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June 2007 Archives

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.

At any degree show, the flow of work on show establishes a rhythm of sorts, with the dull thud of the mediocre punctuated by pulses of good stuff, and bad.

This year at Gray’s School of Art, that rhythm is distinctly askew, unbalanced and off-kilter. If you begin, as I did, with the painters and printmakers, prepare for that dull thud, and expect your heart rate to drop, your eyes to glaze over and your mind to wander, then brace yourself for the crash-bang cacophony of quality to be found in the Sculpture department, and the work of students on the new Photographic and Electronic Media course.

It’s not that the painting and printmaking is all profoundly poor, or ineptly executed - indeed, on a technical level, the printmakers show a confident mastery of their craft - but there is almost nothing here that grabs the attention. Even those artists that do show promise let themselves down. Alex Kay has forged an innovative practice, tying together his subject matter and working methods by weathering his canvases to match the earthy, grubby imagery, a mess of tangled tree roots and objects he has unearthed rather than found. But he shows too much, allowing lesser works to crowd out and overwhelm the best of his paintings. The same goes for the star of the Printmaking course, Jessica Crisp: her quiet, delicate and deftly executed work is inspired by travels across Central Europe, but, perhaps over-compensating for the unassuming nature of her practice, she bombards the viewer with images, rather than letting more eloquent pieces do the talking. There are, too, painters who haven’t quite found their feet. Gemma Dolbear certainly knows her craft, building up richly textured, almost sculptural surfaces from a restricted palette of earthy tones, but only truly shines when she teeters over the brink into abstraction, allowing her fascination with abandoned buildings to inform her work rather than dominate it.

While the best of the painting falls at the last hurdle, it is hard to pick out the best of the sculpture, since so much decent work vies for the attention. This is down to the fact that so many of these young artists seem to be having enormous fun, testing their own limits and pushing at the boundaries of sculptural practice. Kevin M. Jameson has been busy on the streets and in the shopping malls of Aberdeen, staging interventions that, roughly speaking, aim to puncture our tacit acceptance of everyday injustices. He has replaced promotional posters on buses with texts questioning their environmental impact, and put up signs beside CCTV cameras that read ‘Regardless of your will’. While some of these actions smack of sophomoric, solution-free politics, Jameson’s work transcends its subject matter, with the real meat resting in confrontation and disturbance of the status quo. Kelly M. Anderson, meanwhile, looks inwards, crafting bulbous polyp-like bubbles out of glass and resin, closely examining her materials of choice and, too, using off-cuts and failed pieces to question the status of her work. Martin Nelson’s work is similarly thoughtful, and thought-provoking, with digital pixels transformed into simple wooden forms, and blueprints drawn on the floor growing their own sculptures - cool and considered, these pieces suggest an unknowing and unknowable set of data, struggling to make itself understood. Lastly, Nathan Preston is only nominally a sculptor, working with film and animation. He has made an animated version of the shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho, and is engaged in an ongoing project to draw and animate, frame by frame, Buster Keaton’s One Week. These laborious projects are, at heart, about authorship and inspiration, emphasised by the choice of source material already utilised in contemporary art - Steve McQueen’s Deadpan restaged a Keaton stunt, and Douglas Gordon slowed down Hitchcock in his 24 Hour Psycho.

Strong stuff from the sculptors, then, but the first graduating class of the new Photographic and Electronic Media course are, arguably, stronger still. Ian Gildea is the best of the bunch, with work that drips with wit and a satisfying self-reflexive sheen. He has embedded a tiny video screen in a conker - so tiny it requires a magnifying glass to see it - showing a film of a growing tree, and made a gloriously pointless digital touch-screen version of his own sketchbook. The centrepiece of his exhibit, though, is a jerry-rigged Heath-Robinson contraption crafted from bike parts, a strobe light and a slide projector. The piece projects a film loop of itself in action, each flash of the strobe slightly out of synch, revealing the film strip as much as the image. Fergus Connor’s work has similar depth, consisting of video pieces that question the nature of theatrical performance - multiple Hamlets recite ‘to be or not to be’ - and draw on Greek myth, including a vending machine playing the part of Sisyphus.

This is a curious degree show, then, lopsided where most are patchy, but, dull, uninspired paintings aside, one that has much to offer.


