Dundee Degree Show 2016: Getting Personal

It's the first Scottish degree show of the year, and the Duncan of Jordanstone graduates are taking it seriously, with ambitious and well-produced work

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 20 May 2016

There’s been no expense spared as Duncan of Jordanstone class of '16 start the degree show season with impressively high finish. See the carpentry skills of Thomas Stephenson’s wooden wood burning stove, or Jamie Watt’s huge metal cattle brand, that threatens to burn the word 'temple' in foot-high letters, with a crushing scale.

Besides an attention to detail there are a few other moments of resonance between the three distinct courses and all the multimedia work. There are plenty of emotionally charged, personal and moving anecdotes, a concern with the workings of language and writing and – weirdly – two separate instances of anatomical drawings of hearts on glass.

Bolshy text work, writ large is another thematic connector within the otherwise welcome diversity of media and content. Look at Claire Conner and Naya Mafalios-Soulen, exhibiting in neighbouring rooms. They both go bold and include enough sensitive content, c- and f- words to merit the pre-warning plaques on the door. For Conner, it’s all about the protest placard, blazoned with 'IT'S AW FUCKED' in caps and with comically timed enjambment before the last '-ed.'

As direct an address as it is detached, from Time Based Art Louise McCusker’s installation work speaks with a passively imperative tone through carefully arranged speakers. Cushions are set out for lying on, with the audio set-up designed to be listened to from the horizontal. Shining through the blinds, there’s the clean purple of a virtual sunset, accompanied by ambient music that’s the tense filler of long pauses between the advice “Don’t worry, this is not a simulation” and more sinister “You said nothing, you made me come here” – voiced with icy objectivity.

Atmospheric absence again with the mechanised swingset, by Gentian Rose Meikleham. Though allusions are made to the loss of a close relative, there’s a deliberate effacing of specifics. Without the resolution of narrative or satisfying disclosure, Meikleham references the cool but cutting lyricism of a certain school of installation work that appears dry though housing an intensely personal and hard-to-descry personal symbolism. Only telling enough to make clear there’s much more to be said. Whether in the deliberate weighting of 5.5 tone of an oversized pillow, or the pile of blurred out newspapers, Meikleham is productively and effectively referencing (for example) artist and photographer Felix Gonzalez Torres.

Personal significance turns to free association for Fine Art student Kieran Milne. Along with the first students mentioned, he’s made the most of the workshops to fabricate a large kissing gate – along with prints, paintings and publications. There’s a printed text, that recounts the long, wordy and overly cerebral responses of a fumbling man to a woman he has penned in the gate, asking one-line questions. In the space, the sculpture is spindly and gangly and without being a door becomes a clumsy enclosure.

On the walls, Milne makes cross-media rhymes as different parts of works are repeated to signal an importance or relevance, though without resolution. There’s the “pragmatic green” as Milne terms the hue of exit signs, then the house plants and their own sap colour, all with the MDF mount boards’ background of warm sienna of MDF. In one work, he lists 'Avert/ overt/ au vert,' seeing etymological potentials not in the given roots of words but leafing and vining together tenuous and poetic relationships.

Conversely, working with a strategy of a manifest presence, one of the tallest and heaviest works comes from Helen King, a student from the same course as Meikleham (Art, Philosophy and Contemporary Practices). She can also be counted among the students who have spent time and money executing an ambitious concept. Sculpturally excerpting from brutalist architecture, King has built a concrete monument, braced and weighted on bright orange straps that extend around it and over the far newly whitewashed wall. It’s leaning back precariously, with another little health and safety  card on the floor as a reminder to take care – lest you be crushed.

Alongside the large sculpture, and in a deadpan humour, King includes three accompanying blueprints for curators, of potential installations of the individual blocks that make up the monolith. Using cyanotype, there’s a nod to this print method’s early 20th century heyday use as a means of reproducing plans. Except here, the instructions are to scatter them artfully on the floor or pile carefully. There’s a physical tension set up, with the taut supports, setting up a place for ambivalence  neither celebrating nor denigrating its impact and influence.

Softening slightly, at least in materials, Esther Farrell offers some respite from the the neat sheen of the majority of this year’s degree show. Thinking of necessarily makeshift home decoration, or maybe a little of priming canvas material, a dingy mattress has been painted white. Leaving a rectangle (only about a half square metre) of its original surface on show, there’s the insight into the stains and muck sealed by the paint.

Mounted on the wall, Farrell has carved into 35 pillows. Each one’s stuffing bulges out into a different word. Beginning 'don’t leave me,' the next 31 pillows lose this first grammatical sense, and finish 'love stress sleep' – desperate and disjointed. Without the same concern for looking professional or gallery-ready as a lot of the others, there’s an affecting disarray to the media used (cut pillows and painted mattress) and a fretting disorganisation.

There’s a different kind of disquieting logic to the wallpapered and furnished space of Sandra Schneider. With wooden furniture and golden wallpaper, the environment is made to feel staged – the kind of set you’d find in a local rep play. Disrupting the easy antique feel, there are little transparent tongue sculptures in clusters on the walls. With the same kind of patterning as mould that’s turned to mushroom, there’s the surreal crossing of the means of language, decay and all the odd feeling of the word 'lick.'

In the space, there’s a sound work of a speaking voice. There’s a familiar excess of spit and lip smacking noises that comes with over sensitive microphones picking up the clicks and off putting noises of a wordless mouth. Even when the text is read out, it’s written to make a feature of the noise of saliva, lips and tongue, with an accompanying script giving direction like 'spoked as inhaled.'

While the work might come across as sophisticatedly well put-together, there’s plenty of ellipses, moments of thoughtful ambiguity and loaded silence across the exhibition. What it means to make personal work, how to consider the limits and potential of language, or the politics of confrontation, there’s plenty of provocation and insight, but – most exciting of all – they’ve only just begun.

DJCAD Degree Show, Fri 20-Sun 29 May