Maddie Exton is a conceptual artist from East Anglia and one of 22 artists from Mall Galleries' In the Studio initiative. During In the Studio's group exhibition in August, Maddie Exton ran a workshop with Central Southwark Community Hub, inviting participants to respond to the artworks. Using recordings of these conversations, Maddie has created a short film: All Philosophy Starts With Wonder. Here Maddie discusses how the project came to be and her thoughts around the accessibility of art.

Tell me about the idea. How did it come about?

I write a lot of exhibition reviews, casually, and for myself mostly. Even as I write them with no intention of sharing, I worry about writing negative things about art, it's like I unconsciously try to write positively even when I don't like the work. I think it is a difficult thing to properly talk about art, there's a lot of psuedo intellect and a lot of passivity. It got me thinking about what would make art easier to talk about and I started thinking about how candid and genuinely children speak about almost everything, really. Children are too young to worry about the social script around art, the connotations of a gallery are much less of a focus, the work is the only thing that interests (or doesn't interest) them.

The title "All Philosophy Starts With Wonder" comes from the idea that a passing thought can grow to be a whole philosophy. In this project, some of the most poignant lines are delivered completely absentmindedly.


Can you give some background on your practice and how this project relates to it?

I'm a conceptual artist which is a blessing because I get to work in so many different ways, but a curse because questions like this are hard to answer both professionally, at times like this, but also when asked by extended family. Sometimes I appropriate materials as sculpture, sometimes I make text drawings and sometimes I run around a gallery with 35 children and £1000 worth of loaned recording equipment telling them to "talk about the paintings please, not dinosaurs".

This project has led me down roads of Tascam recording equipment usage, subtitle formatting and teaching. It relates to my practice because despite my inconsistent style, I am consistently interested in other people.

Workshop participants exploring the In the Studio exhibition

How did you find working with the participants? Were you surprised by any of the responses? 

There was a huge age range from ages 6-16, so it was interesting to see how literally the younger kids worked, trying to copy paintings image for image, and how experimental the older kids were. At one point when testing a pen I scribbled on 16-year-old Barclay's paper and he came back and showed me it boxed off and underneath he had written "Maddie Exton's signature". At that point I thought, hey I've got some competition here.

I was surprised by how equally abstract and realist works ranked for the kids. It makes you wonder at what age do people stand in front of abstract art and say "a 6-year-old could have done that", because to a 6-year-old abstract work is wonderful and very much something they want to do.

Workshop participants drawing beside Celeste C. da Luz's artwork

What equipment did you use to record and edit the piece?

I used 5 Tascam dr-40's loaned by my university (Norwich Uni of The Arts) and Premiere Pro to edit, along with some subtitling software.

What did you learn from this project?

I'm 21 and this is the first time I've really "taught art" which I never thought I'd be interested in, but I found it so interesting. The whole workshop was like research. I feel really lucky to have worked with the team at Mall Galleries, especially Elli Koumousi (Head of Education & Cultural Strategy and Founder of In the Studio) who takes this kind of workshop in her stride.

Do you hope to continue this project, if so where?

I originally proposed this project for The Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, but I didn't have enough time to create the work before a deadline so kept it on a slow burner. This project isn't site-specific, it's about kids thinking about art so it's very malleable. I think the Tate might be a bit exhausting with 35 kids, but degree shows would be really interesting.

Maybe I can start some alternative gallery tours where you're led around by a 6-year-old with a microphone?

What do hope people take away from the film?

I hope people can see that there's no right or wrong way to talk about art. That critique is supportive and not inherently negative. And that the best thing to do in a gallery is to pretend you're not in a gallery and see how your behaviour changes. Just don't touch any paintings.