Once again the disconcerting labyrinth of the Trongate Tontine building has been invaded by the Glasgow School of Art, this year featuring a glorious array of weird and wonderful work from pristine photography to a performative extravaganza meditating on the threat of nuclear attack. This is peak degree show.
2017 is a diverse year revealing a tremendous facility of media and meaning, with students across the board demonstrating high levels of technical facility alongside some deep investigations into themes both timely and personal.
Anna Wachsmuth presents a subtle meditation on the state of Israel, an installation of objects and images loaded with meaning that accumulate to an ambiguous whole. The piece is named Reise Nach Jerusalem, the improbable German name for musical chairs which disguises a history of displacement and forced migration under the jaunty auspices of nursery language. A photograph of a forest pasted on the wall documents the location of a former Arab settlement, cleared in the 40s and planted with firs and conifers covering the scant remains of homes.
UN food sacks lie on the floor, seemingly benevolent objects revealed in the accompanying artist’s book to be contentious in their location and purpose. On a shelf lie casts of rubber bullets, the weapon of subjugation. On another wall is the Mediterranean, the physical and psychological barrier which separates Europe from Africa and the Middle East, 'us' from the 'them' we find it so easy to distance ourselves from.
On a more formal tip, David Walker Kennedy presents pastel plaster forms attached to the wall. Karla Black’s powder puff palette rendered solid, their suspension mid wall slightly defiant of the laws of gravity. Alongside sits canvas which has been forced through a printer then stitched together to make a new whole. This is an artist who pushes materials beyond their logical conclusion to create something defiantly unexpected.
Odd juxtaposition of the show goes to Katie Rose Johnston and Mahsaneh Poosti’s adjoining displays. Johnston has filled a room with a riot of pastel forms, an explosive childlike space filled with intriguing pieces of craftmanship. Through a curtain to the side Poosti’s installation is a threatening, prison-like space with a throbbing soundtrack and rough plaster walls, covered in Farsi scrawls beneath tin cans and wire. It is an oppressive experience which seeps out into the adjoining childish fiesta and undermines its innocence. The instruction at the entrance – ‘Come inside / Take a cloth / Make a wish / Tie a knot’ – offers little in the way of solace.
No degree show review would be complete without mention of Art editor Adam Benmakhlouf’s painting installation exploring gender, sex and identity as outlined in his disconcertingly frank personal statement at the entrance. Thankfully it lives up to the hype, a series of male nudes of varying scales displayed using innovative strategies to physically inhabit the space. One colossal yellow bust bisects the room at an angle on its own scaffold frame; another monumental figure in his pants is propped seemingly jauntily against the wall.
The back wall is decked out with a glittery Klein blue backdrop, while the floor is covered in yellow sandpaper, introducing another layer of colour and a textural experience while walking through the space. The loaded materials collide to form an intriguing dissonance, accumulating to a display which is refreshingly honest in its raw contradiction.
Beth Pearson delves into an interesting topic, bringing the atrocities of Glasgow’s tobacco lords into the 21st century with a riff on Scotrail’s branding. Recast as Scotsail, she’s created timetables and posters recording the shipments of slaves which crossed the Atlantic in horrifying conditions to supply the plantations of Virginia. It’s a reminder that the streets of the Merchant City and the former second city of the empire are built on the backs of slaves.
In an explosive periodic performance South Korean artist Lea (Ye Gyoung) Choi and two collaborators examine a very reasonable childhood fear of nuclear war by dressing up as a bomb and rollerskating around handing out candles shaped like missiles / penises. It’s playful, joyful, overwhelmingly kitsch, simultaneously addressing one of the darkest corners of the human experience.
Photographer Radu Lungu elevates the mundane with pristine images immaculately printed. A tree in Cumbernauld is rendered beautiful, the underside of a Glasgow motorway compelling as they are quietly celebrated and transformed into monuments. Nearby, Ben Soedira documents the place he considers home, Dubai, focussing on moments of daily life – men talking, a car, a wall, piles of sand and empty water bottles – to build an image of a place of dusty normalcy away from the towering feats of engineering and human rights abuses.
Interspersing these thoughtful works are the required moments of bonkers spectacle which we expect from any good degree show. Someone has used their time wisely, to paint large cat portraits. A large number of pigeons have been stuffed, suspended and lasers strapped to their heads. There is an enormous lucky golden waving cat which viewers can sit behind and quietly, invisibly watch their fellow explorers. GSA 2017 delivers everything we require from a graduate show – moments of profundity and beauty, interspersed with gobsmacking madness.