Wednesday 25 April 2012

Seeing Spots

Appropriate attire?
Culturebaby and I went to see the new Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern yesterday afternoon with one of her little buddies and his family. If ever you could design an artistic baby playground, the Tate Modern at present is the closest thing to perfection with its combo of Kusama and Hirst. Culturebaby was still excited by the evening and, despite a strong rebuttal of a bowl of salmon and veg puree (I'm hoping she hasn't inherited my anti-fish tastebuds), she was smiling and chatting, and excitedly cooing at a Hirst butterfly print right up until bathtime.

On so many levels the exhibition was fabulous, and I loved having Culturebaby with me as I experienced so much more than I would going alone. I'd had a taster of what to expect as we had recently watched a brilliant programme (Damien Hirst: The First Look) with surrealist comedian Noel Fielding (incidentally, this choice of presenter was an utter stroke of genius by Channel 4). With my daughter in mind, I really tried to look at Hirst's work from the perspective of a baby and discovered a colourful, sensory, engaging wonderland where some might see rather more morbid themes... I'm convinced Hirst is very much in touch with his inner child; there was so much in his work for the babies to delight in. As usual there was much of the usual leg waggling and excited squealing, and several passers-by stopped to chat about their reactions. (For picture and video tours see here and here)

On entering the exhibition we encountered Hirst's early work, described by one review as 'juvenillia'. It is rough and ready, but very colourful. Culturebaby and I stopped to examine the similarities between her (rather odd but favoured and, therefore, brought along) stacking pan toys and the work 8 Pans 1987. Indeed, no sarcasm is intended here. Throughout the exhibition many of the items are everyday, simple, bright, and often childlike - and therefore easy for Culturebaby to relate to. We then moved through rooms hung or decorated with colourful dot paintings, and like Egyptian tombs, these bright walls encase rather more macabre contents. But for Culturebaby the flies in A Thousand Years 1990 (a life cycle from cow's head, to flies, to fly killer) were merely dynamic and engaging; and the fish, lambs, cows and shark preserved in formaldehyde are (rather serene) characters recognisable from books such as Fluffy Chick and Friends (Incidentally THE best cloth books ever). I think passers-by may have been rather amused by the animal noises I was making in front of the various cases, but Culturebaby was having a great time!

We then moved rather hastily past the rows and rows of cigarette butts (hopefully the smelly, giant ashtray may have put her off for life...) but stopped to examine the beautifully reflective casing and colourful contents of the pills in Lullaby, the Seasons 2002. Next, the series of monochrome, bright canvases with butterflies mounted here and there, entitled In and Out of Love 1991, were really appealing to the babies - they tried to reach out and touch the butterflies beyond the glass - and this was followed by a wonderful room where colourful and patterned live butterflies were hatching, flying around, feeding, and landing on us. Could it get more exciting for babies? Apparently so. The best space came a little later where a giant inflatable beachball bounced suspended above a fan in the centre of a room (Loving in a World of Desire) whilst giant circular paintings span on the walls. The room was uplifting and joyful, the former work jolly; the latter magnificent. And the sensory fun continued... Culturebaby yelped with excitement as we entered the room containing the (rather sinister to an adult, but incredibly shiny for a baby) surgical equipment in cupboards, and continued to fight her (long overdue) sleep in the rooms containing the exquisite and colourful Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven 2007 (stained glass windows made entirely of butterflies); and the glimmering Judgement Day (a huge cabinet full of jewels). Then, after a well timed nap over lunch, she woke up just in time to see the glistening (and not at all tacky as I had expected) jewel encrusted skull For the Love of God. We had it to ourselves for a moment, sparkling, relic-like, at the centre of a pitch black room, and it was rather awe inspiring for little and big eyes alike.

For me, the brilliance of Hirst is that his work not only excited Culturebaby, but it fascinated me as an adult (essential for us mummies!). I know Hirst is considered rather controversial, and his works questioned by some as 'Art', but I found much of it beautiful, some disturbing and, still more, thought provoking. The range of exhibits explore his eschatological preccupation with life and death, beauty and decay, heaven and hell, and make the viewer think about these topics too. My husband is rather baffled and amused at my love of graveyards. By the umpteenth Egyptian tomb on our honeymoon he began to admit hieroglyph-fatigue. I'd consider him a (loveable) lightweight in the mortuary line, but to be fair I did spend most of my undergraduate years poring over books about obscure funerary rituals and uncovering Roman remains. (My favourite popular books on the topic by the way are Dancing on the Grave, The Mummy Congress and Necropolis. All worth a read). I find the subject fascinating, and not at all depressing. Whilst reviews discuss Hirst's emphasis on the emptiness of death, the frivolity of life and nihilism (and no Laura Cumming I don't agree that it is tired), I absolutely agree with Richard Dorment that there is a striking undertone (perhaps overtone?) of redemption in the progression of the exhibition. Last week I lost my wonderful Grandad, I loved him very much and I'm indescribably sad, but I'm so happy he met my daughter and was blessed to see his children's children's children. For me, works such as The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living 1991 and The Incomplete Truth 2006 (rather a glimpse of heaven), do not speak of nothingness, but have an immediate and positive resonance of the eternal. I found much of Hirst's work to be very hopeful. Towards the end of his life, when asked what kept my Grandad positive, he replied 'the babies, I think of the babies'. I remembered this when I peered into a huge cabinet of jewels (Judgement Day) and realised after a couple of minutes I hadn't even noticed them. I'd been too preoccupied with the clear reflection of myself with my gorgeous little girl beaming back at me. I really hope that's what Damien intended in this work.

