Face up to sculpture
A new show lets pupils see the world and works of Damien Hirst et al first hand, writes Deedee Cuddihy
Most of us can appreciate a painting but it seems that sculpture is much more difficult. Contemporary sculpture, in particular, can provoke a huge amount of criticism. Even so, staff at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow have been surprised by the vehemence of responses to the exhibition "Material World", which opened there at the end of April.
"Complete garbage", "Absolute rubbish!!!" and "A waste of floor space" are just some of the comments recorded in the GoMA visitors' book. However, others have found the show "wonderful", "inspiring" and "disturbing - but makes you think."
Interestingly, the children who came through the door all seemed to have enjoyed the experience, even the nine-year-old who wrote: "At first I didn't want to go but I liked it in the end."
Material World really is an excellent show. The 17 works have been chosen by GoMA curator Sean McGlashan for their "visual interest and powerful physical presence", and you can see why. They are extremely varied, every one different. They are thought-provoking and exciting, even stimulating powerful emotional responses, like the trampoline with the net replaced by glass.
The exhibition marks the 10th anniversary of Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art and the 60th anniversary of the (English) Arts Council collection which includes 700 sculptures by high profile artists.
Most of the pieces have not been seen in Scotland before; they were created by sculptors who have looked at "new ways of making work, using a range of materials. Some of the artists are more interested in exploring materials, while others show both serious and humorous elements in their sculptures."
Among them is Damien Hirst, most famous for his shark preserved in formaldehyde, but here showing a less controversial, if disturbing, piece comprising anaesthetist's equipment displayed in a steel and glass case.
Like Hirst, Grayson Perry has won the Turner Prize, Britain's most prestigious art award, then caused an uproar by showing up to receive it wearing a blond wig and frilly dress. One of his exquisitely but cunningly decorated ceramic vases is on display.
Other works include what appears to be a human torso: it is made from pig skin stretched over a fibreglass shape, completely covered in tiny tattoos.
Rachel Whiteread, another Turner Prize winner, is represented by what looks like six outsize blocks of delicious fruit jelly in a variety of translucent colour. It is resin moulds cast from the spaces beneath chairs.
Making Sculptures workshops, aimed at P2-P7, will run for the duration of the show. Participants are given a tour, then take part in a discussion of the exhibition. Pupils get to create their own contemporary sculptures.
One of the first schools to take part was Thornliebank Primary in Glasgow, which sent a class of 24, P4 pupils. Gallery learning assistant Janice Sharp discussed a few sculptures with the children, including the glass trampoline "Can't Play, Won't Play" and an untitled work by Paul Finnegan featuring a human figure "morphed almost beyond recognition into a kind of supernatural trace of itself".
Up in the education room, she gave each child an empty plastic pot or a used sticky tape roll and said: "Disguise them with any of the different materials you see in the middle of your work tables (tissue paper, straws, string, egg boxes etc) and make them look completely different."
Most of the pupils got to work immediately, cutting out and sticking on with enthusiasm. But there were a few who, although they eventually produced something, initially sat staring at their pots or tape rolls, looking worried and puzzled.
Perhaps they hadn't understood Janice's instructions? Unlikely, according to one pupil, Heather, who said the gallery learning assistant had "explained things very well."
Heather, whose favourite subjects are gym and art, had enjoyed the exhibition, particularly the glass trampoline. She had been looking forward to the workshop and although she had expected to be making a sculpture from clay, had used the junk materials to great effect, producing a work called "Man in a Cage".
The children's teacher, Jean Macrae, was keen for her class to take part in a workshop where they would be encouraged to use their imaginations and get hands-on experience of 3D art. "It's been interesting to see that some children who have a short attention span for classwork have had no difficulty concentrating on making their sculptures," she said.
Commenting on the importance of 3D work in schools, Carol Taylor, head of first year sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art, said: "There is so little 3D work done in schools now that most of the first year students I see at college are absolutely terrified of making a sculpture. So I'm not surpised that some pupils were a bit anxious.
"We start our students off by putting them in pairs and getting them to make a clay head of their partner. Primary schools could get pupils used to 3D work by allowing them to make little figures in clay."
Material World is complemented by a useful set of teachers' notes and an excellent education and activity space. Teachers can also borrow a print-out of the information labels that accompany show