by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Edinburgh College of Art Degree Show 2007

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This year, at the degree show that marks the centenary year of the Edinburgh College of Art, one thing leaps out: these graduates are keen to surround their audience with work. There are pieces that bathe the viewer in light and surround them with sound, works that demand to be clambered over and crawled under. There are even sculp­tures that smell.

Ever­y­where you look, young artists are not simply present­ing their work for ex­am­in­a­tion, instead choosing to craft a sensory en­vir­on­ment or conjure up an aesthetic ex­per­i­ence. Of course, the in­stal­l­a­tion is hardly a new idea, and there are as many reasons to adopt the mode of present­a­tion as there artists - for some, it is central to their practice, for others, there is the suspicion that a striking in­stal­l­a­tion might be a last-minute bid to add value - but the fact remains that a visit to this degree show involves doing and being, as much as looking.

The immersion begins, perhaps aptly, in the basement, with a brace of sculptors. Leon Hart presents two rooms, one dominated by a cross suspended from chains, the other featuring apparatus that suggests both hanging and burning at the stake - seen in isolation, these objects might smack of a camp martyr fetish, but here they have real menace. Rocca Gut­ter­idge’s work is similarly un­set­t­ling, with a nod to David Lynch, the curious calm of her blue-lit shower curtain is un­der­mined by the thud of a wooden bin that opens and closes itself. Lesley Martin relies on sound, too, with a junk-shop as­sem­blage of audio equipment fizzing dan­ger­ously with static. Oliver Herbert is perhaps the best of the en­vir­on­ment-makers, placing a stock ticker beside a vitrine full of insects dining on jewelled bones, exposing dark mach­in­a­tions in the board room. Out of the gloom, Ailish Murray offers light relief in the form of a low, perfumed chamber where coloured lights play across a rouched fabric ceiling. Joseph Murray takes a similarly holistic approach, but his concrete bunker far from soothing - accessed through a pitch-black cor­rug­ated iron corridor, a central chamber thrums with engine noise. Fiona Swanston plays on claus­tro­pho­bia too, but her work is above all about the ma­n­ip­u­la­tion of bodies in space, a tangle of ladders and planks cho­reo­graph­ing the gestures of those who walk through it. Sophie Folkesson work offers a similar level of control, thanks to a glass walkway set with razor blades, putting viewers on edge before they enter a room carpeted with human hair. Even the glass-blowers are at it - Ramon Beas­coechea has suspended glass bull’s testicles on leather strapping above a sand floor, turning the ec­cen­t­ric­ally de­c­or­at­ive into a memorial arena.

The effect of these immersive exhibits is catching, too. Fiona Pender allows her work, a curious merger of high fashion and sculpture, to stand alone, but it is hard not to make con­nec­tions - not just formal and con­cep­tu­al, but narrative - between a shirt that stretches the neck thanks to multiple collars, or a mask made from eyelash curlers and a gum-shield. By the same token, Colin Ashcroft’s ex­am­in­a­tion of autism through ram­shack­le devices hint at a wider world of hampered in­ter­ac­tions than it might elsewhere. The mood also affects the reading of work like Helen Johnson’s, which invites visitors to join her in a community weaving project, or that of Tessa Lynch, who asks that the viewer pastes newspaper images to a table in order to gauge celebrity im­port­ance - here, these feel like en­vir­on­ments made not from objects, but social in­ter­ac­tions.

There is, of course, much at the ex­hib­i­tion that hangs on a wall or sits on a plinth, and some of it is bound together, albeit loosely, by another theme, made by artists with an ob­ses­sion­al bent. Paul Chiappe’s work is mes­mer­ising - he draws im­macu­late min­i­atures based on Victorian pho­to­graphs, the precision of his draught­s­man­ship a coun­ter­point to the shifting memories that are his subject. Celia Richards attempts to free music from the stave, cutting out each and every note from the sheets that make up Holst’s The Planets. Graeme J. Walker has found joy in re­pe­ti­tion, making mark after mark to build planes of grey that are as curiously sa­t­is­fy­ing as they are un­der­whelm­ing. Two ar­ch­iv­ists stand out, too: Katherine Hall cannot stop making notes on her daily activity and cata­lo­guing personal ephemera, while Hazel Stroud is engaged in arranging the political world according to an unknown system, linking Par­li­a­ment­ary press cuttings with quotes from con­tem­por­ary dictators.

Thematic links aside, the overall standard at Edinburgh is high, though, as at Glasgow and Gray’s, there is too much sub-par pho­to­graphy - do we really need to see more vaguely mel­an­choly urban scenes, more flat, lifeless por­trait­ure? - and, once again, the sculptors offer more to chew on than their peers. All those en­vel­op­ing in­stal­l­a­tions should give Edinburgh the edge for most visitors, however - exploring the work of this year’s graduates is, quite simply, great fun.

This review was first published in The Herald on June 22nd, 2007.