not wanting to kill the spontaneous reactions the work itself inspired. Fun is probably the best incentive to want to return to the gallery context, but doubt we will ever find as exciting an exhibition as Oiticica’s.
Hélio Oiticita runs at IMMA until 9th October.