Jane Norrie watches pupils explore an exhibition that puts the history of 20th century art into boxes. The day after the Turner Prize broadcast revealed that the Tate's much maligned show is in fact a record-breaking attraction I was travelling to the University of East Anglia in Norwich to the Sainsbury Centre. I was wondering what the reactions would be to another potentially "difficult" exhibition - Worlds in a Box - a history of art in boxes from Duchamp to the present. An art form that delights in breaking with convention to use materials like fur feather and fish to express surreal dream states or anarchic wit.
From Mann Ray to Joseph Beuys some of the icons of the avant garde would be on show. And, what is more, education officer Dr Veronica Sekules had explained that the workshops were experimental, avoiding the obvious practical project of making boxes, to interpret some of the ideas behind the exhibition. To this end, a week of drama workshops had been arranged "exploring ways of understanding art and communicating that understanding in another creative form".
I arrived to find a party of 20 pupils being divided into two groups by three members of the UEA's resident European theatre company, the Hoi Polloi. The mixed sex, mixed ability group came from Flegg High School some 20 miles away in the rural area of Martham Norfolk. The pupils were in their first term of GCSE drama, this was their first drama outing, and also the first time they'd been to a major exhibition.
Imagine you have to flee the house, choose three things to take and put them in a cardboard box. Out in the dark street, hide your boxes from the police, divide up into interrogators and detainees. What is in your box? Give it up! Why not? These were the kind of exercises the pupils were engaged in. Though initially ill at ease, they were gradually drawn into the drama until they were improvising verbally and physically with some wonderful streaks of comic invention. "You can't stop me, I'm from M15, this is my bodyguard and this box contains John Major's personal toiletries!" A pair of shades, a small ball, a bottle of gin, a lurid feather, a lady's shoe. A further exercise with objects picked from a box involved the reconstruction of a "missing person". Soon, with much mimicking and gesturing, the sad persona of a lonely old alcoholic was conjured into being, her only friend her small dog. A summary session underlined the ideas that had come out of the improvisations. The concept of the box was discussed, as a container, often to hold something precious, a place to preserve things and keep them safe and private. A secret place for objects of sentimental value, often in memory of someone.
With the scene set, so to speak, we went to view what turned out to be a memorable exhibition, full of playful and often haunting juxtapositions of objects.
Asked to look for specific exhibits that could stimulate a short performance in the afternoon, the pupils, contrary to my fears, had little trouble relating to the boxes. Instead, with the actors prompting, they responded with imaginative narratives. Particular exhibits that took their fancy were a box stuffed with dolls, a miniature "torture chamber", a sheet of watch faces and a matchbook.
In the afternoon they divided into four small groups to discuss their themes, work out their moves, and come together at the end of half an hour to perform them. Two groups acted out the idea of being trapped in a lift. The third, commandeering the cardboard boxes as coffee table, grandfather clock and television, took the theme of waiting for time to pass while the fourth performed a rousing fire rescue scene. "From Beckett to Keystone Cops" murmured our photographer.
The pupils obviously enjoyed the day enormously but what had they got out of it? For an answer I turned to teacher Phil Drake. "The Hoi Polloi have been brilliant communicators. This has been a breakthrough for the class in terms of using their imagination effectively. The group work develops important social skills and confidence. Also they will be more able to read an exhibition for any message there is".
Worlds in a Box is a South Bank Touring Show and moves to the Whitechapel Gallery, London from today until February 12. Teachers' viewing day is January 6. There will be artist-led 12 day workshops from January 17 to February 10. Phone 071 522 7855.