The latest exhibition at Tate Britain, running down the centre of the building, is called Year 3.
Steve McQueen's underlying concept, to photograph every Year 3 class in London, is both brilliantly simple and fiendishly complex to complete. Realistically they hoped for 25% participation. In fact they managed 70%.
First they had to hope schools would be interested, then they had to get all the necessary permissions and then they had to send an official photographer round. Seven and eight year-olds sometimes need to be cajoled into doing what they're asked, so producing resolutely uniform photographs was quite a challenge. Four symmetrical rows of children, front row seated, back row standing, teacher positioned in the centre, and everybody smile. The final results are an absolute delight.
Enlarged photos have been pasted up at several tube stations by creative gurus Artangel. The southbound platform at Pimlico, the closest station to Tate Britain, has 15 giant class photographs in place of advertising posters along its entire length.
Elsewhere posters featuring enlarged photographs have been used on billboards across every single borough in the capital. Here's one I spotted in Brent, on the Harrow Road. You can see a map of all the locations here.
But they're not up for long. The tube station posters started being taken down yesterday and will all be gone by next Thursday, whereas the roadside billboards all disappear during next week. This is a shame, because megasized is the best way to appreciate the cheeky grins, the diversity and the fizzing positivity.
In better news, the full set of all 3128 photographs will be on show at Tate Britain until May. But they're a lot smaller, i.e. more-normal-class-photo-sized, and displayed in banks twelve deep. The impact is much more about volume than detail, as a future generation stares back at you from the walls.
Schools have been told where their individual photos are, but not the public, so don't expect to be able to identify where your local Year 3 classes have been positioned. But classes from individual schools have been laid out together, usually in twos or threes, identifiable by similar backdrops and identical uniforms. A heck of a lot of photos have been taken in front of a very specific brand of wallbars, but other backgrounds include stage curtains, jungle collages, serving hatches and House Point noticeboards.
Also, don't the teachers look young.
The breadth of cultures represented across the capital is immediately plain, but also the diversity of their educational experience. Most classes are of a similar size but others are somewhat smaller - the uniforms suggest these might be private. Here and there a pupil referral unit or special needs class is pictured, generally with only a handful of children, sometimes all in wheelchairs. And while many classes are racially mixed others are are mostly monocultural, be that white, black or brown, reflecting the individual pockets of London that they serve.
One issue with the photographs being stacked so high is that you can't easily see any of the top ones. My eyes were only level with the fourth row from the bottom, and a typical Year 3 pupil would only come up to row two or three. But they've thought about this, because if you do have a particular elevated photo you really want to see then a giant lens can be wheeled over. It works too, not perfectly, but well enough for an eight year-old to go wow, that's me.
And there are a lot of eight year-olds in the gallery at the moment. Tate Britain has taken the opportunity to engage in a significant outreach programme while the exhibition is running, inviting hundreds of classes to attend and engage in educational activities. The photography project took place during the last school year, so the children involved are now in Year 4, but that doesn't lessen the impact of walking into a major art gallery and knowing that somewhere up there on the wall is you.
I visited at the same time as a grey-blazered prep school, their pupils busily engaged with sketchbooks (or less engaged without). They were plainly enjoying the opportunity to explore photographs of similarly-aged children, as well as hunting for themselves, and were perhaps having their horizons broadened at the same time. That said I did spot a couple of boys beckoning their classmates over to a photo they'd spotted of a physically disabled group, in order to enjoy a laugh at their expense, so there's much education still to do.
Weekends should be class-free, if you prefer to view the art without its anthropological setting.
Year 3 continues in the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain until 3rd May 2020. At the end of the exhibition all the individual photographs will be sent back to the schools in which they were taken, and this cohort of children will continue their educational advancement. See them at the Tate, or meet them in your future.