School Days is subtitled ‘the look of learning’, but in fact the show encompasses far more than the visual dimension of education. A wide range of artists of different nationalities, working in a variety of media and addressing a broad range of approaches to the theme of school education, results in a show that combines the playful and the critical.
The first thing to greet you as you come up the stairs from the first floor is the unsettling sound of pencil scratching on paper. This is the sparse soundtrack to Rineke Dijkstra’s Ruth Drawing Picasso (2009), a video installation on display in the John Sisk gallery, which shows a larger than life size schoolgirl drawing Picasso’s Weeping Woman in Tate Liverpool. This information is given as a context, although you never see the original painting, or indeed Ruth’s own work. Her extreme state of concentration is fascinating to watch, and as she glances up to look at the object of her study she makes eye contact with the viewer, placing you at the receiving end of her intense observation. This is a powerful introduction to the show that immediately positions the viewer in an active role, as the target of the questions being posed by the various artists.
Upstairs, the sounds of children playing emanates from a microphone hung from the ceiling, suggesting immersion in a school environment. This is also encouraged by the large photographs by Raimond Wouda that appear throughout the exhibition, of students in secondary schools in the Netherlands interacting in the common rooms and corridors, oblivious to both photographer and viewer. It is an obliviousness that connects these pictures to Dijkstra’s Ruth, an immersion in their own sphere of activity from which we are excluded. Other works invite more direct interaction, which creates a balance between the exclusive and the interactive. Works like Hidden Curriculum (2007) by Annette Krauss, which is comprised of video presentations arranged on chairs, with folders of photographs and a hanging display of images in plastic pockets, and Eamon O’Kane’s Froebel Studio (2010), an installation that mimics a playroom complete with coloured wooden blocks and toys, also add to this interactive feel.
This invitation to interact with the exhibition, to reimmerse ourselves in the experiences and environments of school, is in danger of encouraging viewers to get lost in their own memories and experiences of education. The more critical works on display prevent this passivity by focusing on the hidden aspects of education, the moments that exist in between classes, or the invisible systems of institutional control, as in Eva Kotátková piece Sit Straight (2008). Two video projections depict a boy and girl, each seated in a wooden structure built by the artist that surrounds their head and shoulders designed to improve posture. It evokes uncomfortable connotations with torture devices, particularly in the case of the girl, whose hands are also restrained. A little extreme maybe, but a powerful visual manifestation of the more constraining rules of the school routine that force young children to sit still in chairs for hours against their will. From extreme control to extreme liberation: Corin Sworn’s The Rules (2007) is a silkscreen print of a list of rules from Summerhill School, a liberal boarding school in Suffolk, England. Their philosophy of progressive education gives a responsibility to students on par with their teachers, as shown by such ‘rules’ as “Swords are to be inspected by the staff”. This reads more like a manifesto of freedom than a list of prohibitions, offering a stark contrast to the visual image of bored and constrained children in Sit Straight.
Another piece by Kotátková entitled Walk to School (2008) is the only work in the exhibition created by the artist’s hand. Twelve delicate drawings in ink and pencil reenact memories of school routine, and that routine’s effect on the physical and mental states of children. A small figure outlined in pencil is positioned on a staircase, vomiting a blue liquid.
He is devoid of facial features or identity, his body hollow except for a crooked black line that runs from mouth to bladder, which drips a trail of droplets down the stairs behind him. These drawings are all simply executed in media found in any schoolbag. The simplicity of style combined with disturbing narratives packs a powerful psychological punch.
While other pieces are not so overtly critical, they each explore other aspects of the effect of institutional control upon education. A series of silkscreen prints by Christian Philipp Müller engages with the role and status of exhibition galleries in universities, rather than individual experiences of learning. The prints depict the ground plans of ten international universities in grey, overlaid with the plan of the University of Luneburg in red. This simple visual device reduces a discourse around the role of art and museums and their relationship to universities as systems of patronage, to vaguely pleasing abstract compositions. The accompanying text provides a context that changes the meaning of the prints from formalist compositions to visual manifestations of the relationship between museum and education, be it public or private.
Many of the works require time and close attention, which ensures that the message is not lost amidst the eclectic and aesthetically varied show. On the contrary, it is the variety of investigation that is the strength of this exhibition, from personal reflections on the impact of the school routine, to more political investigations into the operations of educational bodies, provoking the viewer to think about aspects of education usually hidden from sight.
School Days: the Look of Learning was on view at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery 1 December – 20 March 2011.