Review: Abacus, at Bluecoat

Review: Abacus at Bluecoat
Until 1st October 2017

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

An exhibition for children, by adults. At first it sounded great, then I got worried, and for a few weeks I wondered what good was going to become of this exhibition forcing fun into a gallery that’s already one of the most open spaces in the city. But then it opened, Abacus, the exhibition produced by some of the most influential creative educators not just in the city but internationally.

My first and only reaction to the exhibition is that it’s just not for kids, it was designed and produced in its entirety to make me enjoy myself. It might well be that children go to this exhibition and learn to enjoy art in a free and completely uninhibited way, with far more rules for adults than for children. But go at quiet times, escape the family outings and just find the time to enjoy this exhibition for yourself.

I’m not saying drink five cups of coffee and go wild in the play areas. Just go and reteach yourself how to understand things. Because that’s what Abacus is there to do, it’s there to teach new ways of understanding and experiencing space.

Simply put, take your kids if you need to, they’ll love it, but why not be selfish and dedicate a day to re-evaluating your experience of art?


Take Emily Speed’s room, in the main gallery, it’s not an exhibition where artists have tried to get equal amounts of space, it’s just fair. That installation needs a huge space, so they gave it to her. There’s no half measures at all, in any part of the exhibition, like it was curated by children rather than for them. It’s so brilliantly refreshing, just how clear the thought process is.

I think the only part of the exhibition that reminded me there was some sort of adult urgency in my day was when two invigilators were discussing which bits of inappropriate graffiti had to be removed from the chalkboard room that afternoon. Part of me was disappointed, but there’s no age limit to being children, and childhood includes adolescence. So the odd rude sketch isn’t something to be sniffed at, it’s just the reality of creating a space that people are comfortable with. In some ways, the misuse of the space is a success.

Abacus can only be seen as successful if its users are comfortable. Bluecoat’s challenge now is making sure their visitors remember to behave themselves when they come to the next show. But while the gallery is dedicated to children, and inner-children, go and forget yourself for a while, and remember what it was like to discover something.