It’s that time of year again. Creeping up on the unsuspecting public it at once feels familiar, like the signal for summer to attempt to begin in earnest. June marks the beginning of degree show season up and down the UK for undergraduate students, with Leeds being no exception.
Sitting comfortably mid-schedule between the degree shows of the other two academic institutions in the city – Leeds Beckett University and the University of Leeds – here the BA (Hons) Fine Art course at Leeds College of Art presents its collective contribution, Once More with Feeling.
Taking over part of the ground floor of the College’s Blenheim Walk space the cavernous studios and workshops have been temporarily re-designed into a labyrinthine warren of stud walls, occasionally disrupted by a rogue sink in the corner of a room that reminds visitors of exactly where they are. Sinks aside, the rest of the temporary architectural interventions have seemingly been meticulously decided on to make the most of the building’s internal space, in turn providing students with an ample backdrop within and upon which to display their work.
The title of the exhibition itself presents an ambiguously endearing challenge to both visitor and participant. Are the soon to be graduates inviting the public to their degree show on the promise of something different? Something to interrupt the monotony of the same themes being played and re-played throughout recent generations of students with only venues and aesthetic trends differing marginally? Are the students collectively challenging themselves to a last push before the ‘freedom’ of having full autonomy in the world outside of education, along with the difficult choices of how and if to continue their practice which most will undoubtedly face in the near future? Or does it in fact refer to the re-hangs that the College imposes on all students once assessments have taken place?
As a provocative challenge to students, the institution allows them to install their work however they wish for their final assessment but then enforces multiple re-hangs before the degree show opens to the public. Although an overarching curatorial stricture many institutions practice, at the College it somehow feels different. There is a clear sense of purpose to the method. It is not just to make students refine their selection for the general public; it is to begin to make them think seriously about their practice for their post-graduation existence.
One student typifying this process is Aidan Qvinn, whose installation effuses a slick contemporaneity that would look at home in most gallery spaces, producing a cohesive display that draws the viewer in to investigate the individual components in greater depth. The placement of the work comprising videos, sound narration, cut MDF, plastic shapes and wall-mounted vinyl seems considered yet playful, exploring the increasingly blurred boundaries between the physical and digital worlds. The work exists in a flux of dialogue between these two worlds where they have begun to blend into an almost seamless whole, never truly being able to separate real from digital, facts from created fictions.
From the playful and somewhat sardonic approach of Qvinn the use of narration as the grounding of a piece is no more explicitly apparent than in the work of Rachel South. Faint traces of a woman’s voice can be heard emanating from the canvas curtains draping the entrance to her installation, where once inside the viewer is confronted with an environment filled entirely of bulbous flesh coloured cushions. Enveloped in the womb-like surrounds the narrator’s voice can be heard recounting tales form multiple antagonists. As the narrator continues the autobiographical tales become increasingly more violent with a constant undertone of sexual energy and underlying aggression not far from the surface. What felt like a safe space suddenly takes on an unnerving quality as you are forced to listen to the excision of personal demons.
The dark psychoanalytical content of South’s work relating to the formation of self and identity is aesthetically inverted a few metres away in the work of Romily Walden. Gone are the grimy hues, instead replaced by the dazzling warmth of peachy neon female forms sat atop polished concrete plinths. Although outwardly brighter upon closer inspection dialogues of gendered gaze, production value and Foucauldian power struggles quickly emerge, furthering the contemporaneous identity debates present within South’s work and that of others in their wider peer group. What initially appears an idealisation of the female form quickly becomes a deft blend of feminist theoretical concerns that doesn’t allow the viewer to ever become truly comfortable with what they are looking at.
At times like this it would be disingenuous and daunting to praise a degree show or certain selection of its participants too highly, giving the soon to be graduates too much potential to live up to, especially given there are often such disparities between the theoretical and practical qualities of the works of the students themselves. Although there is a small group of undoubtedly more outwardly talented practitioners (as is the same with every year of students), it must be highlighted that there is a higher standard throughout this 2017 peer group than that of the other academic institutions of the city.
The most interesting thing about degree shows however, and Once More with Feeling typifies this, is not whose work the visitors think is best but who in fact will continue to develop their practice and look back at this particular show as a departure point rather than the pinnacle of their practice to date.
Once More with Feeling provides an honest overview of the 2017 Leeds College of Art student body, reflecting how the quality of teaching has informed and equipped the students to transition from an environment dedicated solely to learning to one where they will have to rely on their work ethic and drive to do so independently. Although it is no easy task for anyone, let alone soon to be former undergraduate students, the potential on show provides a healthy dose of optimism for the future.