Art is popcorn for the brain

Becky Parry reports on a research visit.

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In March I was successful in my application to undertake a research visit to Finland. This was part of an EU funded Cost Action: THE DIGITAL LITERACY AND MULTIMODAL PRACTICES OF YOUNG CHILDREN (DIGILITEY) and included visiting colleagues in the University of Helsinki and Tampere. In this post I share my reflections about an exhibition I visited at the Helsinki Art Museum.

The Helsinki Art Museum is part of a broader complex which includes a cinema and various shops and fast food outlets. One of the shop fronts in the complex is an exhibition space in which manikins were positioned with buckets on their heads. This work by Jouko Korkeasaari: Mystical Rapture certainly caught the eye of the passer by, drawing them in from the cold and snowy streets.

Perhaps due to their extreme weather the Fins are very geared up for the layers of coats, scarves gloves etc and provide plentiful and free cloakrooms and lockers. As tourists we paid (teachers are free) and had a quick look at the Tove Jansson gallery before heading up to the Modernism exhibition

On the way in we found ourselves drawn to these post-it note style invitations to visitors to participate in a range of activities.

For me these simple suggestions are importantly different to the achingly dull worksheet often found in museums and galleries. Although they offer clear instructions, the outcomes are open ended. If you have a go you might become part of an art work or be inspired to devise a new movie.

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The Modernism exhibition Modern Life! – Finnish Modernism and the International Dimension was designed by Marcel Schmalgemeijer and included an array of artefacts from everyday objects to brand new buildings, photography, engines and glassware. My personal favourites were a series of chairs and dresses beautifully lit so that I couldn’t resist trying to capture them and the interesting shadows they created on my camera phone. As I did so a murmur gathered momentum and I wondered if I had done something wrong, but it turned out that there was a live musical performance beginning in the gallery – one of three musician’s creative responses to the exhibition was being performed live. It felt rather amazing to just encounter this unexpectedly and I enjoyed wondering around gazing, peering and pointing whilst the performance filled the gallery spaces.

I compared the exhibition to a recent one I had attended in the UK which has been bugging me ever since. It seemed to me to be too focused on one artist and too focused on what the work said about art, rather than what the art said about the world. This exhibition presented social history, geography, politics and economics alongside architecture, art and design. It was accessible and beautiful and I had the urge to try and capture it, albeit on a mobile. It was something I wanted to share and talk about.

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On reflection I wonder about the museum’s use of the phrase ‘art is popcorn for the brain’ – signs in English declaring this were hung all over the café, shop and entrance. I understand the link to the cinema, to accessibility and enjoyment but pop corn is such an ephemeral thing and I am not sure the analogy works entirely. Pop corn is light, fluffy and pleasurable and this exhibition could certainly not be dismissed as that. The exhibition seemed to me to be designed with a determination not to assume that the audience knew about Modernism already and was rich with contextual, explanatory  material which presented a narrative but avoided cliché (and wasn’t only speaking to the art critics that might appear on specialised radio programmes). It was concerned with giving the audience exhibits they could imaginatively engage with because they included the everyday and they included everything from rugs to aeroplane propellers. I returned to a frequently asked question I have about what art museums are for. This set the scene for my visit, providing an opportunity to think about what education, especially for the very young, is for. I was reminded of the work of Elliott Eisner and his suggestion that:

The arts celebrate multiple PERSPECTIVES. One of their large lessons is that there are many ways to SEE and INTERPRET the world.[1]

This is something that young people from the CRACL’s centre’s  TALE project have been telling us for the last year they most value about doing art. Art museums then, are not just about art, artists or art critics they are about the everyday and should inspire us to read and redesign the world critically and creatively.

[1] The NEAE has a great summary of Eisner’s ten lessons the arts teach here: https://www.arteducators.org/advocacy/articles/116-10-lessons-the-arts-teach

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