7th Swiss Sculpture Exhibition Biel
What Can a Sculpture Exhibition Do for Children?
The question may evoke memories of the previous Sculpture Exhibition: for three months, the "Grosser Boss" (Big Boss) by Bernhard Luginbühl was a great children's attraction; as was Ivan Pestalozzi's "Lozziwurm" (Lozzi Dragon), now to be admired in the Stadtpark(Municipal Park).
Admirers of traditional "plinth art" will consider these playful, hands and feet-on sculptures with some scepticism, their best reaction likely, "I suppose one should probably do something for children." If all goes well, such works may even satisfy traditional adult expectations and in the art world, the category of "walk-in sculptures" has been created for them.
However, this is not the full answer to the initial question. Consider this simple fact: half of all the sculptures that the city of Biel, for example, has acquired over the past thirty years is located in schools and school grounds. A good part of each Sculpture Exhibition should therefore be dedicated to children and young people, who could take this opportunity to discuss their ideas and wishes with the artists, placing commissions and making new acquisitions. However, children should not be made to merely copy adults.
1950s figurative sculpture was largely about the endeavour to create a link between art and children/school; art committees and architects were motivated by the same intention to select sculptures such as "Werdegang des Lebens" (Evolution of Life), "La ronde" (Roundabout), "Der Zirkus" (The Circus), the head of a girl, the portrait of a boy, animals of all kinds – a goat, a little bear, a turkey, a cockerel and a hen. I would not like to pretend that this kind of art is particularly well suited for children; nor is my list a plea for the renaissance of figurative sculpture. It does seem, however, that abstract art has become even more of an expert subject, with works selected by adults to suit their adult taste, albeit guided by pedagogical concepts perhaps. A dialogue between children and artists seldom occurs. On rare occasions, a wall painting may be realised in an act of cooperation between artist and pupils. However, I would really not want to restrict our artists to creations incorporating slides, wading pools and climbing structures. I even believe that such play objects – if they are to fulfil their actual function – do not necessarily have to be designed according to aesthetic criteria. I do, however, think that artists should more often consider children as partners whose specific perception needs to be taken into account.
In 1950s "garden architecture", sculptures largely played a decorative role that had no bearing on the architecture of any specific school. As real estate grew increasingly scarce and areas were ever more densely built-up, sculptures came to be more integrated, for example to subdivide buildings and break up façades. This is relevant to children as their perception is less selective than that of adults. Children find their bearings according to spontaneous spatial impressions rather than functional criteria. Younger children who have difficulty coping with spatial dimensions will perceive such fixed points, e.g. the column at the centre of the recreation area; the iron relief that divides a concrete façade; the round shape and warm material of a wooden sculpture that contrasts with the sober exposed concrete surface of an interior wall; the column of stainless steel, which stands a little to the side of an expanse of lawn – a magic object that reflects the viewer and the green grass. Art will provide emotional points of reference in a space that the adult mind would primarily perceive for its functional purpose. Such focal points will make it easier for children to find their bearings, and might even make them feel more comfortable. Sculptures are more child-friendly than two-dimensional museum art. They can be walked around, hidden behind, touched; they can often be sat on without causing damage; and they belong to everyone. A seven-year-old child is very capable of consciously perceiving and responding to art objects, and of expressing his or her thoughts or feelings – all it takes is some stimulus from an adult.
In the examples given above I have been thinking of the Sahligut School in Biel, with its sculptures by Raffael Benazzi, Willi Weber, Franz Eggenschwiler, Michel Engel and André Ramseyer. It seems to me to be a successful example of a rich selection of architectural forms, shapes and materials of the most diverse kind, which render locations unmistakeable to the pupils, helping them to find their bearings. If, nonetheless, there is something missing here, it is the continuous dialogue that should begin well before the finished works are set in their final locations. This, by the way, is equally true for school buildings where the interplay of architecture and art goes a great deal further. The identity of the authors of the beautifully shaped, strange, mysterious and possibly scary objects usually remains a mystery. The school is completed, the architect and artist have done their job; the pupils move in.
There may be good reasons to keep artists away from the world of education. Our society holds a number of prejudices against the artist and his role, the most persistent one being that of the artist as a privileged, enviable person who is free to pursue his own ideas, insights, playfulness and desire to create. Such freedom and whoever incarnates it are not entirely harmless. The artist is a kind of messenger of man liberated from certain societal constraints. His art is driven by innovation and change, which does not, however, mean that change essentially occurs only in and through art.
However, there are some encouraging examples for approaches to art that have emerged from a process between artists and children without relegating the artist to being a mere builder of climbing towers. It would be ideal if artists could be in continuous contact with the respective school as they pursue their own artistic objectives; and if this contact with active artistic creation could give pupils more impulses to nurture and unfold their own creativity. This might mitigate a great deal of the currently existing alienation between artists and their audiences.
© Translation from German, August 2008: Margret Powell-Joss