On a hot Sunday afternoon, beneath royal blue umbrellas pitched in the courtyard of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA) downtown, about 50 kids transform long strips of paper into colorful canvases under the direction of Hervé Tullet, the internationally renowned author of more than 80 interactive children’s books, including the wildly popular “Press Here.”
They roam around like little Jackson Pollocks with inky markers in their fists, filling in blank space with fat pink circles or wonky green lines, contributing to the emerging patterns. A carefully chosen playlist — Fela Kuti, Cat Power, the Beastie Boys — thrums in the background. It’s like a game of artistic musical chairs, but at each seat, the kids sink into purpose and concentration. Barefoot, Tullet flits among the crowd, crouching here and there to add a squiggle or a grid, issuing further prompts and guidance through a megaphone.
“I give instructions, very clear, very simple, very bold,” the French-born Tullet says of his approach to the collective art-making practice literally underfoot, the latest iteration of his Ideal Exhibition. Through workshops and instructional videos, anyone can perform Tullet’s process and become an artist of the multisite project, part of which will hang in the ICA LA’s project room and evolve through Sept. 8 as gallery-goers continue to contribute. Tullet sees the Ideal Exhibition as a culmination of what he’s always done on the page: champion creativity and collaboration.
“When people are moving from one place to another, the drawing does not belong to them, it belongs to everybody,” says Tullet. After wiping some gold paint onto his trousers, he invites the children (and a few adults) to rotate from the paper he’s designated for polka dots to a section for improvising shapes, so that they leave their unique creative fingerprints everywhere. In a similar spirit, “Press Here” instructs readers to shake and tilt the book, simple actions that seem to magically change the size and direction of the dots as readers flip its pages. For this reason, he calls his books “unfinished” — the reader completes them through movement or sound and the power of their imagination. But lately, he’s wondered: Why stop there?
Readers know that when you finish a good book, it’s not nearly finished with you.
“The book is the start of an activity,” Tullet says. In this way, the Ideal Exhibition is a natural extension of his work, which provides not an escape into fantasy or even characters but a doorway into thinking creatively, independently and for oneself. It’s the experience that interests him, regardless of the final form.
“Art is a way to help people to see, to look,” he says. “I consider my books small installations.”
The future of books
“Press Here” was released in France the same year as the iPad, a moment of particular anxiety about the future of books. “I was really part of the debate,” Tullet says, adding that his position was quite simple: “The future of the book is just create books that are interesting.” He was right. “Press Here” has been translated into 34 languages and sold 2 million copies worldwide; he is known in France as the “Prince of Preschool.” “The future is not about books or the iPad or whatever,” he says. “The future is creativity.”
His work is often conceptual, and as a children’s book author, he respects the intelligence of his audience: “I don’t speak to children. I speak to everybody. I speak to the eyes.” After he moved to New York in 2015, however, he began to feel a greater responsibility to facilitate creative play through community. “An author is a part of a group of people, including teachers and librarians, that are going to help children in difficulty,” Tullet says. “It was really a revelation to me.” He has led scores of large-scale workshops in cultural institutions; since Ideal Exhibition’s launch in 2018, he estimates there have been 50 to 60 of them around the world.
Asuka Hisa, director of learning and engagement at ICA LA, says of their collaboration: “We had a lot of shared interests and shared goals for bringing art to all people, young and old.” Tullet’s instructional videos, produced alongside Tobo Studio, can be showcased in a museum such as ICA LA, or viewed in a library or even at home.
For Tullet, the Ideal Exhibition lives up to its name in part for this reason. Institutions, libraries and classrooms can all house arms of the the project, but it is equally accessible from your living room. He views each contribution, no matter how small, as “an installation” of the collective exhibition; no iteration is more valuable than another because the concept hinges on its diversity. “It’s ideal, because you can do it where you want, when you want, with who you want, what size you want: Everything is possible,” he says. “You can do it with or without me. … This is really ideal, because at the moment, I can’t answer all the invitations.” The materials needed are low-cost: paper, markers, colored tape. Otherwise, participation is free.
“There’s only one commitment: You have to display.” Tullet requests that participants send him high-resolution photographs of their Ideal Exhibitions. “My work, as an artist, will be a catalog,” he says, adding that he doesn’t have expectations about what he’ll see but rather looks forward to the collective voice surprising him.
As the children draw, he discourages overthinking. When a young girl stops to consider her work, he booms encouragingly, “More, more, more. Much more.” After the paper is sufficiently saturated with shapes and scribbles, Tullet ushers participants into the ICA LA’s project room, where, to some kids’ delight and others’ suspicion, he tells them to rip it to pieces. “Do not hesitate,” he says. Miraculously, the room descends not into chaos but into industry. The next exercise, he says, is in “assemblage”: Together, they will tape bits back together to create something new.
Charlotte Cook, a teacher at Citizens of the World Charter School, is there with her family. Her 8-month-old daughter is perhaps the youngest artist in the room, and an expert paper ripper. At home, they read “¡Mézclalo Bien!,” the Spanish-language edition of Tullet’s “Mix It Up.” “This is her first artwork,” Cook says proudly, holding up a colorful, taped-together collage. “Well,” she adds, looking around the room, “it’s all of ours.”
“Hervé Tullet: Ideal Exhibition”
Where: Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1717 E. 7th St.
When: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Through Sept. 8.
Info: (213) 928-0833, theicala.org