How to Talk to Kids About Art: Ken Miki

Exploring Ken Miki's "APPLE+" exhibit at the MoCA Shanghai

by Sarah Forman | Fri, November 24, 2017

"Comparing apples and oranges" is a great expression you can use to tell someone they're talking about two completely different things that are hard to set side by side. But let's talk about comparing apples and apples. MoCA Shanghai in People's Park is hosting an exhibit by Ken Miki, a Japanese designer who believes in the teaching power of every day objects – in particular, the almost universally recognizable fruit known for keeping the doctor away. Through various mediums and activities, Miki has become famous for taking complex concepts and illustrating them in playful, easily accessible ways. His exhibit, APPLE+, is no expection, and a great opportunity for starting a conversation with your kids about color, form, line, and fruit.

Behind the Art

Ken Miki

Filled with red boxes, each section of the main hall highlights a different design principle, and what's great about this exhibit in particular is that many of these can be reproduced at home. In the first one, what looks like a plush toy is actually an apple that's been wrapped in a singluar green piece of string, tightly wound around the bumpy and imperfect shape. While it may seem simple, the exercise is incredibly difficult to complete first hand, and is meant to show that the ideas we have about shapes and objects may keep us from really seeing and appreciating the form that's there. Ask your child (or pretty much anyone) what the shape of an apple is and they'll tell you, "it's round." By looking at the path the string takes, or by trying to do it yourself, it becomes clear very quickly that the apple is anything but.

Ken Miki

To start a conversation about color, Miki begins by skinning an apple. In four plastic casings, you see what look like flower petals, shuffled and rearranged under labels like "Rose", "Red", and "Apple". Here again Miki is making a point about how ideas affect what we see, and vice-versa. Close your eyes and try to picture any of the words mentioned above, and you'll realize that the colors you're envisioning are all quite different and attached to very different feelings. While this might not be news to you, depending on how old your child is, it can be a great exercise in self-reflection, and an opportunity to expand communication skills. Maybe they say that all three things they imagine are "red", but they don't all look the same, and attempting to talk around formal vocabulary can really strengthen a young person's engagement with their own perception, all through the lens of triangular and rectangular shaped pieces of apple skin.

World Map


Miki further expands on this idea by building a map made of the same kinds of pieces (though these ones are green). This representation of the different continents is made up of dozens of different shades that, when rearranged and placed next to each other, highlight the different degrees to which that is true. As a collage, you can make all kinds of shapes, much like the kinds of color experiments your kids might do in an elementary art class. You can ask yourself if you think you'd be able to piece it all together, back into the shape of the apple. They'll almost definitely tell you no, highlighting how easy it is to take these simple changes for granted, while visualizing just how much you can do by playing around with them. Whether you're doing it with an apple skin or any other colorful pieces of paper, this is easy to recreate at home in an experiment that focuses on how color can be used to create form.

Ken Miki

Miki uses the apple skin in another way to illustrate how chance can activate the imagination. By using a long, singular piece of apple skin, while teaching he asked his students to drop it onto a piece of paper and doodle around the form that falls. For one student, it becomes a snake. For another, it's a tool that illustrates the life-cycle of an apple. A barrier between light and dark, a staircase, a mess of koi in a pond, all of these are engaging responses with the same shape, and one that are all appropriate, playful, responsive and unique. You can ask your kids to look at a specific picece, identifying the individual components of each image. Turn next to it and ask them to do the same with another drawing, and it exemplifies that:

1) art doesn't have to be just what comes from your head on its own 

2) that "mistakes" can turn into very intentional, well thought out designs. It's not about what starts on the page, but what you do with it and how it ends up.

With an interactive tablet that's projected onto a large screen, there are a number of games your kids can play to engage with and further illustrate these concepts. Later in the exhibit, Miki uses forms like seeds and leaves to spell out letters, builds wire sculptures to talk about form in abstraction, all in the name of education and design. If nothing else, you can leave the MoCA with a shortlist of activities for a rainy day, in a handful of new ways to play with your food.

Questions to ask:

  • When dealing with form, ask them what do they see? You can list other "round" fruit and ask about the different features they have. Are they smooth surfaces? Are they course? Are they evenly distributed?
  • When dealing with color, ask them to close their eyes and list certain words like in Miki's encasings. How is the red of an apple different from the red of a rose? Is one darker? Lighter? Softer? How does it make them feel? What else do they think about? Can they make up different names for those colors if one doesn't come to mind?
  • When dealing with line, ask them to try to trace the drawings with their fingers. Do the wire sculptures all look like apples? Do they remind them of anything else? Do some lines have more energy than others? Which do they like more and which feels the most like an apple to them?
  • At the end of the exhibit, ask them what they liked most. Ask if it was because of how it looked or because they felt like they were learning? Would the experiments have worked with a pear? An orange? A lemon? If not, what makes an apple special? If they're older, you can try to ask them what they think the difference between art and design is, and whether they all of the exhibit fell into one category.

The exhibit runs until Monday, December 4th, and you can find MoCA in People's Park.

Find it: Gate 7, People's Park, 231 Nanjing Xi Lu

Opening hours: Thu-Tue: 10am-6pm, Wed: 10am-10pm