We did it our way

19th January 1996 at 00:00
Jane Norrie meets a group of young people who put on their own exhibition. Selected from the National Collection of 20th Century Art and now showing at the Tate Liverpool, Testing the Water is an exhibition for young people by young people.

Inspired by a poem by Salvador Dali to accompany his surreal masterpiece The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, the exhibition explores the journey from adolescence to maturity.

Working with gallery staff, the youngsters devised the theme and title, selected and researched the paintings and sculpture and wrote a large part of the approachable magazine-style catalogue. They also influenced the installation and are involved with the education programme.

Aged from 14 to 25, they are all members of Young Tate, an advisory group set up to help make the gallery more attractive to young visitors. Drawn from schools, youth groups and youth theatres, in association with artists and education staff Young Tate has been running critical workshops and drop-in sessions, all designed to make the gallery a more interesting place. Its members, however, are not all "arty-crafty". Project co-ordinator Naomi Horlock says, "The idea is that that young people should be encouraged to be consumers of contemporary art just as they are of music."

With meetings every Wednesday night for a year and three visits to the London Tate and its stores, curating the exhibition has been Young Tate's most ambitious project. For an insight into what was involved I spoke to one of the curators, Sarah James now a student at Birkenhead Sixth Form College.

How much had gallery staff influenced them, for instance on the choice of theme? "It has been very exciting, we didn't think there would be so much openness, so much freedom of decision. That led to moments of panic and anxiety but as we interacted as a group, things came together.

"Initially we were vague about the theme, thinking about ideas of wateriness and reflection. Then looking through old catalogues we stumbled across Dali's poem. It was inspirational, we latched onto the idea of adolescence as a time of self-absorption and also as a journey. The poem helped to thread the works together with clarity. Also we thought young people would get the most out of it. We want them to go away with something, the display is bursting with themes - self-love and self-hate, the teenage need to mould yourself on idols, questions of image and how we define ourselves."

I left Sarah and her friends preparing for the "animated talks" they will give in the gallery on Sundays. And so to the exhibition itself. Over the top? Wacky? Full of youthful excess? No. Unorthodox? Yes, stringing periods and isms together, combining and contrasting Albers' abstract Squares with Richard Smith's vast lyrical canvas Riverfall, juxtaposing the surreal with the minimal and figurative, William Turnbull's abstracted sculpture with Gwen John's Nude Girl. Beautiful, with a hypnotic and self-contained coherence? Certainly. Against all the odds, starting from a minimal knowledge base, having to make joint decisions in a team of 14, lasting the pace from their first look at the way other Tate shows have been curated through to the private view, they have achieved a formidable one-off success of a show. Why not test the waters for yourself?

All places to be pre-booked. Details: 0151 709 3223

Education programme involving Young Tate members: workshop day this Sunday 11am- 4pm: animated talks in the Gallery 2pm and 3pm January 28 and February 25. After-school discussion workshops: 4-5.45 pm weekdays: Paul Willis, author of Moving Culture in conversation with Young Tate on February 24 2-3pm

Schools who put forward pupils were Sutton Community High School, Bluecoat School and Rock Ferry High School.

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