Degrees of separation: Dundee Degree Show 09

Feature by Rosamund West | 26 May 2009

The decision to move the Duncan of Jordanstone degree show out of the college itself and into a building designed as a commercial office space is necessarily a questionable one. So much of the Dundee show’s uniqueness was informed by its environment, by the rabbit warren-like building that presented the visitor with both challenges and rewards, dispersed departments, winding corridors, bridges and apparently hidden rooms lending a sense of a journey of discovery to what could have been a mundane saunter from gallery to gallery. The underlying fear that you would take a wrong turn and end up lost forever, your petrified corpse fated to lie undiscovered until one long distant degree show, gave the whole experience a tremendous sense of adventure.

This year’s relocation to the Vision building transforms that experience. Large, new spaces mean that work is presented in a much less loaded environment, although a building designed to house offices carries its own baggage leaving it far removed from the neutrality of the conventional white cube gallery. The different departments deal with this space with varying levels of success. Generally speaking, the Design subjects look better than they did before, while Fine Art rather suffers for the relocation.

Tucked away on the top floor, Interior and Environmental Design have made the best use of the space (it would probably be quite embarrassing for them if they didn’t), presenting a uniformly branded display with individuals’ areas delineated in orange tape. Stand-out work here is surely that of Louise Forbes and Susan Younger, whose collaborative furniture design displays a high level of craftsmanship alongside confident, mature design and a witty approach to concept. Lamps available in large and small sizes entitled Long Schlong and Short Schlong are particular favourites.

On the first floor, Interactive Media Design presents a wealth of intriguing projects from students schooled in a variety of disciplines on a course breaking down traditional boundaries between design, programming and marketing to prepare individuals for careers in a world of rapidly evolving technologies and media. Particularly fascinating is qlashr by Ryan McLeod and Ian Shiels, a “complete Video Jockey system” presented in a darkened micro-club involving 3D projections that both baffle and amaze.

Fine Art does seem a little disheartened by the relocation. Each student was asked to provide details of the space required, and duly accommodated. However, restrictions set out by the building’s owners, including a ban on using the walls, mean that the soul seems to have been sucked out of the work. Temporary walls and trade-fair like spaces can work for designers, but for painters and sculptors nothing can really compare with the freedom to interact, intervene and generally fuck with a unique space in a character-filled building.

Still, some artists rise above the restrictions. Katie Watters has built her own room in the image of your gran’s living room, complete with musty floral scent and the increasingly eerie repeated strains of Clair de Lune. The effect of the environment becomes increasingly sinister as closer inspection reveals wallpaper printed with hardcore pornography, lace tablecloths delicately embroidered with images of fellatio and china figurines with additional genitalia. Particularly sinister is the bird sitting on a branch, the end of which has been altered to look like a tiny little penis. Strategically placed Mills and Boons novels contribute to an increasingly suffocating atmosphere of suppressed sexuality, a playful manifestation of what we all suspect goes on in suburbia. Naturally, the artist has already been the subject of a scandalised report in the Scotsman.

Jessica Ramm, this month's Skinny Showcase, has fashioned mixed media sculptures, lit glass bell jars with mechanical devices fruitlessly pecking against them, light bulbs intricately manipulated so that tiny moons appear within them. A large metal assemblage on the other side of her space combines the mechanism of the clock from her village hall with formed metal balls filled with the burnt remnants of her previous works, pecked endlessly by more mechanical creatures, fragments spilling to the ground in an action that seems to both mock and celebrate the wealth of experience.

Jonathan Richards’ painting reveals a unique and interesting practice, although it does somewhat suffer for its environment , placed as it is on the corner of a row where others’ works can intrude and interfere. He has manipulated sheets of pure paint, built up on plastic in layer upon layer then removed and reformed into folds and creases to fill the particular space of the exhibition. The forms are reminiscent of the paintings of Alison Watt, but in the third dimension, and not boring. The manner of working seems to hold a wealth of possibilities for Jonathan.

Along the back of the main Fine Art room lie the most successful displays, students granted significantly larger spaces relatively clear of outside intrusion. Omar Zingaro Bhatia’s clutter of objects, artefacts, drawings and paintings holds more to absorb than your average junk shop, while Jamie Fitzpatrick’s Unnatural History Museum presents marble and resin sculptures of weird and wonderful beasts, a semi-literal manifestation of the genetic research debate.

In all, the degree show is as vast and varied as it is every year. The new location makes navigation easier for the visitor, which will perhaps lead to a higher traffic than usual. It is a shame, though, that much of the character and spirit of the show seems to have been lost in the move, and that the improvements for Design subjects have been made to the detriment of Fine Art.

Until 6 Jun.