One of the great things about being a gallery teacher at the Blanton is that you never know what you’re going to learn about an exhibition, about art, or about anything else. And you never know who you’re going to learn it from.
In June, I took a group of seven-year-olds for an “Art Trek” through the Blanton. Art Treks are the museum’s general tours for students, where we try to share different works from divergent eras, often illustrating a theme that the teacher has suggested. Because these kids were in a summer camp, they didn’t have a specific lesson, so I was free to show them anything I thought they’d find interesting. Because Xu Bing’s Book From the Sky had just opened, I offered to take them in to see it…if they promised to be very careful.
Earlier in the tour, we had used a variety of works to talk about art and storytelling. We imagined swimming in Teresita Fernández’s Stacked Waters. We studied Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s The Storyteller and discussed what people did for fun before television and video games. We played “I Spy” and speculated about events that might have inspired Joaquin Torres-Garcia’s Construction in Red and Ochre. We explored how much more we could see in Luis Jimenez’s Progress II when we took a full minute to look at it silently, rather than focusing on the obvious longhorn and cowboy on his horse, as well as the animals’ glowing red eyes. And because they were such well-behaved seven year olds, I made the decision to take them into Xu Bing.
If you haven’t been in this installation, I don’t think I can spoil it for you. You can read a lot about it online. But really, entering this installation is a visceral experience—it’s so stunning I sometimes forget to breathe. Even the kids fell into a hush when we rounded the corner and saw the books on the floor and the scrolls on the walls and hanging from the ceiling. They walked deliberately and carefully through the room, their eyes round and their mouths open.
Afterwards, we gathered in the first room of the exhibition to talk about what we’d seen. It was in that moment that I was reminded what it was like to be seven years old—to be a beginning reader in a world designed for the literate. Of course, they asked me what the book was about—“What did it say?” When I told them that it didn’t say anything, they were initially confused, then convinced that I was playing some kind of joke on them. They knew what a book looked like. And even though they were all English speakers and readers, they knew what Chinese characters looked like. And Book From the Sky was full of what they assumed were Chinese characters. In the students’ eyes, either I didn’t know what it meant (which was crazy, since I was their teacher for the morning) or I was deliberately keeping it a secret from them.
I took them over to the English wall text in the first room of the exhibition to share a quote from The Jabberwocky, a poem that curators had included to give visitors an idea of the gibberish that Book From the Sky would represent for Chinese readers. I read the quote (“T’was brillig, and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe…”) but that turned out to be even more confusing to the students. The children could sound out the words of the poem, so they thought the words had meaning. One boy was particularly insistent that he’d heard someone talking about “gyre and gimble” before, and he KNEW those were real words, and surely I must know what they meant. It didn’t occur to them that Lewis Carroll and Xu Bing were capable of creating words or characters that could look real without actually meaning anything. We ended with the question, “Why would an artist create something like this?”
What was it like for the first viewers to experience Book from the Sky before its “secrets” were widely known? How does it feel to search for meaning in the individual symbols of a work whose meaning isn’t literal, and resides in the fact of those marks, rather than what they represent? Who are we, when our literacy fails us? Book From the Sky gives us space to contemplate these questions and more. Thanks to this particular group of rising second graders, I got some first-hand insight into one set of answers.
Susan McLeland is a gallery teacher at the Blanton. She earned her PhD from the University of Texas at Austin in the Department of Radio-Television-Film with a focus on critical and cultural studies, and has taught at UT for over a decade.
The Blanton is currently accepting applications for the next group of volunteer gallery teachers. If you want to help school children see art in new and unexpected ways, check out our informational blog post about how to apply—no prior teaching experience is required!