ECA Degree Show 2019: Everyone's a Winner

Edinburgh College of Art showed off its newly renovated buildings and highly skilled new graduates in the 2019 degree show, with poignant, humorous and relatable responses to social and philosophical challenges

Article by Danny Pagarani and Katie Dibb | 12 Jun 2019
  • Lauren Holehouse at ECA Degree Show

This year, alongside the various prizes (read: value systems to dodge), a vigilante has awarded every artist The Snaatchi Award for “A Damn Good Piece of Work that You Should Feel Proud Of and Happy About”. In that spirit of avoiding the competitive mores of the art world, Emma Kate Roberts piece is a heart-warming installation, somewhat surprising given that it centres around the experience of art-school burnout and the salve of self-imposed isolation (in outer-space). The middle of the room is the focus with its impressively rendered spaceship-for-one. Surrounding the walls are a space suit, helmet, and curiosity cabinet with samples collected on the Planet Whimsy. A book to the side explains the conceit of the work through confessional yet fictively-framed press releases – “I just need space. Complete solitude and the comfort of darkness.” Later we learn that the artist has Autistic Spectrum Disorder and that the “ethos of the programme is to provide works of art that explicate aspects of autism”.

Beginning in a large gallery with a convoluted line drawn using hundreds of fake Brexit-themed newspapers, Lauren Holehouse’s work proceeds to snake down a staircase into a smaller room with three televisions standing on the floor. The televisions, two of which are synced and one of which has a jarring off-kilter delay, play a mixture of news reportage and pop culture. Viewers see power struggles in Libya and Cuba interspersed with the smiles and glitz of footage from Strictly Come Dancing. The death toll in the Mediterranean continues to rise, and all the while Brexit slithers along the floor.

A giant white and grey deer-dog kneels forming the dramatic centre of Emelia Kerr Beale’s collection of mixed media works. The deer sculpture appears to be papier-mache. One of its knees rests on the corner of a custom made carpet bearing the image of a sun, and again, a deer. Herons, brick smoke stacks and a red-faced comet make up the cast of recurrent characters. There is something of the medieval hunt scene, and of the doodled marginalia found in illuminated manuscripts by bored copy-scribes, in Beale’s work. The narrative is unclear but the work is captivating nonetheless. 

Rucky Chen has created a grotesque arable scene of figures in states of decay on astroturf. The clothed sculptures are largely made of expanding foam; wigs give them an uncanny anthropomorphic vivacity even when they have no discernible faces. Do their suits imply a gross crony-capitalism?

Niamh Ferguson’s work is a series of black and white polaroids mounted on a wall in a straight line. A series of two foot high concrete-cast watch towers stand on the floor in an equally straight formation. The photographs depict the Borders, Bases and Barricades which give this work its name. The eeriness of the photographs is compounded by an inability to place their content in time. Are these watchtowers the remnants of a defunct infrastructure or one that is dormant?

Junha Lee similarly explores borders in their work on North and South Korea, and the Korean war. This wall-mounted study is comprised of detailed handdrawn maps which overlay one another. The tracing paper on which they are drawn adds new information, but as the layers build a fog obscures what is beneath.

Edith Hicks’ work exists as minimal sculpture and photographic documentation of environmental performance art. The sculptures themselves being elements of the performance could also be seen as documentation, but their active demarcation and measurement of space in the room suggests otherwise. These wooden two-by-fours are painted yellow and hung horizontally at various heights. Others lie on the floor and on the electrical ducting. Shoestrings mark a central region of the planks, which holds small cut-glass bowls filled with green liquid. One single plank has a cut-glass bowl placed outside the centre. At the extreme right a charred fragment of wood implies it balances this wayward bow, light though it must be. The photographs document a balancing act in motion as the artist moves the planks and liquid-filled glass bowls through urban environments. One gets the sense that this is a deeply personal work even though its meaning to the artist is obscure.

Imogen Richards’ work is comprised of a wall based painting-assemblage titled Untitled. Themes of the body are forefront with torn paper sewn together in a manner evoking stitches in skin. Faces and limbs can be made-out emerging from abstract shapes. The individual elements are densely rich in colour pallet and at times crowded in composition. Yet this is balanced by an overall airiness of arrangement. Terracotta Jug is set apart but reads with the rest the assemblage. The figurative elements in this work are more emphatic than elsewhere though they appear only slightly foregrounded against a background that could itself be inside a diabolical body.

Cherie Li has created a site specific installation which makes use of a small bright room, with a sink, to intimate effect. Lie moves beyond a degree show staple of exploring plant life as thing-in-itself, to connecting it to human and home life in its role as the food we eat. All the while Lie retains a connection to the sensibilities of art - glass noodles strung on fishing wire across a window function as both three dimensional line drawings and their edible form. Below, a heap of rice bears the imprint of fingers traced through. Audiences are offered glimpses at the possible autobiographical origins of the work in the form of photographs but they are torn and fragmented. This is a taste of home, but it’s not home. This is not a kitchen though it feels like one.

Yashavi Harikrishna has collected a series of stories from Edinburgh through video documented interviews. Displacement spans seven screens across three walls. In one a Leith shopkeeper with Kenyan and Pakistani parents speaks of her latter-day appreciation of her mother’s refusal to buy her Barbie dolls as child. Snow White, ‘fairest of them all’, was banned for the same reasons – she didn’t want her children imbuing damaging Euro-centric beauty standards. In another video, an older white man recalls his first encounter with a banana (traded for cigarettes by a despatch rider uncle during times of rationing) which was subsequently traded at school for enough marbles to threaten his trousers’ attachment to his waist. 

The works on show demonstrate a breadth of ideas, styles and undeniable skill. Those that offered visitors an empathetic entry point managed to hold attention, though all deserved it.