Thursday 24 March 2016

Calder for Kids
Alexander Calder,
Antennae with Red and Blue Dots, c1953
Aluminium and steel wire © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002

Since the Culturebabies have been around there's been a number of wonderfully bright, enagaging and immersive exhibitions at the Tate Modern that have been perfect to excite little minds and senses. This year's Spring retrospective is another goodie: showcasing the innovative art of Alexander Calder. He is most famous for his invention of that staple item of the nursery: the mobile (scuplture in motion) and so it is a particularly appropriate exhibition for young families.

I can imagine as babies that the girls would have loved the simple, giant, bright and floating works - so its an recommended trip for parents with babes in arms. This time we had a barrier-defying toddler and four year old Culturebaby and it was perhaps fortunate that the former passed out in the first room and I was able to focus on one child. The excellent exhibition begins with Calder's earlier work with wire (we even found a Gorgon!) and toys with moving parts. An engineer by training, Calder loved to work with all sorts of random objects - creating beauty from rubbish. His 1927 'Dog', using only a piece of wood, clothespeg and wire could not be anything other than a canine. There is genius in his work's simplicity, and it is therefore so accessible to children who could easily emulate these creations themselves. The sadness, of course, with some of these originally moving works is that they can no longer be operational and sit glumly, robbed by time and creaky parts, of their true glory. For a child they are consequently rather easy to miss. Less so, however, are his circus performers. Due to a couple of brilliant books we read on Calder before going to the exhibition, Culturebaby noticed these immediately. Calder loved the Circus so much that he created his own company from cork, wire, cloth, leather and other parts, bringing them to life with music and moving parts. We went on to create our own junk-modelled version at home later.

There is then a series of, frankly more exciting, rooms with some stabiles and a whole host of enormous mobiles. The largest room is the most awe-inspiring. Sensitive enough at times to respond to being blown, these kinetic sculptures quiver and spin in response to the movement in the rooms. Culturebaby, unpromped, lay and looked up at a number of them from below. Passers-by clearly looked on, wishing they were quite so brave as a child! Needing little explanation but prompting much observation and discussion about the materials used, the colours and why some moved more than others, this exhibition needed no additional activity than a game of spot the picture in the mini exhibition guide throughout the rooms and some sculpting with a chain (see Geis' book below).

However, when we went for coffee afterwards, Culturebaby immediately got out her (gorgeous and inventive) Meet the Artist: Alexander Calder by Patricia Geis, and began to set up the pop-up circus contained therein. This is one of the most interactive and clever art books I've seen and I highly recommend. It contains pop-ups, press-out play scenes, and even a chain to sculpt into profiles. It also covers some great facts about the artist's life. His friends called him Sandy and his favourite colour was red. He worked with it, and he wore it. He created toys, designed jewellery, painted and even decorated cars and planes. We can see some of his moving sculptures from the mere age of 11 and by the time he was in his 40s, he created stabile structures so large people could walk under them. His dynamic works brought to life the Parisisan avant-garde's fascination with movement. Calder said that: "When everything goes right, a mobile is a piece of poetry that dances with the joy of life and surprise." So very true. One of my ensuring memories of a child was of a mobile my Dad created for my brother from Christmas baubles. We did the same for Culturebaby.

At home we followed on with some themed creative activities and, happily, this time I was able to be deeply lazy and use the inventiveness of others as insipration. On several occasions we made Calder-inspired sculptures using a gorgeous set of Shapescapes ("Sculpture in a Box") sent to us from the Tate shop to try out. As a child (and adult) I've always loved Galt's Octons, a great construction tool made up of various coloured 8 sided shapes. Shapescapes uses a similar principle - colourful pieces slotting together to create wonderful designs, but the range of pieces is fantastic and irregular - resulting in the youngest child being able to design their own easy-to-make colourful sculptures. This is the sort of open-ended and beautifully-made resource that stimulates truly independent and creative play and we will treasure and no doubt use it in many ways as the children grow. I've rarely seen Culturebaby so creative and imaginative as I did recently when she created an entire Sculpture Park for her miniature dolls to explore, climb, ride and discuss.

Then finally, using Ed Cheverton's clever book Meet the Circus, we set about our own junk-modeling and made our own troupe of Calder-inspired performers. This children's book, inspired by but not majoring on, Calder's work invites the reader to take inspiration from the ideas in the book to create extra characters, use their imagination to make sculptures with moving parts and set up a circus ring in their own living room with their creations. Aided by a vintage Duplo audience and a stash of arty and crafty bits, toilet rolls, clips, balls and even curtain rings, we constructed four rather cute characters and helped them perform. The circus even had to do a run of a few days. Success indeed!


 I'd like to do one further follow-on activity in the coming weeks - actually create some mobiles with the girls with wire and sturdy cut out card. Here's an example of the sort of thing from Deceptively Educational. Given Culture-Grandad's excellent track record with making some (truly stunning) ones for us as children, I figure this might well call for a spot of targeted delegation...

Alexander Calder is open at the Tate Modern until 3rd April, and would be an excellent family Easter outing. Further information is available here. We were very grateful to receive a review copy of Meet the Circus and a set of Shapescapes from the Tate Shop (available here). We purchased a set of postcards for I-Spy and our own copy of Alexander Calder by Patricia Geis from Tate's shop. All come highly recommended as truly creativity-inspiring resources. Here is also a worksheet produced by Tate Create to make your own circus.

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