Edinburgh College of Art Degree Show 2015: Surface Tension

In Edinburgh College of Art's 2015 degree show, the work is remarkable for being wrought with noticeable consideration. Also trending amongst this year's graduates is a comfort in incorporating new media in a critical and reflexive way

Feature by Jessica Ramm | 02 Jun 2015

As visitors flock through Edinurgh College of Art (ECA)’s tiled neo-classical corridors, it is inevitable that they will at some point be confronted by a man in a nappy, exhibiting bare-pasty-legs, with a suit jacket and shirt on his top half. It’s nice to know that students still dress up for their openings.

ECA’s degree show is a highly saturated visual experience with the volume turned right up.  With an increasing number of durational works, most noticeably spoken narrative and video, this year’s cohort expects focus and undivided attention from viewers as they turn to question the politics of the frame itself, be it monitor, canvas, plinth or screen.

Catching hold of the Zeitgeist, many students have taken a very cerebral approach to the production process. Some deconstruct the material environment with the technological aid of the lens, while others incorporate ready-made objects and pre-processed industrial materials into their work. Unbridled, riotous exploration of materials is on the wane this year, superseded by a self-conscious and efficient modus operandi that keeps at bay the mess and unpredictability of process-led material exploration. The overall result is a decisive and confidently minimal display of strong artistic voices that are eerily unanimous, and a new crop of artists working in complicity with the machine.  

Standing in front of his plush red carpet, laid by sub contractors, Alan Kerr of ‘Nappy Man National’ talks about wanting to give a sense of satisfaction to visitors, which he has achieved by providing a cluster of donation boxes where coins can be deposited. He is clear that this money is not to repay his student loan, simply to provide gratification through a service well used; a statement that sounds hollow in its sincerity and sets up a sticky ambiguity about who’s using whom. This point is driven home by Nikolaos Karavellas’ giant cardboard cut-out figure with a grinning skull, leering from the next room.

The sculpture department, underpinned by technicians who embrace a fabrication challenge, is no stranger to ambitious scaled-up projects. And with Alice Chandler’s huge radiator drying rack hung with PVC, towelling and faux leather impeccably presented in a clammy airless room, this year’s show does not disappoint.

While the works that shout loudest, tower over the crowd and demand the most space are definitely the first to be noted, a subtle strand of contemplative questioning is also visible. In the casting room, carefully orchestrated to provide a still, ossified atmosphere, Hamish Young tackles the subject-object dichotomy through spoken narrative that is presented in soliloquy. The disembodied voice of the artist is countered by a second voice belonging to the material, in this case clay, causing the work to become increasingly bifurcated since the voices cannot be reconciled. It is significant that these roles are cast as male and female respectively, picking up on the issue of gender; a topic that can be felt throughout the show, albeit in an understated way.

Solanne Bernard’s installation left visitors visibly perturbed after witnessing her control experiment in which some Aloe Vera plants are nurtured via a water drip, while others suffer the fate of having their leaves scorched with bleach. This capriciously brutal work is paired with a second video installation presented in a disorientating dark tunnel in which the viewer must contort their body to view a small, orally fixated performance video. Cacti have their spines snipped off, their insides are scooped out and pomegranate seeds spew forth from a disembodied mouth in what appears to be a highly saturated form of torture. This work is echoed across the Sculpture Court in Joanna Baxter Wilson’s saccharine video installation where the viewer must pass through a narrow crack to become complicit in viewing a wasp in the throes of death, backed by the sonorous rhythm of a washing machine. Clothes appearing on a drying rack hint at claustrophobic domesticity, this time on a much more intimate scale.

Upstairs in the painting corridor, Olivia Norris’s ‘Femme Fatale’ is an erotically charged installation of assemblages that operate with a palpably sinister sense of gay abandon. Curvy, wobbly objects teeter and dangle, interspersed with figurative drawings and digital screens displaying further performance-assemblages with a bionic feel. A small group of middle-aged women stand mesmerised as a pair of dislocated feminine feet strut back and forth with lemons taped under the heel.   

As a consequence of the use of technology, the human body is pushed towards centre stage. In some cases viewers are directly presented with the body of the artist, mediated through video or performance, while other more ambient works facilitate a heightened awareness of one's own body. This year an increasing number of students have turned to explore the resonance of the spaces that they have been occupying, with those on the Intermedia course setting the lead. Frankie Burr narrates a Cartesian dialogue that resonates within the exhibition space while Helen Leigh uses projection and sound to subtly enhance the sensation of a blackout blind flapping against the open window; a minimally ambient installation that leaves viewers baffled as to where the work actually resides. Further on, a large purple-foiled nugget by Ellen Spence hulks in the corner radiating a subtle pinkish glow, while a melodious, trickling drip sounds from the sink opposite, even though there is no running water.

This preoccupation with ambience also overspills into the painting department, with Douglas Allison’s constructivist installation of painted surfaces emanating a faint neon glow. Downstairs in the MFA show, Gosia Walton describes her installation Laser Erotic as being born out of frustration with the way more traditional paintings are ‘so easy to walk past.’ Her walk-through environment is comprised of luminous acrylic sheets, etched with numerous automated incisions that divulge their maker as a compulsive laser user. Some of her works provide slick opalescent surfaces in which viewers find themselves reflected. This paves the way for a narcissistic relationship to develop between object and subject, while images of the work are unwittingly proliferated in the form of selfies; like an uncontrollable virus.

 This year the preoccupation with image and surface is strong. Students are found basking in the reflection of their works, or alternatively in the craved-for attention that is finally being delivered by the public [Nappy Man National]. Can the mildly hedonistic quality of this year’s show perhaps be correlated with the austerity narrative that is currently pervading the cultural sector? After all, these students find themselves entering an economic system in which living is increasingly expensive, while cultural production is more or less unpaid.  

 A reserved functional aesthetic is widely visible in the form of unadorned laminate plywood and Sterling board, often breaking up spaces while leaving all structural supports on show. Installations are populated by composite materials and ready-made objects probably produced in China. The reluctance to delve beneath the surface could be an acknowledgement of the political complexities of material production, a symptom of the disproportionate expenses that must be incurred in order to conduct raw-material investigations in a world where pre-fab is king.

It is clear that this year’s students are exhibiting all the signs of being more than capable of holding their own within an unstable economic environment, and might even take a little bit of sadistic enjoyment in the noir perversity of it.  

Come on out, we’re ready for you.

ECA Degree Show, until 7 Jun http://degreeshow.eca.ed.ac.uk/2015/