Yesterday I managed to persuade my family to accompany me to the Do It Exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery which I’d stumbled across on the BBC Website a while ago. I wanted to try to get them all engaged in art whereas previously I’d had mixed success. I was also quite intrigued to see the exhibition for myself of course.
I don’t think any of us knew what to expect when we first arrived. My eldest son started off with the usual ‘I’m bored’ as we started our visit reading the information displayed and looking at the photographs on the walls about the Do It project.
We then moved from the main entrance and in the next room where we saw a large black plastic sheet upon which was a large ball made out of wet newspapers. Three children were busily and happily adding new sheets of paper to this ball, so I invited my youngest to join in. It took some persuasion but he did join in. We had to coax him away when we wanted to see what else was on offer.
The main part of the exhibition consisted of either interactive art for visitors or art created by the gallery for this exhibition taken from ‘instructions’ written by artists chosen by curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist.
The Do It project began 20 years ago (in fact this exhibition in Manchester marks its anniversary) and has taken place in over 50 locations since it began. It all began in Paris in 1993 after a conversation between Obrist and artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier. Obrist was interested to see if exhibition formats could become more flexible and open to interpretation.
The instructions from artists range from clever, witty, quirky, obscure to the mundane and to the utterly bizarre or impossible (my personal favourite: draw all the world’s curtains at the same time). The idea is that ordinary people as well as museums can follow out these instructions and create their own interpretation, to some extent, of the resulting ‘art work’. Artists who have supplied instructions include Ai Weiwei, Yoko Ono, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Andrews Slominski, Gilbert & George and Olafur Eliasson.
The Do It project is a good example of site-specific art. It involves the local community in a dialogue that responds to the various instructions. The presentation of art here becomes less concerned with the idea of reproduction and more interested with individual human interpretation. The Do It idea aimed to cross the boundaries of past, present, future. Or that is the idea, at least.
If my aim in taking my children was to engage them in art, and cross some of those boundaries, then I fulfilled that. After encountering the large paper ball, they quickly caught on to the idea and walked around the exhibits following the instructions as they moved around: adding their wishes to Yoko Ono’s wishing tree, drawing to music in the dark, peering down into a big box to try to read a post-it note, squeezing a lemon over an upturned bicycle seat, wrapping themselves in a purple cloth and leaning backwards and humming a tune in a room.
We managed to spend a good two hours at the gallery. All three children were pleasantly surprised to find themselves enjoying their afternoon.
I think they liked the fact that they were allowed to play a part in the creating of art, as if they had permission to play in a place that usually seems to them so staid and formal. Perhaps it was also because they felt that their contribution to the event was as valuable as an adult’s. They were being respected as equally able to contribute to the art as any adult.
I went home with a warm and happy feeling believing that I had achieved my aim and had engaged my children in art. That feeling stayed with me until I read what my middle son had written in his school holiday diary about the day. Perhaps I need to try harder.
Ulrich Obrist, H. ed., 2013 (in collaboration with the Independent Curators International) do it: the compendium. D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc, New York