The Berwick Road Gallery – The Role of Context

Welling School is a specialist visual arts college in the borough of Bexley on the outskirts of London. The school is large, with over 1600 students, and is non-selective in an area that still operates the grammar school system. The vast majority of our students come to us having failed their 11 plus exam. Since attaining specialist status in 2002, the visual arts faculty has built a reputation for pioneering the use of contemporary art practice in the classroom. Central to this approach has been the school’s gallery.

The Berwick Road Gallery opened in 2000. The gallery is situated in the Arts Centre, a building that also houses the art studios, a large drama hall, performing arts rooms, a dance studio and the music department. It was purpose built in the best traditions of the contemporary white cube, wuth a generous 110 square metres of exhibition space, lit by a glass atrium at one end. Since the very first exhibition, a hastily put together show of large charcoal portraits by some year 10 students, the use of the space has grown. In the first few years we had a battle to keep it as a dedicated exhibition space, as it served for housing the overspill during public examinations and a myriad of other purposes. But in recent years we have developed a programme of exhibitions including touring shows from the Arts Council, collaborative exhibitions with other schools and institutions, community work and, most importantly, student exhibitions. Our programme includes family days, when the gallery is open to the public at weekends and we run workshops alongside the shows. We have hosted lectures relating to the exhibitions and, last year, held our first education conference.

One of the aims in establishing our own gallery at the school was to enable us to provide our students with the experience of examining established artwork first hand on a regular basis. The experience of seeing artwork for the first time, of examining its surface, its scale and the way it is presented, can never be replicated satisfactorily by any other means. Having a dedicated on-site gallery allows us to introduce the students to artwork in different context to that of the classroom. We recently exhibited a series of photographs by the American photographer Walker Evans. The photographs were taken during the Depression era in the southern United States. These famous images were outstanding resources for use in art lessons, of course, but were also incredibly valuable in many other curriculum areas. The exhibition lasted for a month. Having the photographs on hand for this length of time enabled staff to use them on a regular basis; visiting and re-visiting the gallery. Unlike planning an excursion to a public museum, classes could drop in for part of a lesson; homework could be set that involved a visit to the gallery at lunchtime.

In the art faculty, the photographs provided a springboard for some of the year 7 classes to explore the uses of photography as a document. The students began to ask questions about the relationship between photography and the truth. Inspired by the exhibition, they made up their own narrative photographs, dressing one another up, organising the lighting and framing and creating images of their own. They were able to continually refer back to the original photographs, making notes and producing sketches to help them in the creation of their own work.

Whilst exhibitions like this provide our students with a fantastic opportunity to experience works of art up close, the gallery has come to be used predominantly to showcase the work of the students themselves. The two highlights of the annual programme are The alTURNERtive Prize, an exhibition of work from a shortlist of GCSE and A level students that takes place every autumn, and The YWA (Young Welling Artists), an exhibition of work by students from years 7, 8 & 9. Both these exhibitions prove an inspiration to students and encourage them to discuss one another’s work with the degree of seriousness usually reserved for established artwork.

The reputation of these exhibition, in particular The alTURNERtive Prize, has grown considerably since the first show in 2002. The exhibitions are professionally organised with well attended private views and glossy catalogues. The entire experience is of huge value, both to the students participating and their peers. They are able to see that their work is taken seriously and also begin to develop an understanding of how the context of the gallery can transform its reading. To be looking at photographs by Walker Evans one week, and then seeing your own art in its place a matter of weeks later is an incredibly encouraging and positive experience.

The most exciting effect of the onsite gallery has been the way in which it is informing the work the students make. Our emphasis is on the contemporary, on viewing the students as artists in their own right, albeit ones aged 11-18. As the gallery has become an accepted feature of the school, fully embedded in the fabric of everyday routine, the students have become more and more confident in using the space. In the first years exhibitions were exclusively organised by members of staff from the visual arts. Recently this emphasis has shifted. Students are now very conscious of the role that exhibiting their work has, both in terms of audience and the consideration they need to take when planning how work will be seen. More and more the gallery is used by the students as a forum for presenting ideas, a place where work can be exposed for discussion and debate. Their familiarity with the space, the ease with which they take work into it, present ideas in a professional manner, document them, alter them, and encourage responses from an audience, has completely transformed the ways in which they approach the practice of making art. No longer are they creating things in a vacuum. Their work is intrinsically linked to its reading by others. We are encouraging them to place importance on how their work will be perceived, to incorporate an understanding of its possible meaning into the development of their ideas.

In a recent example, a year 12 student studying for an AS level in Fine Art was responding to an exam question; ‘Architectural Features’, Inspired by the work of the artist Anna Barriball, her early experiments centred on a direct recording of features such as door frames and panels by making rubbings. She made plaster casts and Sellotape casts of elements such as a frame and stair banister. She used a photocopier to create reproductions of bricks and created a substantial photocopied wall. Eventually her explorations led her to a dilapidated doll’s house. What followed were a series of photographs of its interior. Macro shots blurred the scale, creating disconcerting images of abandoned empty rooms. The photographs were extremely beautiful, but it was when considering the way in which they might be presented, when investigating the context of the gallery space that the work began to open up to a more profound interpretation. She spent some time working in the gallery, projecting her images onto the walls so that they were room size. The corners of the photographed rooms lined up with the corners of the gallery space. These subtle ambiguous photographs now placed us, as viewers, inside the doll’s house. The scale becomes blurred even further; the experience of viewing them more disconcerting. The facility to use such a space, and the development of an understanding about how it can be used, is literally transforming the work that the students are able to make.

