NORTH ADAMS -- "Freedom: Just Another Word For Š" marks the beginning of this year’s Kidspace exhibition at MASS MoCA, which will run thorough May 4, 2014. Featuring works by four international artists as well as a variety of art making activities, the exhibit invites visitors to explore the relationship between language and visual art and to develop their own interpretations of the work on view.
Kidspace, Inc. is a collaborative effort by MASS MoCA, the Clark Art Institute and the Williams College Museum of Art - three museums with different but often overlapping initiatives.
Laura Thomson, director of education at MASS MoCA, explained that each museum’s Kidspace program is determined by its other programming goals for the year. Each museum will take its own approach to this year’s theme, Words and Images, exploring how artists express meaning and the words that might be associated with their work.
When asked to visualize the concept of freedom, Thompson said, kids are often challenged to get beyond cultural stereotypes like the Statue of Liberty or events from American history.
The topic of freedom is often covered under the lens of the social studies curriculum, she said, "and we wanted to look at it in a broader sense - to talk beyond nationalism or national identity."
The work of contemporary artists Roger Shimomura, Xu Bing, Long-Bin Chen, Gonkar Gyatso, Ran Hwang and Ang Tsherin Sherpa will provide a more global perspective of how "freedom" can be expressed.
Some of the works were created specifically for the exhibition. Using his technique of "Square Word Calligraphy," which reconfigures English words to look like Chinese characters, Xu created the word "Freedom," and the exhibit will also include one of Xu’s light box displays, which use shadows to create the illusion of brush strokes. By adding materials, visitors can create their own shadow-and-light images.
Shimomura, a Japanese-American artist whose colorful, cartoon-like paintings often involve his experience living in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, served as the starting point for the exhibition, Thompson said.
"A lot of his images are dealing with this contemplation of what it means to be an American during a time when he was being pointed at as being Japanese and being the enemy," she said. In his paintings, which include elements of traditional Japanese art, Shimomura often depicts himself as a Disney character or comic book hero, shedding light on issues of identity in a globalized world.
All of the artists’ work reveal personal life stories. Tibetan artists Gyatsu and Tsherin use their work as a medium for reflecting on Chinese-Tibetan relationships and Tibet’s struggle for autonomy. Ran Hwang of South Korea describes her work with buttons, pins and beads as a practice in mindfulness meditation. The work of Long Bin Chen (which was featured at MASS MoCA in 2005) includes Buddha heads and other statues carved from nailed-together books.
"So we’re Š using these artists’ works to expand the concept of freedom to mean the spiritual, personal, geographical, political - all sorts of different ways in which you can examine that word," Thompson said.
Visitors will be encouraged to use the art on display as a jumping off point for creating artwork of their own. The museum’s Art Bar will provide art supplies and a space where visitors can work and interact.
"We’re a gallery but we’re also a studio space," Thompson said. "So half of our space we have the exhibition, and then we’re using the exhibition to think about how you might actually create a work - not necessarily a similar style, but using maybe a similar material or process."
In line with the contemplative (and eastern) focus of "Freedom," the exhibit will include areas for meditation - something the museum has offered in the past as well. In 2011 and 2012, the Kidspace exhibit "Under the Sea" included a video by Deborah Wing-Sproul, of the artist meditating by the sea, and provided a meditation area for visitors.
During the most recent Kidspace exhibition, "Curiosity" (continuing through August) local school groups took part in guided meditations, with very positive results.
"We’re of the philosophy that once you sort of quiet the mind you can absorb more and contemplate your thinking before you actually think," Thompson said. "So [visitors] are perhaps more prepared for the art making process and really have Š become more thoughtful about what they are going to do for their next steps in their art making."
Anyone is welcome to participate in the Kidspace programs, she said. While the focus is to serve local elementary schools, "we get a lot of visitors in here who are adults, who are seeking an experience with art and then the opportunity to actually make their own," she said.
Thompson hopes the program will encourage visitors not only to make their own works of art, but also to think about and incorporate the ideas expressed by the artists whose works are on view.
Beginning in September, the Clark will offer its own "Words and Images" program. Focusing on works from the Clark’s permanent collection, the program will encourage visitors to explore the different words or ideas that are expressed by different types of art, and then write poems related to those works.
Each year’s Kidspace programming is different, said Ronna Tulgan-Ostheimer, director of education at the Clark. "Sometimes it will be a project or a program that draws off our permanent collection. Sometimes it might be an artist residency. Pretty much, we are open to doing all kinds of programming that matches the theme, that matches the mission of each of our own museums, and that encourages teachers and kids and families to engage with the art."
Sonnet Coggins, director of education at WCMA, said the WCMA Kidspace program is yet to be determined, but that it will begin with participation in the annual Summer Teaching Institute, where around 20 teachers from different backgrounds will use all three museums to develop classroom skills around the concept of word and image.
Two of the recent WCMA exhibits, "Picture: Literature" and "Painting Between the Lines," also explored the connection between words and images. While those exhibits were unrelated to Kidspace, Coggins said, "I think it brings up a point that ‘Words and Images’ is a very, very rich theme and it’s so far beyond just one collaboration, or summer learning institute or exhibition. I think it’s a really rich theme for any encounter with a work of art."
"You know, when someone describes their experience they’re using words," she said. "And of course, words have always been a source of inspiration for lots of artists and vice versa."
"Freedom: Just Another Word For ..." will be open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 15 2013 through May 26, 2014.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF MASS MOCA
’Damoh’ by Long-Bin Chen (above) is a sculpture carved out of travel magaizes bound together. ‘Dreaming of Joy’ by Ran Hwang (below) was created using buttons and pins. Both artists are featured, along with Xu Bing, Gonkar Gyatso, Ang Tsherin Sherpa and Roger Shimomura in MASS MoCA’s newest Kidspace exhibition.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MASS MOCA
Nepalese artist Ang Tsherin Sherpa is among the featured artists in "Freedom" at MASS MoCA. Tsherin began studying thangka (a tradition that usually involves painting scenes from the life of the Buddha on silk) when he was 12. His work often reflects Chinese-Tibetan relationships. Above, ‘Shambhala,’ 2013.