Betraying Expectations: ECA Degree Show 2018

This year's Edinburgh College of Art graduation show is an exciting showcase; full but manageable, it displays the wealth of talent finishing this year, and is peppered with moments of poignancy, confrontation, resistance and protest

Article by Adam Benmakhlouf | 01 Jun 2018

While undergraduate degree shows often feel impossible to see in their entirety, this year's Edinburgh College of Art showcase felt somehow both overflowing and manageable.

As always, there are sections of the show where some of the works in shared spaces feel like they've been displayed a little too close together to be confidently distinguished, but one group of students indulged fully in this danger of not being singularly identified. Acknowledging some of the hazards of melding with others at the very moment of being given a platform to share their own practices, they call themselves Just Guts. Their group name draws attention too to their flesh-hue pinks, browns and purples, and the gestural and scratched in renderings of groups of bodies in motion across several of the painted works included in their huge constructed gallery environment.

There’s a clear intention by this group to bypass the objectivity and coolness of a conventional gallery space, and altogether this combination of artworks creates the sense of a huge treehouse. An elevated platform plays host to a range of workshops through the week. While there’s the sense that the many paintings are subsumed into the broader structure, the room is enjoyably transformed and overall it is an exciting and surprising twist on the degree show format.

Thinking too of domesticity, but literally stripping back this reference to something sparser and bare, there’s the large sculptures by Jasmine Brown-Rase. A cross-section reproduction of the room where the artist lived in London is filled with undulating and cracked terracotta in reference to Mauritius landscapes. Outside of the space, there are bookshelves of year-marked books coated in sugar. These are intended as a poetic reference to Jamaica, as a further layering of geographical contexts. The large open structure is reproduced faithfully, with visible insulation and wooden beams. The result is a detached and cool consideration of home, comfort and familiarity.

In the same room, there’s the work of Alice Dudgeon, which operates in a sculptural language of handcrafted elegance and large scale ambition. The structure itself is a skeletal pine circle of skinny posts that spread out slightly as they go towards the ceiling. In the large room, the light passes through it, its presence not obstructive, instead opening out the space as it draws the eye upward (and across the amazing views of these studios); it’s a quietly uplifting experience.

At some point during the opening night, Ayshia Taskin’s performance begins. Word spreads that this artist is making corn snacks in the basement. Heading downstairs, it’s easy to spot what’s coming as crumbs and different shapes of processed versions of crisps like Nik Naks are littered on the floor – or left in the neck of a discarded beer bottle. It’s over already, as the machine gets too hot after a while and risks setting off the fire alarm in the narrow room in which Taskin has just been furiously doling out free food with an assistant. The room’s floor is covered with the snacks and a powdered path leads to the factory-like scene. At once, there’s the generosity of sharing food, while the dried corn and industrial level of machinery to make the final product allude to alienating processes of mass production, creating an ambivalent sense of giving while also accumulating waste.

More subtle is the performance from Amelia Tan. During this lively opening night the movements of her amateur performance troupe mostly were subsumed into the busy comings and goings of the audience, but as the crowds thin over the course of the week it may become more pronounced. Despite the crowds, the moments at which her dancers would suddenly become apparent felt deftly formed, such as when their everyday movements, like walking, changed to another action that wasn’t as fitting within the context – for example, drying their hands under a bathroom hand dryer. An older gentleman on the opening began to wring his hands under one of the abstract paintings by Jamie Duncan that were also in the room. A video piece in Tan’s space acts as an engaging documentary of her work with the participants in her performance work, who seem to come to contemporary art with huge levels of openness and enthusiasm to discover the artist's concepts and working methods, despite having no substantial prior experience. It’s a reminder perhaps of the huge goodwill and interest that comes with all the wandering public audiences to the degree shows each year.

On the same floor as Tan, there’s the intriguing performances of Rachel Lee, who scrapes sonorously a mortar and pestle, or drums quietly on the lid of a Starbucks cup. With some sense of melancholy, she walks barefoot across the rough surface of blue office chairs, a piece of gym equipment not being used in the background. The performances take place sporadically, and seemingly when Lee feels up to it. With a shelf of kefir and Lee wearing fitness clothes, there are layered references to capitalistic health practices and products, set within the ambiguously sombre atmosphere. The mood of the performance does not reveal itself to be either acted as a constructed reflection on the sometimes cynical base of wellness services and health foods industries, or just where Lee as artist and performer was in her mood that day. This lack of distinction is central to the hazy boundaries that make it hard to delineate the personal from the economic, as need and desire; want and necessity are conflated by the health and fitness culture that Lee considers with subtle aloofness.

An ambivalently cool intimacy pervades the work of Robert Cooper, who juxtaposes aspects of fond closeness with disquieting objects and forms. A chest freezer is in his space, with the disclaimer that there are animals inside that died of natural causes. Opening up this freezer, there’s a fox and a rabbit. We see the fox again in a video of it curled, looking asleep, on the artist’s bare torso. A bed is in the space, too, with soft looking sausage forms in bright colours on the mattress. Touching them gives away their hard solidity. There’s a clashing of warmth and distance, embracement and repulsion, and ultimately the works are more poignant than disturbing.

There’s low-key confrontation in the work of Taylor Shaw, who has left dozens of half pint glasses in a tight row on the floor, diagonally bisecting the room. Through the opening evening, one of the assisting students was constantly on-hand with a mop. Transparent and lower than where you might look, these glasses consistently cause embarrassment to passersby as they cause them to come into collision with the work to which they have otherwise been giving a wide berth. It takes advantage of the awe of the room that it’s set in, beginning with mirrors by the same artist. There’s the suggestion that the artist is at odds with the audience, and the harsh message: “take better care”.

For many students, they’ve already got their eyes on what they’re planning next, and Sarah Brown’s carefully constructed painted cardboard kitchen presents her ambition and skill as a set designer. Nevertheless, she demonstrates that her Painting BA (Hons) will serve her well, with her attention to subtle colour hues and reduction of detail to the pure and communicable necessities. There's also a penchant for handmade replicas of mass produced items in the work of Kirsty Paterson, who makes replicas of tinned food and includes narratives from working in a supermarket: a saggy break room, looking too hot, made entirely of cardboard, including its fan which shoogles the table it sits on back and forth. There are a stack of tins on bright tile, across the room. The mop from Taylor Shaw's installation is left sitting behind it, continuing the wide spectrum of dialogues between the different works at points – see examples above like Just Guts and Amelia Tan's performer using Jamie Duncan's painting as a prop.

One of the most effective and economic gestures in the show – and another point of interaction between one student's work and, in this instance, the entire degree show event – are the posters of Zoë Zo, Zoë Guthrie and Zoë Tumika. Rather than taking up the floorspace or any formal room in the degree show, the artist has chosen to paste a group of posters on the wall. One reads, “I can picture myself somewhere like this”. Enough posters to be visible and in bright enough colours to catch our attention, this work is otherwise reduced beyond the minimum of the bulk that’s expected of degree show presentation. It’s a stunning betrayal and refusal of the degree show, which Zoë Zo, Zoë Guthrie and Zoë Tumika deploys to protest the experience of being at art school and not being able to circulate with the comfort of white, straight and middle-class privileges that dominate all aspects of the art school experience. It’s a necessary and timely interruption of the degree show event and gestures to the creativity, struggle and courage of the students who apply, receive a place and even graduate without ever being let into the institution. “I can see myself somewhere like this,” the poster reads.

Until 10 June 2018