ECA Degree Show 2017: Free for all

Edinburgh College of Art's class of '17 hit a note of unexpected joyousness, combining free abandon and critical thoughtfulness

Feature by Rosie Priest | 21 Jun 2017

As many artists are learning to work in insecure economic and political times, a lot of the works in Edinburgh College of Art's degree show feel like they were not going to shy away from celebration. The use of bold and brilliant colours, kitsch glamour and an overall feeling of the absurd gives the ECA a 1980s hue. A backlash, perhaps, to the extremes of austerity and the absurdity of practising art in bleak, grey, times.

Students at ECA have comparative freedom to experiment with the spaces in which to exhibit, meaning that this year many have created incredible and unique environments in which to explore and play. The first of these spaces we stumble upon is Fionnuala Mottishaw’s Artefacts of Absurdia. Exploring the bizarreness of manmade objects, Motishaw creates a unique and inexplicable environment. Tucked away around an easily missed corner, the space reeks with oversaturated colours, noisy-neons and incredible clutter. 

Alex Weir has created a fully working café, titled Smex Café, celebrating vibrant colours and food in a wonderful and joyously noisy cacophony – plus the coffee’s pretty good too. Joseph O’Rourke shares his peers’ exploration into absurdity in a series of hilarious paintings, hanging like flags across the sculpture balcony, deliberately naïve in presentation and personality. An homage to protest signs and symbols, this work doesn’t attempt to be overtly political, while poking fun at its very influences.

The fun continues with Stefanie Blum, who takes the exploration of space one step further than many of the others, as her piece titled Tunneling would suggest: sliding into another space on a board through a tunnel on a pulley system – an ingenious way of questioning how we explore traditional gallery spaces.

Diana Bechmann’s work feels a little more sophisticated than many of her contemporaries, but by no means less fun, as her works explore Places and Nature. Children swarm to the work, testament to the fact that you don’t have to be over the top to appeal to the young, and the young at heart.

Another dream-like space is discovered in the work of Rebecca Heselton. Hidden away behind a black curtain high up in the ECA building we uncover a brilliant Floating Village[s] – intricately created homes, the size of dollhouses, are shackled together on a turning plinth, with light falling on them as they move. The shadows they cast circle the room slowly, in an eerie horror movie-esque fashion. The work is simply hypnotic, while also unnerving – all it is missing is the creepy laughter of a child and you will be in the opening scene of a slasher film.

Sculptor Lara Hirst offers us a very clean and intelligent exploration into economics and theories surrounding worth. Simply exhibiting 30 £1 coins, under the knowledge that ‘one in every thirty pound coins is fake,’ and reclaiming the gold from money to create beautiful, dreamlike sculptures, Hirst explores the impermanence of economic worth, and the permanence of art.

Seeming to echo the practices of Louise Bourgeois, sculptor Kerry Boyd creates uncanny forms that linger and lurk in the large space they inhabit. Boyd is clearly informed by queer theory and an ‘otherisation’ of the body, and her works use a variety of textures that at times make you feel completely at home, and at others repulsed by their nature.

Another artist clearly influenced by queer theory is photographer Craig Waddell. In his series of intimate portraits, Waddell questions what it is to be ‘masculine’, rigorously taking apart and dismantling the heteronormative approach to being ‘male’ and celebrating individuals who, in his words “thrive outside the norm”. The portraits in this photographic series often look out at you, stare you directly in the eyes, and dominate you with their gaze: these aren’t candid images, and you don’t feel like a voyeur – this is a reality being depicted, and an identity which will challenge your understandings and interpretations of what you thought you knew.

Zoe Griffin explores identity, but in terms of female sexuality through their relationship with patriarchal ideologies. The sexualisation of inanimate objects, the uncanny ability of foam, or stone, to make you question your relationship with yourself and your own body is so well thought out, and a hauntingly real mirror to our own uncomfortable identities.

An artist whose work resonates is Daniel Cook. Similarly to Waddell, Cook explores individuals thought of as living ‘outside the norm’. His brilliant and bizarre film The King and I explores the worlds of two individuals living on the margins of society, margins which have slowly been eroded by the continual growth of the younger professional community in Edinburgh. The film has a certain Grey Gardens quality to it in which we are at once exposed to a completely unique way of living, while also being taken aback by how different it is from ‘the norm’.