Also using video is Mark Duguid. Already a recipient of an RSA award, and a Peacock Visual Arts Award, Duguid has taken on the old Hollywood adage ‘never work with animals or children’ by doing the exact opposite. An arranged set of monitors display not-quite-still lives - a twitching insect, impassive horse and a languidly shifting snake - as if Duguid is cutting himself out of the equation as a sculptor, and displaying potential sources. Another piece features stop-motion animation, and again Duguid takes a step back, using narratives gathered at workshops with local school children.

This review was first published in The Herald on June 18th, 2007.

With any degree show, there is always a worry that the hubbub of new artists making last-minute adjustments to their exhibition spaces, or the rush of gallerists and collectors rushing to snap up the work of the most promising graduates will cloud the judgement, with the adrenaline-soaked atmosphere raising works above their true status.

This year, though, there’s no doubt that the overall standard at the Glasgow School of Art is high, higher than it has been in three, perhaps four, years - a fact reflected by the unusual number of first class degrees awarded.

Some graduate’s do, however, stand out thanks to a touch of showmanship. Mark Wylie’s installation features a pressure pad that, when stepped on, prompts a wail of feedback. The blast of sound will certainly get your attention, but closer inspection reveals that this is more than attention-grabbing bluster: the speaker vibrates a dust-topped platform, forming patterns on the surface, and making for a subtle sculpture defined by the viewer’s actions. Christopher Dixon also relies on surprise. His large, pristine white cube assembled from boxes might be shrugged off as a half-decent chunk of minimalism, but when seen from above, the cube contains a complex, gentle and delicate tangle of sculptural forms made from thin wires and polystyrene packing materials.

The crafters of complete environments have an advantage, too, and the best of them can make you completely forget the clamour of their colleague’s work, even if only for a moment. In Elizabeth West’s installation, faint bands of yellow light on the wall of a constructed corridor act as a lure, leading to a cramped room with a thin slot in the wall that affords a view of a mirrored chamber filled with plastic detritus, reflection upon reflection creating the illusion of infinite space. Rachel Szmuckler, meanwhile, asks visitors to crawl, like Gulliver in Lilliput, into a claustrophobic L-shaped cubicle, plastered with eye-bending black and white check patterns and populated with female figures dancing through the space.

Quieter artists flourish, too, though. Keep an eye out for the vibrant, movement-filled, remarkably fluent drawings of Florencia Guerberof, and Triona Ryan’s self-portraits which match a keen understanding of colour with subtle nods to old masters.

The artists who truly stand out do so because a glance at their work is enough to tell that they are not merely promising prospects, but fully-fledged, having forged a cohesive, coherent practice of the sort more usually seen in emerging artists than brand-new graduates. Nafeesa Umar’s sculptural work in paper - a cascade of interlocking geometric forms - and architectural maquettes of ascending staircases provide a subtle counterpoint to the more explicit consideration of her Muslim faith seen in her video work. Pio Abad is already hotly tipped - his work graces the exhibition posters, as well as earning him a place in the finals of the Mercury Prize Art Competition - and justly so. Abad’s intricate, finicky drawings both revel in and satirise excess, drawing on Baroque influences and the grand pomp of 18th Century fashion, while a sculpture crafted from powdered wigs sits in a room lined with obscenely opulent hand-printed wallpaper. Interestingly, the large-scale paintings of Clair McGee feature similar motifs, and she, too, has papered the walls of her exhibition space. McGee, though, is chiefly concerned with architectural space, and its influence on its inhabitants - tiny figures are dwarfed by the vaulted interiors of dilapidated palaces, with hints that each painting in the series can be found through the doors of another. Cheryl Field also stands head and shoulders above her fellow graduates. Her work might briefly be described as ‘kinetic Op-Art’, but that does the complexity and rigour of her practice a disservice. One piece consists of a circle described by vertical lines that seem to shimmer off the wall, an effect doubled by the vibrating cord that stretches from floor to ceiling before it. Another combines concentric circles with a pure white light, this time creating a wholly illusory sense of movement. These are, literally, mesmerising works, made all the more satisfying by their admixing of art-historical critique and a cool, experimental edge. Lastly, Salome C. Oggenfuss’ unassuming, often humorous exhibit slowly reveals itself to be truly worthy of attention. Candid, revealing photographic portraits are set against whimsical text pieces, and Oggenfuss acknowledges the commercial realities of the art world by setting up shop - her luridly-coloured, foul-mouthed slogan t-shirts will doubtless become a familiar sight around town.

