January 24 – March 15, 2014
The Contemporary Art Gallery presented the first solo exhibition in Canada by French artist Aurélien Froment, comprising an ambitious body of newly commissioned work.
Froment produced an exhibition which focused on the series of educational toys (Spielgaben or play gifts) designed by Friedrich Fröbel (1782–1852), the German founder of the original Kindergarten. Froment’s longstanding interest in Fröbel was aroused by the openness of the system of objects he devised, which has paradoxically resulted in both their survival and disappearance. For Froment as for Fröbel, each shape begets another, each form foreshadows a second; all images are keys to other images. Replicas have been produced based on historical artifacts, presenting for the first time in an exhibition, the play gifts in the complete sequence as imagined by their author and displayed on stands created by renowned Italian designer Martino Gamper. The objects were presented alongside an ensemble of photographs, which map Fröbel’s pedagogy, while drawing connections with earlier, as well as future uses of the geometric grid. Fröbel Fröbeled was therefore an exhibition on Fröbel, with Fröbel — an exploration of his art, as well as a reflection on what lies beneath his system of objects.
Drawing on the ideas of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the experiences of Swiss pedagogue Johan Pestalozzi, Fröbel advocated for a practice of education where the child and the teacher are co-workers, with play and self-activity at the center of the learning process. To this end Fröbel introduced activities such as singing, dancing, gardening, map making and created a series of educational toys, the play gifts. He brought together existing children’s toys (wooden blocks, woollen balls, sticks), stripped of any signs suggesting pre-determined educational purposes such as letters, numbers, figures or colours and sequenced these within an overarching system of relationships in which each toy foreshadows the next while being transformed. A soft woollen ball turns into a hard wooden sphere; a sphere into a cube via a cylinder; a cube is divided into smaller cubes and so on, until volumes become surfaces, surfaces become lines and lines are segmented towards infinity. Continuity and opposition systematically order the world of Fröbel’s gifts. Since the mid-nineteenth century, many educationalists and manufacturers appropriated the influential Kindergarten material and while establishing it as a prominent feature of modernity, the consistency of Fröbel’s ideal was slowly diluted, lost or abandoned.
Throughout his career, Fröbel continually refined his play gifts to achieve the greatest scope through their different forms, relations and applications. They constitute a modest but complex body of works, used for object lessons and often accompanied by analogies and stories, something tangible to enhance the understanding of something conceptual.
Individual sets comprised balls, blocks, sticks, paper folding and weaving, peas and clay. From simple geometrical shapes could appear a chair, a worker’s house, a train, a ruin or a flower, as well as introducing abstract notions such as unity and interconnectedness. Each gift would be used in short sessions of directed play. Collector and scholar Norman Brosterman states in his seminal book Inventing Kindergarten, that “unlike the building blocks, mosaic toys, and traditional crafts that were their forebears, the gifts were never available for entirely ‘free play’. Their use was always related to the three realms: forms of nature (or life), forms of knowledge (or geometry, mathematics and science) and forms of beauty (or art).” The potential of each toy and its associated applications were therefore multiplied according to their ability to represent, demonstrate or to be arranged in a pleasing way.
In the exhibition, each gift was also used and depicted by Froment in a number of different ways. To the three realms proposed by Fröbel — nature, knowledge and beauty — Froment suggests to add two others — cultural forms and material forms — revealing aspects of the gifts’ own history while reflecting on its mediation within a contemporary public art gallery. In some of the accompanying photographs, the gifts were staged based on engravings featured in Fröbel’s own manuals and literature that followed. Representing a throne, a church, a castle, a cross or a sentry box, the photographs draw the imaginary atlas of an archetypal world rooted in the nineteenth century. Whether photographed by Froment like diagrams, models, products or architecture, they perform, alongside their related toy, some of the instructions provided in the early handbooks while potentially becoming again loose instructions themselves. Divorced from their original publication context and captions, freed from their layout, the constellation of images in the exhibition unfolds as another gift.
If the first series of photographs notionally illustrate uses of the play gifts while mapping a model world, other predominantly small-scale images relate more specifically to the biography of the German pedagogue. Fröbel lived and worked close to his birthplace in Thuringia, central Germany. He founded his first institution for early childhood education in 1837 in the small town of Bad Blankenburg where two years later, he coined the term ‘Kindergarten’. Juxtaposed with the graphic educational material, this series of views of the countryside near Jena (the former East Germany near the Czech Republic border) show a reality without clear narrative, yet situates geographically, socially and culturally the genesis of Fröbel’s project. Through this Froment implies a complex relationship between the objects, images, ideas, places and us as audience. The work becomes the vehicle to draw our attention to changed contexts and so perceptions shift. We contemplate ideas not in a void but think while practising.
Alongside the exhibition in Vancouver, the CAG worked in partnership with DIM Cinema at The Cinematheque and PuSh International Performing Arts Festival to present Interludes: Aurélien Froment. Complementing the exhibition, the films selected by Froment often use the format of instructional videos. The screenings took place on January 20, 2014 at 7.30 pm, and included The Apse, the Bell and the Antelope (2005); Pulmo Marina (2010); Théâtre de poche (2007); Fourdrinier Machine Interlude (2010); Camillo’s Idea (2012).
The exhibition was made in collaboration with Villa Arson, Nice, France; Spike Island, Bristol, UK; Frac Île de France — Le Plateau, Paris, France; Heidelberger Kunstverein, Germany. A publication will be developed in 2015 bringing together this new commission and the various presentations in the exhibition tour.
Research toward the production of this work is funded by a grant from programme ‘Hors les murs’ 2011 of the Institut Français. The exhibition is supported by the Consulat Général de France à Vancouver and Institut Français.