Accessible Dystopias: ECA Degree Show 2016

Staying down to earth, ECA Fine Art graduates intelligently and sharply address the most pressing political and social concerns

Article by Adam Benmakhlouf | 31 May 2016

This year’s newly graduated fine artists are staying topical via a big dose of speculative fiction, a little bit of pop culture, references to self-serve aesthetics and process-based takes on familiar decor.

In the lush and luxuriously paced videowork of Daisy Lafarge, there are side references to some kind of dystopian politics, and an intertwining and enmeshing of thick metaphor, euphemism and an intense animist narrative. The soft focus of a botanic garden is sharpened by the speaker’s identification as a ‘privileged specimen’, ‘chosen at birth’ to be ‘saved from a police state’ in ‘the Garden’ – it just sounds capitalised and significant. Then the voice passes through the ‘processing theatre’ and spend years in the dark learning what the sun would feel like. 

La Farge’s soundtrack is meditative, its timbre rounded, muted and plush. There’s no quickening of cuts or change in the slow and neutral delivery of the story, as whoever is relaying the events describes turning on a child – “how easy I could snip him like topiary.” Sent outside, the speaker turns rebel and storms the garden – with no “sense of betrayal”. Its denouement is elegant and level, with all elements throughout well-composed and the composition of the film and writing is effective and elegant.

For the poorly visitors to ECA degree show, there’s helpfully an entire virtual GP office. A stair lift has been installed up to Privata’s reception, where their receptionist is projected onto a person shaped cut out. Directing visitors to sit in the economy or deluxe side in a neutral, blandly friendly sales pitch voice, the blue corporate extends through a partitioned waiting room – one side with plants and stylish furniture, another with water cooler and too-slidey cheap seats. There’s not much beyond a deadpan realisation of what’s made to feel like a convincing imagining of the future of health and technology, but it’s topical and cuts its terrifying predictions with little laughs here and there.

Quoting dystopia in a different way, Toby Wilson with an enthusiastic ennui describes the plot of Terminator 2 in one of the screens of his wall installation. Looping imperceptibly, there’s Wilson (presumably) in the screen above walking in circles and next to him describing the colour and shapes “blue triangle …. green square” that appear on the screen, and which correspond to events in Terminator 2. Bored and fond, it’s viewer’s commentary on blockbuster fodder - that still hits the spot.

A warning comes upstairs next to the structure made by Maryanne Royle: “Do not enter if you have claustrophobia, epilepsy, back or joint problems or are unable to maintain a height of one metre. … Do not read the leather bound book.” Setting the story of a changeling child and an old wise woman, it’s in the upstairs of a patched together shanty house. The walls are bubblewrap, bin liners and punched through cardboard. Without a clear view of the unusual space she makes, and a quick mention of ‘The Creature’ on the disclaimer next to the entrance, it’s difficult to get over the sense that there’s someone else in the structure. 

Stretching and contorting to the first floor, it’s cosy and cut-off from the bright bright exhibition space outside, and a comfortable environment to read through the account written in Scots of the child being violently remedied with burning branches and in front of panicked parents. Then it’s just a matter of how to get out without scaring the shit out of the people that have just come in downstairs.

Getting out of the realm of fiction, Douglas Stevens adds a few shelves, boxes and AC unit to make a basement room even emptier seeming than if it was unfurnished. Coming from behind one of the ceiling panels, there are transcripts of interviews with Climate Camp activists. Throughout their discussions, individuals are identified only as ‘male voice’ or ‘female voice’ and a number, and they describe past protests and best strategies to avoid long prison sentences – supergluing themselves to each other rather than to the building, because that’s an easy charge of criminal damage. 

At one point they allude to ‘the target,’ the voice uncomfortable at naming it specifically. Everyone knows who it is, they say. Just the same with the shelves and table and boxes in the long and carefully whitewashed room, they speak to the institution per se. Even without the labels being printed with a name or any indication of a government or company, there’s a sense of organisation, resources and power. Stevens hollows out the struggle, leaving a skeletal narrative of anonymous protestors, state apparatuses and stakeholders.

More unnamed and official looking rooms in the economical drawings of Frances Rokhlin. Images are repeated of lecture rooms and the office spaces of the West End of Edinburgh. In lithographs, pen and ink drawings and oil paintings, there’s a return to familiar spaces, an enquiry into the familiar, distilling them to the most essential marks for recognition.

Drawing’s put to a different use in Ruth Bingham-Hamilton’s slithering installation. A series of quick and thick-brushed line drawings along the wall are something between sketch and icon. Just shy of becoming a letter or icon, they’re on the edge of the symbolic. Around them, videos of filleted fish and chicken in ice and shiny oversized tongues give a sense of the tamed ickiness of the muscles and tongues that make a language.

If you’re looking to pick up a bargain, head to the stylish art and design store installed by Mina Heydari-Waite. There are vases with custom wooden boxes and copies of Heydari-Waite’s dissertation on the commodification of the art experience on sale for £2.50 apiece. There’s another instance of the unthreatening recorded sales voice announcing ‘a wide variety of art products starting at just £1.’ It’s been carefully and tastefully merchandised, and one of the bespoke drawer units has already sold for £75. As the woman protested to pay more,  Heydari-Waite stayed true to her formula which calculates price based on materials and fair remuneration for her time (calculated at minimum wage). It’s pastiche, a little cynical and a genuine go of getting paid for making art.

From the shop to the workshop, Megan Clare Hampton gives an indication of her self-made process by keeping her presentation style informal. On her custom-made metal frame, she displays one of the huge plaster sculptures she’s turned and formed to make what look like thick and squat bannisters. They’re variously strewn across sacks and with the metal pole still in the middle. And across the room, there are casts of ceiling roses in rubber bendy on the floor and on big metal poles – just the same way they’d be left to dry after being made. They’re process-heavy and experimental representations of interior details. 

Intent at all times to stay on-topic, ECA have put together an accessible and visitor-friendly show. With plenty of ways in for the audience, the moments of insight and high concept become well-earned and of greater significance.

Continues until 5 Jun