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Friday 15 April 2011

The Future of Arts Engagement: A Sense of Perspective: Tate Liverpool

Review by Kenn Taylor

A Sense of Perspective deals with the in between and the undefined, in a groundbreaking exhibition developed and curated by young people in Liverpool, Helsinki, Paris and London. Curated by members of Young Tate, the organisation’s engagement programme for 16 – 25 year olds, the exhibition is part of a wider partnership, Youth Art Interchange Phase II, with major European galleries (Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma and Centre Pompidou).

Programmes such as Young Tate are increasingly common in institutions up and down the UK, with participants frequently adding contextual ‘add ons’ and interpretation to core exhibitions. Here, Tate Liverpool takes things a step further with an exhibition in its ground floor gallery curated entirely by Young Tate. Everything from the theme to the layout and the public events has been programmed by them, albeit guided by Tate staff and the criteria for the project’s European funding - European citizenship, identity and cultural democracy.

Through a series of workshops and debates the young curators at each of the four participating galleries came up with a unifying theme, A Sense of Perspective, with each group then free to interpret this in their own way. Young Tate decided on three sub-themes; Between Generations, Between Cultures and Between Spaces and to use the Tate collection to explore the complex and shifting nature of contemporary identity.

Choosing the works that inspired the most discussion amongst their ideas are often distinct from the artists’ own stated intentions. They have selected both British and International artists and included several new acquisitions. Photography, video art, contemporary sculpture and mixed media works dominate, reflecting perhaps the most relevant fine art mediums for this age group, or simply the most relevant mediums for their ‘in between’ theme.

The exhibition is well laid out, with pieces working successfully next to each other despite the variety of artists and mediums. Highlights include Mother Tongue (2002) a video work by Zineb Sedira. In it, Sedira speaks in French to her mother, who answers in Arabic, and to her daughter, who answers in English, reflecting starkly the inevitable evolution of culture between generations, exacerbated by globalisation and the fast pace of technology.

Meanwhile, Sarah Jones’ constructed reality images of teenage girls seemingly stuck in suburban middle-class mediocrity, Sitting Room (Francis Place) III (1997) and The Dining Room (Francis Place) I (1997) quietly notate the angsty experiences of millions of the young and artistic, while apparently provoking considerable discussion within the group, raising issues of gender, class, age and entrapment. Chosen as companions to Jones’ images, Wolfgang Tillmans’ images of contemporary ambiguous sexuality, The Cock (kiss) (2002) and Lutz and Alex sitting in the trees (1992) depict a young, confident, unabashed and raw subject.

Less well known is Martin Boyle’s Gate (We don’t meet here. We are always together first)(2004) fabricated from the type of cheap mesh and steel tube that guides the paths of millions of young people around schools and youth clubs. The artist’s own view is of the object as a direct physical link, an aide-mémoire to youth and of a time of increasing freedom which is yet to be constrained by adult barriers. Young Tate’s interpretation is deeper, seeing the structure as a symbolic gateway between different generations and cultures.

Olafur Eliasson’s Yellow versus Purple (2003) features interchanging circles of yellow and blue light, slowly merging to form a purple sphere. This was interpreted by Young Tate as symbolising the pointlessness of attempting to view the world in binary extremes; left versus right, good versus evil, black versus white, when so much is indeed, two sides of the same coin. The work is both beautifully simple and visually striking.

Although a catalogue provides more detail on the project, there is a lack of contextual information in the exhibition itself about how it was realised. Tate may have wanted their selections to speak for themselves, but as the curatorial process was just as much a part of the reasoning behind this exhibition, this seems to be a slight oversight. The participants of Young Tate have been given a golden opportunity, to curate a show at one of the country’s largest galleries, and in short, they have delivered. Not all of the works here are outstanding, but crucially they work in context of both the theme and the gallery space itself. There are some obvious choices, but there have also been some obscure works chosen that really resonate, the sign of a good curator.

Are such shows, then, perhaps the future of museum education; young people taken on, by proxy, as apprentices? It may offer a solution to the spiralling cost of art education, though if always thrown in at the deep end, will participants ever be able to explore wider ideas beyond the practical delivery of an exhibition? The cards featuring the personal responses of the Young Tate members are perhaps the most interesting aspect of the show, veering as they do between talking from the heart and typical Artspeak. The key test of such programmes will be if the members of Young Tate will be able to learn such terminologies so they can forget them. If they can retain the originality they show in how they have created this show within Tate’s systems and not be entirely absorbed and overwhelmed by the current dominant trends and ideas of cultural institutions, instead taking what they have learned and staking there own path.

This exhibition works on its own as an interesting thematic interpretation of the Tate collection, but it’s true value lies in the unique perspective it gives on the future of arts engagement within contemporary art and culture.

A Sense of Perspective continues until 5 June. For more information visit the Tate Liverpool website.

Image: The Dining Room (Francis Place) I
Sarah Jones
The Dining Room (Francis Place) I, 1997
© Sarah Jones, courtesy Maureen Palely, London
The Sitting Room (Francis Place) III
Sarah Jones
The Sitting Room (Francis Place) III 1997
© Sarah Jones, Courtesy Maureen Paley London

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