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Gallery proves a hit with young critic

by Danielle Demetriou

The art critic wanders purposefully around the gallery, passing instant, scathing judgment on the surrounding artworks.

Full marks are allocated to a portrait photography collection, a hand-drawn anime on a screen and the coloring-in tables. But one definite no-no? A video installation in a dark room — as reflected by a refusal to enter, floods of tears and cries for “Mama.”

There are perhaps few more potentially traumatic places for parents to take babies and young children than inside the pristine confines of an art gallery. Maybe it’s the white walls, the hushed atmosphere, the endless “Don’t touch” signs and the invaluable artworks within dangerously close grabbing, smearing or smashing distance of little hands.

Yet there is also a plus side: It can be deeply gratifying watching a young child naturally engage, react and respond to artworks, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively, but always without preconceived judgment.

And a new exhibition called “Go-Betweens: The World Seen Through Children,” which opened last week at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi, Tokyo, is the perfect place to explore such interactions. The show covers the spectrum in analyzing some very grown-up issues relating to children — from cultural and social to political — with topics including immigration and isolation, adoption and sexuality.

However, skilful curation, plus a few old-school entertainment tricks to keep little ones happy, ensure that both children and adults are able to experience and enjoy the artworks on multiple levels, making it perfect for visitors of all ages.

The exhibition, divided into four sections, showcases 110 sculptures, paintings, installations and photographs by 26 leading global artists, from Yoshitomo Nara to Christian Boltanski.

On a recent visit with my daughter, now nearly 2, her favorites included the bold Technicolor photography of O Zhang in the “Daddy & I” series, which depict stylized portraits of Western men with their adopted Asian daughters.

While there is an unsettling darkness beneath the cartoon-brightness of the images — perhaps due to the unfavorable stereotypes often associated with older Western men and young Asian girls — my daughter, who rarely stands still, stared pensively at them for an impressive 30 seconds.

Nara’s iconic oversized paintings of menacing-eyed little girls in pretty dresses caused initial alarm — before she quickly warmed up and, as if recognizing kindred spirits, began jumping up and down mischievously in front of them.

A Turkish tent with rugs and small plastic chairs, showcasing a video installation by Wong Hoy Cheong, was also a hit, particularly the rainbow-bright stop-motion sequences of clay-like characters.

Unexpectedly, she also liked the oversized photograph of Japanese schoolgirls eating bananas — part of a series of sexually suggestive yet strangely innocent images shot by Kayo Ume — causing her to shout out: “Banana, banana!”

But her favorite piece of all? “Eight,” a short film made by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, which plays on a loop in a dark room with a deafening soundtrack of falling rain. The film depicts a solemn young girl with long dark hair and a pink dress cutting her birthday cake in heavy rain in a garden, surrounded by the drenched remains of her party.

Such was my daughter’s love of this film that attempting to pry her out of the room was the closest we came throughout the exhibition to anything resembling a tantrum (and she was still talking about it at breakfast the next day).

On the other hand, she loudly and tearfully refused point-blank to enter another dark room showing “Lost Boundaries” by Tomoko Kikuchi, a video installation capturing the impact of China’s rapid economic growth on children.

Despite the grown-up themes, the space is decidedly child-friendly, with low tables throughout the space complete with coloring pencils, kids’ worksheets provided at the start and a bright picture-book library where children can play and read at the end of the show. There are also numerous children’s activities scheduled throughout the summer at the gallery, including the clever idea of a caption-writing workshop, with ideas penned by the young participants due to eventually be exhibited alongside the artworks.

“Go-Betweens: The World Seen Through Children” runs until Aug. 31 at Mori Art Museum in Roppongi, Tokyo. Adults ¥1,500, high school students ¥1,000, children from 4 ¥500. For more information, call 03-5777-8600 or visit www.mori.art.museum/english/contents/go_betweens.