There is chaff to go with the wheat, of course - as in previous years, the crop of uninspired, insipid portraiture by photography students stands out for all the wrong reasons - but this is without doubt a good year, with genuine flashes of brilliance to be found in the warren of studio spaces and dim corridors of the Mackintosh Building.

This review was first published in The Herald on June 15th, 2007.

Aernout Mik’s four films ought to come with a health warning. Though their focus is on war and conflict, they do not contain scenes of great brutality or graphic violence, in fact, for the most part, they are, frankly rather dull. But Mik deals in atmosphere, presenting quietly unfolding, never resolving narratives that provoke numb paranoia, listless anxiety and, ultimately, intense disquiet.

First comes Vacuum Room. The room in question is an assembly hall, parliament or council chamber, and we see delegates going about their bureaucratic business until they are interrupted by a group of protesters who, covering their faces with their shirts, stage a sit-in. With no soundtrack, the piece is deeply ambiguous. At times the delegates ignore the invaders, handing notes to their clerks, or waiting passively. At one point, a group of politicians applaud the interlopers, either with genuine feeling, or with a raised eyebrow. With no clues as to the purpose of the action, the viewer is presented with a dilemma: who to support? The politicians might be propping up a brutal regime, or defending a fledgeling democracy. The protestors could be freedom fighters, or they could be terrorists. This dilemma is reinforced by the films’ presentation, with viewers given a choice of seating inside a hexagonal structure - hard-backed chairs to mirror the authorities, floor-cushions aligned with the dissidents. Mik is betraying his roots as a sculptor here, matching the space inside his film with the space in the gallery, turning the viewer into an unconscious actor. Whichever position you choose in the claustrophobic installation space, it is impossible to follow the action unfolding on the six screens in full, so that, in trying to grasp the situation you must twist and turn, wander from one seat to another, craning your neck in a bid to fully grasp the ///unfolding drama. Mik directed the performers in Vacuum Room via intercom from behind a two-way mirror, controlling his cameras remotely, and he directs his audience in absentia, too, provoking a sort of diluted panic to match the sense of impending threat onscreen.

In Scapegoats, Mik’s deft manipulation of gallery-goers continues, exchanging physical control for tricks of memory and association. In an empty stadium two groups, guards and prisoners this time, are, again, set in opposition. The guards are by turns rough, kicking prisoners to the floor, or kindly, offering cigarettes. The setting is immediately reminiscent of the New Orleans Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, while the conflicted behaviours call to mind the first hours of the Stanford Prison Experiment. These allusions are indirect, though, providing a sense of false familiarity to draw the viewer into another ambiguous scenario, and act as ciphers, hinting that something very bad is happening, or about to happen, offering an intimation of the aftermath never shown on screen.

In the upstairs galleries, Mik changes tack once again. Raw Footage is just that, television film shot in the war-torn former Yugoslavia, but rejected by broadcasters as lacking in drama and tension. We are all too used to graphic scenes of individual suffering, and the clinical bomb’s eye views that pepper news broadcasts. Here we are shown a crowd waiting in a doorway, sheltering not from rain, but sniper fire. Nervous and bored, tracksuited young men guard the shell-shocked animals in a dilapidated zoo. Dogs, no longer pets, roam in packs. By homing in on the minutiae of a campaign fought on city streets, Mik forces us to reconsider our remote relationship with war.

Finally, Mik’s most recent work on film, Training Ground, returns to fiction, this time based on an anthropological study, Jean Rouch’s Mad Masters, which documented the ceremonies of an African religious sect. Like the tribesmen in Rouch’s 1954 film, the border guards and fleeing refugees of Training Ground carry wooden guns, and lapse into a trance state, prompted here by a cyclical rhythm of tense inaction and sudden violence, rather than religious observance.

This relocation and re-imagining of a religious ceremony points to what might be Mik’s central theme: the strategies, physical and mental, that men and women use to cope with the situations they find themselves in, familiar or unfamiliar. This underlying concern is eloquently expressed, too, in the space between the three fictional works and the fourth, firmly rooted in reality. Mik’s choreography and direction of his actors is always loose, never wholly didactic, so in the moments of engineered crisis we are shown gestures and expressions that are, essentially, true responses to stress. Were it not for the note on the gallery wall, it would be hard to separate Raw Footage from the other pieces.

