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.