(Image from 'In the way of things' Damien Griffiths)
Last week I took a group of A level photography students from Leyton into Shoreditch to sample some of the lesser known galleries that make up Photomonth this year. Most of the students hadn't visited exhibitions in spaces like these before & it is a bit of a gamble taking teenagers on a such a trip, rather than a safer option like the Tate for example, although the level of intimacy at these smaller galleries can create a higher level of educational value than that offered at bigger institutions. I think it's important to introduce students to alternative spaces that they wouldn't really know about or have had the confidence to visit before, let alone press that buzzer! I was slightly nervous as to how they would respond to our outing, there'd be a fair bit if walking (at student/snail pace) in the rain, and if they didn't like the work they'd find it all a bit pointless, & there's not much worse than dragging 22 miserable teenagers around London in the rain!
The first exhibition we visited was Tom Hunter 'Are you being served', a small show at the V&A childhood museum. My concern as to the success of the trip grew as the students didn't really engage with Hunter's images of east London shops and their keepers, despite its social-cultural content, the work was a little mundane in comparison to his usual contemplative photographs of people on the periphery of society in the east-end. But as we were in a museum, the students were able to go off & find other areas of interest or a corner to hide in! In this case I was both relieved that there were other things that the students were more interested in and could explore for themselves, but on the other hand I was disappointed that they didn't spend more time studying the photographic work. Some of the group had not found anything of interest (ce la vie), & my concern grew as I knew there'd be less on offer at the rest of the galleries, teenagers can be so difficult to please! Next stop was the Gallery Cafe on Old Ford road for 'A walk on the wild side' showing photos of drag queens and counter culture. We piled into the bustling little restaurant & peered over & around the diners to see the work, it was a little awkward at first, with people eating &; relaxing as there were so many of us, but the students soon loosened up & started to study & discuss the work, sitting amongst the cafe goers & in the sofa area. It was probably a combination of the slightly garish content of the photographs & the ambiance of the location that got them involved. This is more like it I thought! A bus up Hackney road & a walk up Columbia road to the Shipton gallery, which is literally someone's living room. I'd called in advance to warn the owner of our imminent arrival & he gave us a very warm welcome as we crammed into his 'lounge', saying he'd offer us a cuppa if he had a kettle big enough. Conversation flowed & questions were answered, the students seemed comfortable in such informal settings & our host Peter was happy to have us break up his afternoon of DIY. Next we slowly snaked our way through the streets of Shoreditch & made our way to Redchurch street. I was aware that we'd probably spent more time on foot than in actual galleries but the group were in high spirits & were enjoying taking in the environment, it's surprising how few of our students have ventured out this way despite living in east London for many years. Studio 1.1 was our next stop, 'In the way of things' by Damien Griffiths, a conceptual installation of mundane, some might say boring photos. My initial thoughts were "oh dear they're not gonna thank me for bringing them all the way in the cold & wet for this!" But upon arrival, we were greeted by 2 men from the gallery who were keen to explain the ideas behind the show, they gave a short talk which fueled our interest. The work considers the photo as image & as object, playing with elements of scale, juxtaposition & variations of mounting, 'demanding the viewer's attention, yet parrying it at the same time'. The students really got into it & made intelligent associations, conversation was energetic, the gallery alive with their responses to the work. This is what art should do & the curators were quite taken with my rabble of east London adolescents, saying they'd fill the artist in on our visit, as he'd appreciate the feedback. Again I think that the intimacy of the gallery & the enthusiasm of the people there helped make the experience. We finished up on Leonard street at AOP for 'Polaroid Retrospective', which was a bit more white space & full of seductive images. Then finally Pure Evil gallery, where we were warmly welcomed again & allowed to explore the basement while they were setting up for my friend Twinkle's private view.
On trips like this, my own personal experience is heightened by the company of my students. The artists are interested in their responses & gain from the experience too, there is more of an affiliation between viewer, artist & gallery, than on other trips i've done to bigger well known galleries & museums. These relationships form a significant part of the creative process, the ongoing conversation & debate is what art is all about...I think more should be made of such galleries & although I love the Tate, it is so packed everyday, while many other galleries stand empty.
Some of my A level students wont continue onto art school & i feel that it is important that they are made aware of the art scene that thrives in their neighbouring boroughs...Students, what do you think? What sort of trips do you prefer? Have you had any particularly good or bad educational experiences at a gallery or museum...?