It helps, really and truly. They take everything at face value and are completely lacking in artifice. As Picasso once said: "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up."
Ahead of tomorrow's Family Day at Glasgow's Tramway, I visited the new exhibition of work by veteran Greece-born artist Jannis Kounellis with my daughter Mia (eight), her friend Daisy (seven) and Daisy's three-year-old brother Vaughan. Publicity material for the show told me Kounellis was a leading figure in the Arte Povera movement that emerged in the 1960s. This group of artists rejected traditional art materials and used unconventional everyday objects in their work, as well as experimental styles.
It'a a natural adult reaction to feel stupid when you don't know one leading contemporary artist from another, not to mention art movements, but I switched off at the description of Kounellis's use of "antithetical media". Too much information can spoil the way you absorb art – a fact children seem to know instinctively.
This exhibition is on tour as part of the Artist Rooms collection, gifted to the National Galleries of Scotland and the Tate by Anthony D'Offay in 2008. It features installations by Kounellis dating back to 1969, plus new work created by the 76-year-old in response to this former tram shed during an extended stay in Glasgow earlier this year. All of his works are nameless, with just the year of creation given alongside the word Untitled.
The gallery had provided sketchbooks for young visitors, and the two girls fell upon them and plonked themselves on the concrete floor in the middle of the gallery. As they sat beside a couple of large, rectangular iron plates with six large bells sitting on the shiny, luminescent surface (Untited, 2006), they started to fill in their pads by showing and telling what they saw in the gallery ("brown bags, sacks, an archway, blue coats, green bells"). As they worked, little Vaughan stood under one of five huge brown sacks. He was the perfect fit.
We looked up to where the sacks were suspended by hemp roped from Tramway's central columns. "What's inside?" asked Daisy. A quick chat with the gallery assistant later, and we'd discovered the sacks (Untitled, 2012) were filled with old furniture.
"Why?" chorused the girls. In search of an answer, we discovered that although Kounellis moved to Italy in 1956 at the age of 20, he was born in the Greek port of Piraeus and much of his work borrows imagery from a childhood spent in and around the docks. "He used to see the ships loading and unloading huge sacks of people's furniture on the move," the gallery assistant told the girls.
The new work Kounellis has created for Tramway builds on recurring themes in his five-decade-long career. Untitled, 1969, for example – consisting of seven rough hessian sacks filled with coffee beans, lentils, rice, dried peas, corn and red-and-white beans – also conjured up the bustle of a busy sea port for the children.
In the middle of the space, carrying on from the metal-plates-and-bell installation, and still part of the suspended-canvas-sacks set piece, is another work, also called Untitled, 2012. This consists of a series of steel girders, placed in parallel fashion like a mini railway line; each girder wrapped in dark blue-and-black woollen working men's coats (a recurring Kounellis motif) held in place with criss-crossing steel wire. The installation comes to a halt at the far end of the gallery with a black painted square on the white brick wall like a full stop.
At the opposite end of the space is a large rectangular steel panel featuring donkey jackets pinned to the wall by large meat hooks. This is another new work by Kounellis for Tramway. The girls cheerfully sketched these macabre looking "figures", adding their own little flourishes, such as shiny buttons and braided cuffs.
Kounellis trained as a painter, and paint occasionally finds it way into this exhibition, but what struck me is an undeniable painterliness about the composition of all his installations. The huge Untitled, 2004, consists of a hundred or so steel girders, welded together and turned into cruciform shapes, resting on a patchwork of invitingly soft-looking Turkish rugs. A black hat and coat hangs off one of the beams at the far end. In the exhibition notes, Kounellis describes it as "a clash of civilisations, a meeting of technology and spirituality".
It's easy to see why this industrial space appealed to Kounellis. There is a raw beauty to his work that fills it perfectly. In a city that knows all about girders, bells and donkey-jacketed workers, it's the perfect fit.
Artist Rooms: Jannis Kounellis, Tramway, Glasgow (0845 330 3501, www.tramway.org) until September 23. Tramway Family Day is tomorrow, 12.30-5pm.
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