GSA Degree Show 2015: East End Art School

Glasgow School of Art exhibits its Fine Art degree show for the first time in its new Tontine Building, with students showing no sign of dinted confidence.

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 24 Jun 2015
  • Sebastian Mary Tay

Now that the Glasgow School of Art Degree Show takes place in part across the road from the Trongate 103 arts complex, there’s been a fortuitous widening of this year’s Fine Art exhibition audience. With an entrance between shopfronts (next door to Guitar Guitar), walk-ins tentatively ask how much it costs to come in, which is a fair question given the three-strong black-suited security at the door. As well as the bouncers, there’s a staffed welcome desk loaded with promo materials for halls-of-residence, posters for the show and maps aplenty – and even a copy of a special GSA-exclusive edition of The Skinny. Nevertheless, it’s perhaps a mixed blessing that this generous giving of free paper comes to an abrupt end once the show begins on the third floor.

That’s to say, the choice has been made by most exhibitors not to include artist statements or explanatory texts, and in Michael Barr’s performance, a kind of loaded silence sensitively dominates his entire work. Visibly exhausted under the weight of the one-man-band suit on his back, he walks in uncomfortable steps, so as to avoid tugging the already-stretched cord that leads from his ankle to the beater of the bass drum. In small steps he makes his way around the exhibition and often in the streets immediately surrounding it, until finally lowering himself into a custom-made bed with a cylindrical hollow which fits exactly the drum on his back. In the context of the show, perhaps it’s a complex metaphor of the exhaustion of being an artist (performance, one-man band or otherwise), and refusing to play the tune expected. Nevertheless, there’s a heavy profundity to the entire performance and accompanying sculptural elements that carefully eludes the over-determination of any single reading of the work.

Music and text rule the exhibited works of John Farrell, who – in a playful but significant turn – combines the lyrics of opposed sectarian songs. In a simple colour coding, lines are coded green and blue, and in certain places the simple AABB rhyming easily becomes ABAB as the tone of each camp’s rhetoric easily melds in shared dourness, violence and offence. There’s a starkness across the textual work, which variously describes (all caps) ‘A FALL OF MORE THAN A THOUSAND FEET’ and that ‘NOTHING EVER CHANGES’ yet ‘NOTHING STAYS THE SAME.’ At the same time, there’s a record player that has stacked next to it Arab Strap, Mogwai, Teenage Fanclub and De Rosa. Acting as ‘the soundtrack to the work on show,’ as Aidan Moffat’s sentimental monotone reverberates from a booming speaker, any potential caps-lock bravado is blunted and slid aside as a bald-faced lyricism takes hold.

While most individual shows across the Tontine involve several related elements, Josephine Sweeney’s work trades on its singularity, as she includes a quite large cloud sculpture, nothing more. With its materials perhaps alluding to the look of fresh concrete and its curves looking like sophisticated outdoor seating, it may perhaps be quoting, in form, the kind of ‘plop art’ that is dropped across public spaces in moments of decorative irrelevance. In a simple visual pun, the cloud itself is resolutely solid, heavy and has sharp edges. Its overall presence is one of friendly bulkiness or a kind of fond awkwardness.

From the tact to the brightly verbal, Kerry McManus is one of the few students in her class catalogue to address the audience directly and in first person with her artist’s statement. With flair and gusto, McManus writes her manifesto in which she situates herself ‘right now,’ dealing with the limits of self-presentation and forming that are defined by social media. Working across several media, McManus includes the physical trappings of social media in a bronze cast of her Macbook. There’s also a plinth mosaic, covered with multicoloured casts of smart phones. On top, there’s a bust of herself making a trout pout. Pillows are heaped in the corner with various sexually explicit text messages, which McManus intends as an exploration of the performance and transformation of gender roles within electronic communication. With its pastel colourfulness, there’s a perceptible lightness of aesthetic that permeates her quotation of texts and the forms of technological design. There’s too much of a sense of self-awareness for the softness of the presentation to be straightforwardly inviting or uncritical, but not detached enough to be judgmental or clinical. With all of her own hashtags carefully indexed, printed and framed on the wall, McManus makes clear that while she makes attempts to explore the impact or consequences of social media, she’s just as entrenched herself in these forms and technologies.

Literally working in 'social media' but taking the phrase much more literally, Jessica Higgins has made the physical works of her final degree submission with friends. ‘Matt and I made clocks together… Eilidh and I made tools from mulched up paper,’ Higgins describes on a conversational text on the wall, which finishes with a quote from feminist Marxist critic Kathi Weeks: ‘one cannot get something as big as a life on one’s own.’ Lot of copies of a little red book punctuate the mainly blue and green elements in the space. It’s here that Higgins writes in a loose, poetically tangential and chatty tone. For example, Wayne and Garth ‘feel the rush of a plane flying overhead closely’; there’s mention of self-sufficient living and a questioning whether to ‘aspire to make large, burdensome things.’ In just the same chatty tone, the space is made inviting by domestic, handmade, crafty looking objects. In the little red book, Higgins uses conjunctions to set up a circle of text with no space for a question mark: ‘it is yours or is it my home and.’

There’s a different kind of accessibility at play in the work of Sebastian Mary Tay. Large photographs depicting pastel-hued smoky gradients are in the first of two connected spaces. They are then explained in the adjoining rooms by pictures of the flour and starch powder that Tay photographed under artificial lights. Though the explanatory works are smaller, they have been shot with an eye for the dramatic, with a sense of scale becoming indistinct as small studio lights begin to resemble helicopter or flood lights around the pile of disturbed powdery piles. There’s an oddness to the amount of work expended to create these large images of what look like the product of a few easy Photoshop filters.

Flour is again put to creative use in Jude Hagan’s installation of paintings and pottery, with little shrunken looking heads made from flour mixed with water. There’s an undeniable attraction, ornamentation and decorativeness to the work, which Hagan deploys critically and self-consciously. Painting to the very edges of the canvas, the paintings themselves become objects, mounted again onto sackcloth on conventional wood stretchers. Between the two- and three-dimensional work Hagan is paradoxically the creator of a fictional space that, to achieve a coherence and continuity, implies a limitation of Hagan’s artistic authority. Someplace between megalomania and asceticism of the self, Hagan embarks on ambitious world-making.

There’s a vulnerability for GSA students who might once have been able to bank on the impressiveness of the hallowed walls of the Mackintosh building. With this very specific immunity weakened, there’s nevertheless a confident stride through the work of the Fine Art graduates. But maybe let’s scrap the IKEA-inspired one-way system.