‘We didn’t think they would use animals as trampolines’ – Assemble unleashes squidgy mayhem | Exhibitions

A a gigantic green ball is on the loose, rounded up by a gang of school children, who happily speed it towards a circle of squishy foam animals, crashing into a spotlight hanging from the ceiling along the way. Other children jump between the vinyl-covered creatures, changing from turtle to tiger, while a boy begins rodeo riding a seal. In the next room, another class rushes down a series of shiny red slides that radiate from a tiered podium, while others are busy with scraps of gold leaf, taking turns jumping and sticking their glittering fingerprints on the walls of Contemporary Nottingham.

This is exactly the kind of joyful chaos that modernist architect Lina Bo Bardi envisioned when she sketched an illustration of the public square in her art museum in São Paulo (Masp) in 1968. At the height of the Brazil’s repressive military dictatorship, she imagined a world of innocent play, where children climbed rainbow carousels, crawled through tubes and slid down the red ribbon-like slides of her “rideable sculptures” – who have never seen the light of day.

“She portrayed an impossible reality,” says Jane Hall, a member of award-winning architecture collective Turner Assemble, who was commissioned by Nottingham Gallery to bring some of Bo Bardi’s playful projects to life more than half a century later. have drawn them. “You could never have had children occupying the public space like this under the dictatorship, but she wanted them to be the cornerstone of the institution.” As Bo Bardi implored: “Young people will be the protagonists of the life of the museum through design, music and theatre”.

The Nottingham exhibition takes his evocative drawing as the starting point for the installations, which see two of his playful sculptures created for the first time, as well as a third developed in collaboration with local schoolchildren. A display case at the gallery’s entrance features a gloopy clay tableau of amorphous odds and ends made with the schoolchildren, which was then “interpreted” by Assemble (with a healthy dose of artistic license) into the play structure The result is an enigmatic thing, a green wooden lattice cocoon lined with plush blue cushions, which emit recordings of playground noises when pressed, all topped with the capital inflatable green ball, crowning the structure as a large shiny pea.

Don't be as elaborately kitted out as soft play, but it's free… Nottingham kids climb and slide.
Don’t be as elaborately kitted out as soft play, but it’s free… Nottingham kids climb and slide. Photography: Julian Hughes

“We never imagined they would climb on it,” says a supervisor, watching slightly dismayed as a group of children climb the wooden structure and take turns launching themselves on the inflatable ball, trying to pop it. . “We also didn’t anticipate that they would use the animals as trampolines.”

Adults can never predict what children will do, which makes this spectacle a surreal delight (and a possible headache for those running the space). Unlike the usual normative adult-designed play equipment, the objects in these galleries are intended to be triggers for an unforeseen universe of imaginative play, directed by the children themselves with anarchic joy. It may not be as elaborately outfitted as the play center up the street, but it’s free – and it comes with the added thrill of being allowed to charge like this in the sacred setting of a contemporary art gallery. The process has also been a boon to local schools, injecting free-form mischief into the curriculum.

“Schools can sometimes build a system that saps children’s imaginations,” says Ross Brooks, acting headteacher at Jubilee Academy in Bilbrough, one of the schools affected. “The art curriculum is often quite standardized, but this project really opened our students’ eyes to a different world. I noticed them mingling with others they wouldn’t normally play with on the playground and really working cooperatively.

As part of Nottingham Contemporary’s Schools of Tomorrow programme, artists have resided in seven primary schools and one nursery over the past three years, carrying out activities which also feature in the exhibition. The precarious projector shows images from a GoPro camera strapped to toddlers’ heads – play through children’s eyes. Another wall lays out a series of game rules, intended to be edited and supplemented by sticky notes by visitors for the duration of the exhibition. Another shows a typeface developed by the students, which was used to doodle other prompts to play on the walls around the gallery. “Just stop then start”, says a slogan. “Forget the weather,” says another.

Write on the wall… this playful typeface was developed by students.
Write on the wall… this playful typeface was developed by students. Photography: Julian Hughes

The children obviously had a great time in these workshops and, from the schools’ point of view, the impact is clear. “It might be quite common to be the first generation in the family to go to college,” one teacher tells me. “But for some of our children, they are the first member of their family to go to a gallery. This exhibition literally opens doors. As social awareness, the program has brought benefits, but the workshops don’t particularly translate to much meaning on the gallery walls. Instead, the work looks a bit like thumbnails from the institution’s annual report, dutifully recording the results of the learning team.

The use of Lina Bo Bardi also seems a little thin. In recent years, she has become a fashionable figure cited by socially minded artists and architects, keen to align their work with her inclusive, user-centred approach to the design of buildings and public spaces. . Less celebrated than her male counterparts for much of the 20th century, she has posthumously enjoyed a series of exhibitions over the past decade, one of which was also curated by Assemble. Perhaps because of this, the Nottingham fair seems to assume that its visitors will know of his work and limits its presence to a single screen showing a few images and quotes. Why her, visitors might wonder. Why this drawing in particular? Why now?

Yet such questions seem to bother children little as they rush through rooms, bouncing between play structures in euphoric disbelief that an art gallery could ever be so much fun. You can almost hear the ghost of Bo Bardi chuckling as the cheers echo through the building.

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