Although I really find myself questioning the morality of a couple of Hirst's works (e.g. the made-to-die flies in A Thousand Years 1990), and was genuinely disturbed when I saw that the mother in Mother and Child Divided 2007 was pregnant (why please Damien?), the exhibition is very baby friendly. If you see it with your little ones we'd love to hear what you thought. I think we will go back and back; so if over the summer Culturebaby and I are ever missing in action, check out the Tate, we may well be found in the Hirst playground...

Monday 23 April 2012

These Are a Few of My Favourite Things

Culturebaby and I thought that every now and then we'd share with you some of her favourite cultural things. Other than the song My Favourite Things, which incidentally is (go on have a little listen), there are lots of books, songs, pictures and toys that have caught her eye/ear/little fingers/mouth.We'd love to hear about your favourites too.

Immediately on leaving hospital, we were excited to find that already Culturebaby was fascinated with black and white images. I had read an interesting book during the grumpier stages of pregnancy (when I read a lot on child development in an attempt to ignore the neverending sickness and heartburn and look beyond the scary birth ahead). It is called The Social Baby by Murray and Andrews. Using mainly pictures, it looks at how babies communicate from the very first stages, and how to pick up on these signals. It explains that in the first weeks of life babies see differently to us and are most attracted to people's faces, bold patterns (especially black and white) and contrasts between light and dark (that's why babies stare at windows). It also notes that the best distance for a baby's focus in the first few weeks is 22cm (just the distance from mummy's face while feeding - clever mother nature!). I also read a rather dense but fascinating book called Montessori from the Start. The book discusses the importance of giving babies toys with a purpose, and again talks about mobiles (the first they recommend being black and white with flat geometric shapes), mirrors and reflected light. "The baby gradually develops focus on a moving object, tracking of an object, and perception of colour and depth." It's worth getting the book just for the rough and ready diagram of psycho-motor development (hand, body and brain development - what to expect when...)

We had therefore stocked up on some black and white books and a mobile for over the changing table before Culturebaby arrived. My friends also clearly understood my geekiness and we received some lovely black and white pressies. It was worth the planning. At 5 days old Culturebaby was already turning her head and concentrating on a black and white frieze for a couple of minutes. It was so exciting to watch!

If there was a world championship in charity book shopping, my mum could represent the British heavyweights at the very least. Despite being amazed at the seemingly untouched range of discarded books she constantly finds, my mother has exploited the opportunity (and the bargain bin) and has created an entire library for Culturebaby. She also found Culturebaby's first favourite book: Ladybird's First Focus Patterns. It doesn't seem to be in print anymore, which is a shame, but there are many very similar products, such as her cloth cot book. The Pattern book was simple but brilliant (see pics) - it folded out into a frieze and could be propped up round the side of her crib or round her when she was lying down - and she loved it! Her other favourite, which we put down the side of her changing table, was a brilliant book I bought at the Tate Modern called Art For Baby. I have become rather an evangelist for it as it is both beautiful and engaging - a book (with frieze) containing monochrome images by famous artists. Ohana (1999) by Takashi Murakami was a definite favourite for Culturebaby. 

There is a fantastic range of great black and white books and products out there and here are a few more of Culturebaby's favourites:
  • Spots and Dots (Art Baby) - Spots and dots are, as you would expect, the eponymous heroes of this one, starting in black and white and building into two or three contrasting colours. It's rather hard for parents to find much to say about it, other than repeating 'spot' and 'dot' in a seemingly obsessive manner, but Culturebaby really looked hard at it. It was really good for the first few weeks as it is so simple;
  • Black and White (Amazing Baby) - This is one of the loveliest we have as it has cut-outs for little fingers to explore and a rhyme to engage baby and keep mummy sane!
  • Animals (Brighter Baby) - This beautiful book, a present from a friend, is a work of art, and was also the first book that Culturebaby turned the pages of (at 3 and a half months). She liked to flick them backwards and forwards... and eat them of course;
  • Baby's Very First Book (Pets) - This series is great as they are cloth books (great for turning, crunching and chewing) and also have a mirror on the front (containing that perenial baby, and providing endless fascination and conversation for Culturebaby). To be frank, these are rather dull for adults as they contain three words and have no apparent link between the image of said pet and random pattern, but Culturebaby loved them;
  • The Baby Shapes Pack - This is a great resource. It contains a make-your-own black and white mobile and four booklets of progressively complicated patterns in black and white. Culturebaby was mainly interested in looking sideways at the beginning (so friezes were better), but when she started to look up, the mobile was great. I planned on making one for myself, but when I saw this laziness won;
  • Babies seem to be fascinated with other babies and, surprisingly to me initially, Culturebaby really loves (and still does), books containing black and white photographs of baby's faces. This Little Baby and Baby Boo are both great, and there is rarely anything I've seen as cute as my friend's little boy going through his This Little Baby book and kissing each page goodnight...
  • There are also some great black and white toys and playmats around. The first thing that Culturebaby grabbed and held was her black and white Lamaze (we LOVE Lamaze) zebra rattle.
However, if you don't have a champion charity shopping mother and a long suffering husband who continues to be worried but tolerant of the increasing number of bookshelves in our house, or if you are one of those domesticated-types who can operate a sewing machine, there is so much you can make yourself. My mum and dad created a number of home-made black and white posters for me as a baby. I don't know if it is because we have a photograph of it, or because I remember, but I can picture distinctly one with a round smiley face - so it must have had an impact. You can also make mobiles and buy stickers to customise walls and furniture. And of course this applies to everything. One of the best things dad made for my brother as a baby, and did again for us, was to create a mobile from Christmas baubles on fishing wire. Cheap and beautiful, but very colourful too... so of course that's another (technicolour) story...

"The development of the child during the first three years after birth is unequaled in intensity and importance by any period that precedes or follows in the whole life of the child." - Maria Montessori
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