Degree of change: This year’s degree shows

Jessica Argo's installation. Picture: Gareth Easton
Jessica Argo's installation. Picture: Gareth Easton
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TRANSITION and transformation are timely themes as Glasgow and Edinburgh art graduates seek out new beginnings.

A sense of transition: something ending, something new beginning. It’s a premise that lies at the very heart of the whole process of graduation, but this year, it seems a particularly pointed theme of the Scottish degree shows.

Maybe it was my own perception. Something to do with the presence, when I visited Glasgow, of a BBC film crew recording a piece with Dr Sarah Lowndes, the art historian and Glasgow School of Art lecturer whose book Social Sculpture is the definitive chronicle of the city’s contemporary artists to international prominence. Perhaps it’s the massive empty crater opposite the Mackintosh Building in Renfrew Street where the landmark new building by Steven Holl will shortly appear.

Indeed, such is the swirl of dust from the demolition and construction that Sam De Santis has collected the residue from the building works and used it as pigment for tiny abstract paintings.

The Vic, the student bar that has seen generations of GSA students drink, dance and do some other stuff, is currently a teetering façade propped up by scaffolding. Holl insisted it survive the changes, but in its current fragile-looking state it has become a focus of inquiry for more than one student, from a simple scale model by Petter Yxell to a reconstruction of the bar’s interior and a documentary about its DJ history by Karin Bailie.

It’s a common graduation trick, this transformation of an unpromising cubicle or cubbyhole into a seamless simulated environment. My favourite this year is Emma McGarvey’s dingy club. A false brick wall pasted with posters, a drum kit and pair of Converse high tops don’t add up to much. But when, according to a schedule pinned to the wall, a succession of girl drummers come and do their stuff, the place promises to catch fire. “If a burd’s stunnin’ she’ll get a record deal, but if she’s a munter she wilnae,” reads one of McGarvey’s prints. Doesn’t seem to have discouraged McGarvey’s assembled crew of future Maureen Tuckers.

There are other weird transformations too: Rosemary Shepley’s painstakingly assembled balls of feather that become bird-human hybrids, and Ruaridh Allen’s sculptures that take ambient sound and amplify it using simple structures hand built from carpet and concrete on the model of historic “sound mirrors”.

Of course, not all this transition is without accompanying pain. Alex Misick’s sequence of films has assembled some student assessment papers (one longs for them to be fictional, but I’m assured they are the real thing). They are read in actorly fashion as a camera pans slowly up and down a series of empty, bureaucratic chairs. The voice reads the student’s self-assessment and that of his or her teacher.

It’s agony. Shorn of the human kinship that can really make art education work, art school seems like a relentless Stalinist show trial or a grim Maoist re-education camp, with its group crits, its “try again, fail again” ethos. “Successes and difficulties are evident in equal measure,” says the authoritarian voice and the student must recant and start again.

Up in Maryhill, the 30 students of the Masters of Fine Art are making the best of the Glue Factory, the grungy venue that gives their show an authentic warehouse feel but would make a conservator weep buckets. For all its challenges it is a great, exciting and spacious venue, with some new space carved out of the bowels this year. Lurking in the basement, Urara Tsuchiya’s giant textile Venus flytrap suggests the building has a secret life like the Little Shop Of Horrors.

Justin Stephens takes the brave option for his decidedly analogue paintings, hanging them boldly behind diagonal pipework, or next to crucifying bits of machinery. But you could hardly think of a better setting for the work of Scott Rogers, whose Heath Robinson contraption, whittled from wood, seems trapped in a closed cycle of making and unmaking. It’s a purposeless machine: part loom, part spindle. Familiar elements emerge – a spoon, a spatula – then seem to sink into uselessness. Rogers, who is Canadian, leans towards a growing backwoodsman tendency in contemporary art, but his accompanying digital animation of water looping endlessly in a scientific flask proves he is no Luddite.

Aideen Doran’s excellent films should stand alone without her wall of prints. Following in the wake of a generation of film artists like Duncan Campbell and Luke Fowler, she has been scouring the archives at Scottish Screen and the STUC, uncovering the terrible history of the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile and the Trades Union movement’s Chilean solidarity campaigns.

Her film Acute Disaster combines these images with a haunting reading of a textbook on disaster management for librarians. It is painful, apocalyptic and has just the right level of subdued anger, a mediation on the importance of survival of testimony, word and image.

The theme of “libricide” and “biblioclasm” recurs in Rebecca Fraser’s elegiac show at Edinburgh College of Art, with her tiny drawings of empty shelves and sheaves of research into the wilful destruction of archives. Across in Edinburgh, change – though painful – has been necessary. Both financial and structural imperatives have driven the college into a merger with the university, which though much complained about by some, makes sense and should enable college students to access wider intellectual resources.

The students seem relatively unharmed. The MFA in particular has produced a show, A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours, which looks like an exhibition rather than a compartmentalised degree show. The simplest works stand out: I particularly liked Gregor Morrison’s carved tenement door bearing a text about an artwork born, not kicking and screaming, “but rather through coaxing and gentle play”.

Of course, it can be hard to concentrate during all that coaxing, as Thomas Morgan’s funny little film Distraction demonstrates – one moment he’s at his desk, the next he’s jolted into a series of fantasy worlds prompted by his PlayStation and his collection of sci-fi DVDs.

No such luxury for Jessica Argo. Enter her room and the sound and visuals of her psychedelic installation instantly shift. It’s a beautiful trippy world where the relationship between cause and effect is there, but hard to grasp. Then you realise the young woman perched in the corner is Argo herself and that she is live-mixing the sound and visuals. It’s no mean commitment: up to ten hours a day for the duration. That is transformation the hard way.

• The Glasgow School of Art Degree Show continues until Saturday. Edinburgh College of Art Degree Show until tomorrow. www.gsa.ac.uk, www.eca.ac.uk