Abacus @ the Bluecoat


Emoji summary: 😀🖍👍🏻🤥 (as decided by Ivy)

The Bluecoat’s summer exhibition, Abacus, is made with kids in mind. I’m 23 though and i have s0 many greys hairs down my centre part like I'm not panicking but: I picked my cousins up from school and roped Erin (10) and Ivy (4) into reviewing the show on my behalf. I was just there to minute it/interpret it, but hello can I just say these minutes cover 4 hours - that we were in the exhibition for F O U R hours, 4 til 8, past Ivy’s bedtime. the longest anyone has officially spent in an exhibition, am amazed. Ok,,,,,

STAGE 1: exhibition equivalent of the Rhino in the sky at the beginning of James and the Giant Peach.

We went into a darkened room with a rolling list of films playing; when we walked in there were weimaraners projected in nat geo HD. We sat on the beanbags to watch buttttt Ivy got shaky and hid herself under my arm and Erin kept telling me it was creepy, it’s creepy, it’s quite creepy. ‘Looks like robots because of the way their head moves.’

I noticed that they didn’t like when other people came into the space because with the curtained door behind them and low lights, it meant that anyone walking in was kept a stranger. Ivy actually said very quietly, ‘I wish there was a light or something.’ I stopped writing down their commentary in Notes like an art critic and took them out the room. Not just with these kids for the content i promise.

STAGE 2: like school but cartoonified gigantic free time.

Artists Simon and Tom Bloor have set up a chalk board room in the back gallery that borders College Lane (it’s more artistically-invested in than the Pompidou’s Café Little Boy, if u happen 2 be familiar). Black chalk board shapes are defined on the walls, with huge chalk pieces sculpted and arranged v pleasingly on the floor in the centre of the room. U can break bits off to draw with. As the first visitors into the afternoon exhibition opening the girls got to have their pick of fresh wall space. They literally just loved it and that is the review. I did ask them why a few times but they said ‘I dunno’ so I just shut up and let them write their names, draw hearts and spirals etc. After they’d exhausted things they could draw, we went outside for a break. I kept asking them what they thought of the art so far but they just wanted to show me how to do ballet.

STAGE 3: ‘We’ve been watching a lot of Horrible Histories.’

desp 2 go back inside after ice cream, the girls went into the main gallery space where there are structures, sets and costumed designed by Emily Speed. I thought ok cool nice symmetry n colours, a bit empty maybe - but for Ivy and Erin, the art critics that matter here, the structures were readable as something you could use for stories, and the gaps meant space to run n stretch that narrative out for real. Erin decided they would play a game of judges, and sentenced a Bluecoat staff member for killing two children. he got 50 years in prison and they laughed their way to the sculpture they called Jail.

I remember in primary school deciding on the parameters of a storyline, figuring out how many people I’d need to cast, and then pressing play on the invisible world very seriously;;; here it feels intuitive of the artist to sort out those schoolyard sets ahead of play, like soft provocations or some help towards imagination like sandcastle templates. it’s such an energy to be that kid pretending to open doors or climb stairs in mid-air;;; Speed has arranged that for u like a package holiday. Off u go to fiction. It’s sweet.

STAGE 4: you know when you really love something and then you find out that actually a lot of people love that thing, so it doesn’t feel the same?

After getting out of Jail, Erin + Ivy went to draw again but on seeing that the past few hours had given other members of the public time to go sik on the chalk board walls, they were genuinely affronted and sad: ‘They’ve copied us.’ One of the invigilators showed them a corner of the room that everyone had missed so Ivy drew a life-size version of herself there and i took about 20 pictures of her next to it because she was precisely the same height.

Once the walls were popular culture and they were disenchanted, attentions turned to the chalk pieces themselves. They started to pick pieces up and throw them at the ground to make them usable, drew on the floors instead, coloured the soles of their shoes in and stamped high on the walls. Ivy said that tru kid thing I’d been waiting to hear, ‘the floor is lava,’ and both of them used the larger semi-circle and triangle chalks as stepping stones to get across the room. I almost liked this stage most because they were stress-testing the exhibition and bringing the narrative immersion of Emily Speed’s room over to the chalk.

STAGE 5: calm calm ~ ~ ~

Upstairs, we all went quiet to colour in papers designed by Mark Simmonds that look like rolled-out kaleidoscopes. they fell into this activity, didn’t actively decide to, and it felt kind. And after a while drawing, they realised the wall was art too - a repeated screen-print designed by Kevin Hunt. Erin said, 'I don't get it. Oh it's like commas and full stops like you learn in school. I hate commas and full stops.’ Ivy wandered over to the video of archive footage, and when she finally took off the headphones she said ‘this is quite important,’ and walked away. so proud of my critics.


if there was like, one slide, this would be the pleasureland of exhibitions. bluecoat u should have gotten in touch with Carsten Holler!!! And note the works in the corridor or photographs upstairs that didn’t pique their interests or register even. But anyway it’s good, 4 hours good, thank u. and it’s somewhere for people looking 2 occupy kids over the summer holidays, but not just occupy, that’s selfish. it’s a good exhibition to develop as it’s a fairly liberal space in which to learn and then push the rules of exhibition engagement. For those reasons, I can’t see the point visiting without a kid - it’s for them.

~ i am glad Erin and Ivy had each other to constantly accelerate the fun, n that they got to have a dreamy, summery, emotional play with art.


'Abacus' is on at the Bluecoat in Liverpool until October 1st


there are black shapes on the wall, a square, a semi circle, painted with chalkboard pain and two little girls - my cousins - are drawing on them

Erin holds her hand up to the camera showing all the chalk she has on her hand

two kids point at a man sitting in a box in front of them, and there’s a building painted on the wall behind them

Ivy and Erin are stood on top of huge pieces of chalk as if they’re playing offground tick

Ivy is stood laughing next to a lifesize drawing of herself in chalk on the wall