When they were very young we took our children to see exhibitions. In a country where it rains more than the sun shines, it was a good place to take them: it was indoors (though not always), there was space, usually not too many people, interesting shapes and colours to look at (even if they didn’t understand) and a chance for the adults to feel “adult”. There were always those unforgettable moments when your child was the one lying prone on the gallery floor, legs kicking and murmured explanations of “they just don’t want to leave” , or the disappearance under a no-entry cordon out of sight, setting off a train of panic that could only be made worse by the sound of an alarm going off because an identified visitor had touched an artwork. We remember, even if they don’t.
Occasionally a particular exhibition or piece of art would mesmerise them and they would talk about it for weeks, later becoming absorbed in to family folk lore. The more strange, the better – Richard Wilson’s 20:50 oil installation at the Saatchi Gallery being such an example. Creating themselves was inevitable. A house filled with crayons, paints and pens and a fridge pasted with the latest master pieces that extended beyond the magnets and crept up the walls. It was their space to fill as we all pleased.
As they grew older the master pieces became replaced with photos of their landmarks, more refined master pieces and holiday fun. When we mentioned the word “exhibition” the room would miraculously empty as they informed us of previously arranged commitments that couldn’t be avoided, friends waiting for them and more homework than would possibly allow them to go out at that point. So we would make arrangements and go on our own.
But then something better happened. We started to buy art and bring it home to put on our walls. Six households buying and sharing art collaboratively between and in their own homes. The Collective had arrived.
To the children it meant periodic gatherings (“exchanges”) where they could meet up with their cousins and friends and eat cake whilst the grown-ups looked at art. They ran round the house playing hide and seek and occasionally voiced an opinion on what their favourite piece of art (and cake) was “can we take that one home this time?”. Cake and painting. Exchanges were social occasions for all ages. We encouraged interest and opinion in what works we chose to bid for and take home for our walls, even if it fell on deaf ears.
As they grew older our three children welcomed their friends in to our house, as we would want them to. Their friends accepted we had lots of art on our walls and even expressed their opinions – noticing when things changed “oh, don’t you have the one with the circles any more?” , “What does this one mean?” Our own children often reacted strongly: “I’m not eating at the table with that drawing looking down at me!” ,”That work shouldn’t be in here, or my friends won’t come round”. But they did come round, and their friends either ignored the art or engaged in conversation with us, asking questions about a particular piece, “everyone has an opinion” muses our eldest son, “there’s always something to say“. A few started to look for the changes and grew to expect new works over time pointing out anything new. “It’s like a feature of our home”, our youngest son pointed out, “you live with it, but it doesn’t mean you always like it”.
At Christmas time when families gathered the cousins delighted in entertaining us with an annual sketch of The Collective “in action”, how we engaged and how we purchased art, bringing us to our knees with laughter, but only because they knew what an important part of all our lives it was – and that nothing would change that.
Recently we acquired sculptures by artist Jemima Brown – life size figures, one of them eerily realistic. Collective member Jo Eastop described her experiences with it in her house – and her son’s reaction:
“That thing frightened the life out of me!” he said. For the first few days, Beigelbird frightened the life out of me too. Every time I came down the stairs in the morning I jumped. I’d go into a room, become preoccupied with something, forget about Beigelbird, come back out and get another shock. Visitors to the house were dumb-founded and amused. “Oh my God what’s that?”
A friend of my son’s came over. “Do you like our new art work?” I asked. “It’s not something you actually like, is it?” our son replied.
Living with unusual pieces of art goes a long way to challenging one’s perceptions and understandings of what is “likeable”, child or adult. When we visit a gallery or an art fair you have reactions to all kinds of art , but you know you can walk away and never look at it again. Living with art in your home is another experience altogether. You see it at different times of the day, with different moods, different lighting and can surprise yourself each time, for better or for worse. You can absorb the reaction of those who enter the house. It becomes a relationship, a daily transaction that you can take something from or just accept , even if “like” isn’t the first thing that springs to mind. It’s enough.