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Fresh perspectives

A project encouraging students to engage critically and reflectively with art is producing outstanding work from a a new generation of up-and-coming artists, says Helen Charman

The sizzle of soldered metal, the inexorable drip, drip, drip of melting ice, the delicate rustle of stitched velvet - such were the sounds emanating from the art room at Langley Park School in Bromley, Kent, as A-level art and design pupils developed art work inspired by Collection 2002 at Tate Modern.

The pupils were participants in a partnership project run annually between Tate Modern Schools Programme and Goldsmiths' School of Education, entitled Art Now in the Classroom. This hooks up PGCE students with a class of either key stage 2 pupils or KS5 students from across south-east London. Everyone benefits.

The PGCE students gain insight into how contemporary art can be an inspirational resource for learning at these key stages, slap-bang at the start of their professional training. The pupils have extended opportunities for a contemporary focus on their own art practice, encouraging them to think and work "outside the box". The gallery fulfils one of its aims to work strategically by investing resources in initital teacher training. But none of the exemplary outcomes of this project would be possible without the expertise of classroom teachers.

The sophistication of the works produced by the KS5 students involved is startling. As Dennis Atkinson, lecturer at Goldsmiths College says: "This artwork surpasses our expectations. It's some of the best work we've ever seen by A-level students." So what's the secret?

A key characteristic manifest by the majority of the young artists is the ability to engage critically and reflectively with a selection of art works at the gallery, and then to apply these thought processes in the generation of their own work. All participating pupils joined a one-hour session in the gallery, facilitated by Tate Modern's team of artist educators, which acted as the springboard for their own work. These sessions encourage an attitude of questioning and debate through the collection, and move beyond traditional understandings of the modern art canon. The galleries in Tate Modern are bursting with hundreds of ideas expressed through the technical and conceptual skill of artists. Becoming an artist entails a considered engagement with these ideas. This may involve reflection on recent shifts in art history, theory and criticism, or contextualising art within the broader visual and material culture, as well as drawing on personal responses to an artwork.

The pupils' artwork can be contextualised by some of the radical shifts in art practice of the last 100 years or so. We're talking about experimenting with new ways of working, moving beyond painting and sculpture into the fields of installation, text-based work, time-based work, and so on, as well as exploring non-traditional materials. These young artists are self-aware, but critically so. They view themselves as embedded in their cultural context and draw on this to inform their work. The way they articulate responses to their own practice is impressive. Here are two examples: Helena Gamm's text and slide installation (the photograph, left, shows only the text piece) consists of a paragraph of soldered wire words stuck on to a perspex panel, through which slide images are projected. The piece draws on a variety of influences, from artists Hamish Fulton and Richard Long's text-based responses to walking through landscape, to Jenny Holzer's truisms.

"I experimented with the idea of writing down everything I saw, felt and experienced while on a walk, and turned the words into a piece of art. I wanted to capture the nature and beauty of my journey in my final piece, so I took pictures on a slide film. I used tin, wire and solder to create letters by bending the wire and soldered them together to create a long string of words like Tom Phillips. I then projected the slides through the wire words on to a white background. The wire creates a shadow on the picture. I used wire because I liked the delicate effect that it created."

Katy Dickson's Mod-roc and fabric sculpture was inspired by Naum Gabo's "Head 2" (1916) in terms of the contrast between the harsh steel planes of this work and the empty spaces they enclose and articulate. This is echoed in the juxtaposition between the hardness of the Modroc and the softness of the fabric in Katy's work. She sees the undulating folds of the fabric as representing the endless flow of the sea and the prospect of rising sea levels.

Although inspired by a work in the gallery's suite History, Memory, Society, this piece could just as readily sit within the Landscape, Matter, environment suite, alongside Dame Barbara Hepworth's 'Pelagos', with its curves and strung wire that recall the crash of a wave and the whistle of a coastal wind. The piece therefore calls to mind another key idea of contemporary art: that works can yield multiple and sometimes contradictory, paradoxical meanings.

There were many other strong pieces produced by A-level pupils not only at Langley Park but other schools. A small selection is on display in the Clore Education Centre at Tate Modern until January 2003. If any of these pupils choose to tread a path to art college and beyond, then we have a lot to look forward to.

Helen Charman is curator of the Schools and Teacher Programmes at Tate Modern. Thanks to Brenda Anderson of Langley Park School

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