Having such a space at hand means that the students can be much more ambitious in terms of scale and materials. They can embark on large-scale work with the intention of exhibiting it. This has resulted in some spectacular work, such as the neon pink haystack created by a year 13 student, the Jeff Koon’s inspired puppy constructed from discarded cardboard boxes standing eight feet tall and built by a team of students from year 8 and the labyrinth made from black bin liners that literally transformed the gallery into a confusing maze. Also ambitious in the sense of being able to make work that, in the context of the productive chaos of the studio/classroom, would otherwise be lost. In the YWA this year one of our students produced a conceptual sculpture involving different ways in which one could present a roll of masking tape: as a roll, as a screwed up ball and as a carefully layered pattern. Without the context of the gallery and the clean white plinth upon which it was exhibited, the intentions of the piece, whilst of undoubted value, would be difficult to isolate and discuss.

Encouraging students to take this degree of seriousness with their own practice has enabled us to introduce discussions on a whole range of issues. The all too present question, ‘Is it art?’ becomes irrelevant because the students themselves can see the value of making things and using the gallery space to present them and debate what they represent. The question of purpose and the consideration of audience is something rarely covered at secondary school level. It is usually not until art college that one begins to think about how work might be perceived. But the utilisation of a gallery as a forum for forum for the presentation of ideas is empowering the students with the confidence to think about their own practice in these terms. This confidence is spreading. The students are beginning to think about other spaces too. They are actively seeking out locations, both real spaces and virtual ones, in which to exhibit and make their work.

This consideration of context is resulting in some interesting developments. One colleague is encouraging his students to interact with the fabric of his room on a regular basis, literally turning the room into an on-going exhibition, where the furniture and even the walls and ceiling are valid components in the process of making.

Another colleague has used the website and set up a school group. The original intention was to invite some of our A level photography students to upload their work so that the group could share and discuss ideas. Very quickly the make-up of the group evolved and students from other year groups and disciplines signed up. At present there are almost a hundred members, including members of staff and students as young as year 7. This virtual gallery has democratised the process of making and exhibiting. The students’ confidence in presenting their work, in particular, their willingness to comment on one another’s work, including staff, has created an intensely lively and continuous debate. It has become a vibrant forum for the exchange of ideas. It is not unusual for a student to post an image on the site, a member of staff to comment on it, recommending an artist to look at, only to have the student reply a little later, having looked up the artist and found another of interest for the member of staff to investigate.

This concept of co-learning, of sharing ideas and democratisation, is manifesting itself physically in our next exhibition, entitled Atelier. Each teacher in the faculty has chosen a 6th form student to exhibit with. Some of the parings have chosen to show existing work alongside one another, others are making work specially for the exhibition, agreeing on a theme ore suggesting a dialogue. Others still are working collaboratively.

Perhaps the most exciting development has been a very recent one. The students are beginning to embrace this notion of the importance of context and utilising space, specifically the gallery, in a sophisticated and independent way. It has become commonplace for a student to ask for the gallery keys in order to take a piece they are working on and isolate it in that space. They experiment with different ways of presenting their work, different approaches to organising it. Their awareness of the importance of documenting this process often leads to new work in its own right. One current year 10 student has been making hundreds of tiny wax figures. Each lesson he takes his box containing them into the gallery and sets them up in different configurations, photographing each possible layout and recording the activity in his sketchbook. He is embracing the intention to display his sculpture, but at the same time negotiating how the context in which he places it will alter its possible meanings. Earlier this year he created traffic jams by placing toy cars in the school corridors.

Whilst the on-site gallery is largely responsible for educating the students to consider context, it has been the ways in which they work in other areas of the school, outside the studio, that provide the most exciting model for other schools to follow. Just as much of current art practice is about ephemeral activities, many of our students are beginning to include performance in their work. This can be highlighted with examples by two of our 6th form students. In one case a year 12 student designed and constructed a costume for himself based on the film Pan’s Labyrinth. He proceeded to disguise himself in a suit and went off to explore the school, with a fellow student documenting the experience on video. This initial ‘performance’ led to others. He worked in the school, standing in one of the outside spaces looking through the window at students travelling from one lesson to another. He also went off-site, taking himself to some nearby woods.

In a more confrontational piece, another student made work in response to body issues and the pressure she feels as a young woman to conform to a particular beauty stereotype. She arranged to perform as part of a year 10 assembly. Two friend donned white, hooded boiler suits, such as the ones used by forensic scientists working at a crime scene. They carried a sheet of Perspex into the hall and stood in front of the assembly. The student herself then entered in silence, her face coated in excessive make-up. She proceeded to smear herself against the Perspex, facing the gathered and open-mouthed year 10 students, creating a painting in make-up that seemed to reference Abstract Expressionism. The impact on the younger students was enormous and generated much interesting discussion afterwards about the purpose and meaning behind her act.

Having a gallery at the heart of our school has profoundly affected the way in which we teach and the way in which students create art. It has highlighted the role that context plays in making things and generated an essential debate about the ways in which we communicated with one another. The on-going dialogue with space, context and audience, which the gallery has fostered, has had many important consequences. Above all it has encouraged our us to take our students’ work seriously, treating it not as immature ‘student’ work, but as the justifiable expression of artists of their age. This is illustrated beautifully in much of the work being made by one of our year 13 students. He had begun by experimenting with casting. Inspired by Rachel Whiteread, he had been looking at casting the inside of existing objects. It led to the creation of an entire series of concrete, semi-deflated footballs. Each one cast from a lost ball, found whilst exploring the roof of the school. The series is currently exhibited outside in the light well of the main school building. The footballs look fossilised and have taken on a poignant meaning, seemingly representing the hopes and ambitions of the students that have passed through the school. They are a testament to the passing of time. The work has a profound meaning because of its maker, a school student, and the content it was made and shown in: school.

Discussions are now in place to install the concrete balls back on the roof as a permanent installation.

Published in Engage Journal 22. Summer 2008