Glasgow School of Art can be forgiven for being more than a little nervous about fire regulations when it comes to degree show time. So when I had to bail out of the Tontine Building in the city’s Trongate during my viewing of the fine art degree show, there wasn’t a minute’s hesitation. There was no fire. In an adjacent building a crew working on a new movie, rumoured on the street to be the Churchill biopic that will star Brian Cox, was inadvertently pumping dry ice around the Merchant City.
Glasgow School of Art Degree Show 2016 | Glasgow School of Art | Rating: ****
Smoke and mirrors, crisis, the present looking at the past: it all seems a pretty good context for this year’s degree show, where each year young artists and designers must look new in an old, old game.
It is a challenge that is best met with wit and verve or with sheer commitment. For the latter you might look no further than fine art student Rosie Giblin whose work consists of a giant, theatrical hoarding, featuring a smiling face. This is the cheerful frontage she has made for The Snack Shack – a community kitchen for women that serves up to 2,000 free meals a day to the refugee residents of a Dunkirk encampment. Rosie and her mother have already volunteered in the camp and will spend the summer there.
There is a spiritual commitment at the Reid Building in textile designer Mariam Syed’s gift for her son, a specially designed prayer rug in cheerful colours created to appeal to a seven-year-old boy, and practical commitment in product designer Claire Harvey’s work. Designed to work with Pool Pod, an award-winning platform lift that allows access to swimming pools, she has created Pod+, a fully-immersible reclining wheelchair that is the first of its kind on the market. The pre-occupations of this cohort of product design engineering graduates on a highly renowned course which is celebrating its 25th year are telling: recycling and the environment, cycling and the environment, the environment… oh and craft beer.
Wit and verve? Well, in fashion design the graduating students have it in spades, including Fiona Smith, with a deceptively understated collection that subverts traditional menswear techniques to create androgynous outfits in off kilter proportions. She features houndstooth check, boilersuit profiles, silks and camp chiffon pleating in unexpected places. The highlight for me is Ashleigh Miller’s wildly satirical streetwear. A souped-up combination of outré athleisure and gentleman’s outfitter in primaries, neon and metallic gaffer tape, she favours cartoon proportions and comic colours including a hi-viz yellow plaid suit. Miller has a background in embroidered textiles and this collection is heavily studded. The geometric plastic adornments turn out to be retail security tags – this is shoplifting chic, with handy extra-large pockets.
In fine art, the mood is hardly more sombre: among the more playful contributions Meg Roberts presents Lemon Pizzle Cake – a lemon cake that purports to be baked with human urine. The zesty influence of artist and poet Heather Phillipson (a favourite reference point amongst last year’s fine artists) continues to be felt amongst undergraduates, not least in Clara Hastrup’s video installation where you can sit on pineapple bean bags surrounded by neon pink grapefruit. Camille Bernard’s paintings recast Fernand Léger’s geometric pictures of workers with mysterious scenes involving bold female figures. Her video works are presented in a palm-fringed setting straight out of of the iconic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. Champagne was popping in Beatrice Johansson’s installation as I passed by, for a work entitled El Dorado. The fact that we find it flowing through a pet’s water fountain makes it rather less appealing.
Lest you think that all fine art students are hopelessly decadent, there were thoughtful and serious presentations too. Mads Holm Jensen’s photography show includes a clever and self-reflexive image of a man on the ground being arrested by police. Above him, a holy trinity of press photographer, citizen journalist and an iPhone snapper record every move. Jensen’s image of a graffiti-strewn street corner in Athens is ordinary yet ominous. It was here that an unarmed teenage student, Alexander Grigoropoulos, was shot dead by a Greek police officer in 2008 leading to rioting across the country.Ewan Mitchell also refers to the financial crisis and the anxiety of the era, with a film of the Financial Times rolling off the presses in an endless loop of market data and analysis.
Sometimes, though, favourite works at the degree show are harder to categorise and harder to explain. I liked Timo Aho’s bold and simple sculptural works: a globe that turns out to show the surface of the moon, a giant white hand, a flickering neon cross that recalls a pharmacy sign. Everything is striking and familiar yet off-key and strangely unintelligible.
Eliza Hopewell-Williams’ lo-fi, and rather scruffily installed, four screen video installation doesn’t promise much but is an unexpected joy. It is constructed as a series of vignettes over one of those long hot weekends with which Glasgow has recently been blessed. Lovers lie in the park and recite poetry, or engage in an awkwardly showy post-coital exchange about favourite tunes, “every one of those is in a minor key”. There’s a grim coffee shop break up, a fierce domestic row in French. Entitled No Storms and No Heat Either, it rather sums up the intensity and intense ennui of early adulthood.