In the end, though, the strength of Mik’s work lies in the phsyical response he provokes - while these four films offer food for thought, and demand careful analysis, they are best understood by feeling.

This review was first published in The Herald on June 8th, 2007.

Last August, Peter Liversidge made an unusual contribution to the Edinburgh Art Festival, submitting more than one hundred proposals to Ingleby Gallery. These proposals ranged from the almost impossible, with a plan to set up an amateur dental surgery, to the downright dangerous, as in the proposal to construct a death slide connecting Edinburgh Castle to the Scott monument, but those that were realised - the release of London-born spiders in the Edinburgh gallery, or requiring Ingleby staff to dress as woodland creatures for a day - were whimsical, cheerfully absurd little actions.

This show of new work returns to the proposal format, this time suggesting daily performances aimed at undermining the contemporary art fair at Basel, Switzerland. At the time of writing, these new proposals take the form of framed dates, with the suggested performance for that day painted on the wall below. As the exhibition progresses, the frames will be filled with photographs of the artist in action. Proposal 27 is, simply, ‘collecting branches’. Number 31 will see the artist setting up a ‘gin stand’ on the streets of Basel. Number 9 is a reprise of the spider stunt, and number 45 involves ‘owl boxes’, whatever they might be.

This might all sound rather daft, as if Liversidge is simply having a bit of a lark, but once the chuckles subside, it is clear that the use of humour is rather sophisticated, intended to form a direct connection between artist and viewer and, with the transmission of images from Basel to Edinburgh, a connection between two sites, too. The lightness of touch and appealing silliness of the proposed performances, whether they end up being performed or not, create a shared space of the imagination, allowing Liversidge to build and direct a conspiratorial conversation with his audience.

The same holds true for the sculpture and paintings in the main gallery space. A corral cobbled together from found pallet wood divides the space, bearing the weight of a rather jaunty stuffed Harris hawk, and the floor is littered with the bleached, cracked bones and ribcages of unknown animals, hastily assembled from more found wood, painted over with bleach-white vinyl emulsion. On the walls, our location is further revealed in a series of quiet little paintings on board, their simple, simplistic and romantic scenes contradicted by portentous titles: In Mourning of a Passing on the North Montana Plains, Let Glory Be on the North Montana Plains, The Lost Path. Liversidge is crafting a fantasy, rather than representing reality - he has never, apparently, visited the plains of Montana, but doesn’t let that stand in the way of a good story, half frontier romance, half doom-laden, Western tragedy.

In the rear gallery at Ingleby, Liversidge has mounted a set of fifty-eight small paintings, each canvas bearing a commercial logo or an image of a product. They are faux-naive, childlike or, more simply, not very good. This is no Warholian celebration of the familiar, instead Liversidge’s ham-fisted style dissolves each logo’s intended power, stripping away the graphic implication of reliability, power, comfort or whatever succinct message the brand seeks to relay to its customers. The titles are deflationary too, simply borrowing from the slogan’s and advertising pitches attached to the brand in question. Leica’s strapline, ‘A New Vision’ falls rather flat when attached to an apologetic little painting of a wonky camera, the overblown, gutsy line ‘Fire Breathing’ is let down, and not gently, by Liversidge’s lumpy, sagging rendering of the MG marque. Even the choice of brands seems designed to undermine, with a scattershot collection taking in everything from luxury timepieces to naff clothing labels via sporting events and newspaper mastheads.

These works aren’t just a critique of advertising hubris, though, they also hark back to the pre-teen pencil case decorated with brand names, band names, boy’s names and girl’s names, not only aspirationally, or to show allegiance, but to imply ownership. In ineptly tracing the lines of a logo, Liversidge takes control - the copied logo no longer belongs only to the brand, but to the creative consumer.

The logo series might seem a wholly separate endeavour from the sketch of an imagined Montana, but the two rooms share something, namely an attempt to examine our desires, whether for luxury goods or the romance of isolation in a barren landscape. They share, too, the light, winking nature of Liversidge’s proposal project, and that deft knack for launching an unforced dialogue in the space between Liversidge’s ideas and the viewer’s happy appreciation of his unassuming works.

It is perhaps unwise to look too deeply beyond the surface of Liversidge’s work - this is not work that hides behind humour, but work that rests on humour, and that is genuinely funny. In the end, Liversidge’s wide-ranging practice might best be appreciated simply, as art that is unafraid to be fun.

This review was first published in The Herald on June 1st, 2007.