Virtually Nao in The Scotsman

Visual art review: Edinburgh College of Art Degree Show 2011

Published Date: 15 June 2011
By Duncan Macmillan
The final degree show before Edinburgh College of Art merges with Edinburgh University proves that, whatever the future may hold, the college and its teaching methods are in good health

Edinburgh College of Art Degree Show 2011

Edinburgh College of Art

ON 1 AUGUST Edinburgh College of Art will cease to exist as an independent entity as it merges with Edinburgh University. It is the end of 250 years of independent art teaching. The two institutions have enjoyed a close relationship for much of that time but, if a merger implies the joining of equals, this is more like a takeover.

The art college is big among its peers, but tiny beside the university. Moreover the college, in financial difficulty, joins in a position of weakness. To help the marriage, the Scottish Government has given it a £13.8 million dowry. The promise is that the art college will stay where it is and continue its very different style of teaching unchanged. The question must be how long the university will tolerate the exceptions to its norms that this entails. We can but wait and see and as time goes by try to pressure the university to keep its promises.

A few years ago the university, abandoning the age-old system of faculties, reorganised itself into three colleges, each subdivided into schools. The art college will join with art history, music and architecture to form a new, fourth college of art, culture and environment. With the acronym Ace, it is billed as “a powerful and dynamic centre for the creative industries in Scotland’s capital city”. Exactly how this college within a college will work, however, is not clear. There will be a lot of learning for staff as well as students in the coming years.

Meanwhile the current degree show is the last for the independent college. Overall it suggests that, whatever the future may hold, the students are a lively bunch and the college’s distinctive teaching is in good health.

With around a 120 students graduating, almost half are in painting, the rest are in sculpture and intermedia (formerly tapestry.) There are also 16 postgraduates. A striking feature of the Edinburgh shows is that the students work together to curate their own group exhibitions, space by space, throughout the college’s magnificent studios. Whereas once the whole exhibition was an extension of the examining process and the main aim was to show as much as possible, now some of the individual rooms are really spare and elegant. A remarkable degree of collaborative restraint is implicit in this, although a more consistent approach to indicating who has done what would help the visitor. Indeed in intermedia, where an individual’s work can be scattered through several rooms, identification is a real problem. Rachel Charter and Piotr Skibinski are two students whose work intrigued me. In a particularly beautiful studio at the western end of the college, Charter uses transparent materials in fragile assemblages to take advantage of the western light.

Skibinski comments on the palimpsest of a century of experience that marks the studio to isolate a little bit of spattered paint on the floor, or to cast a dead fly in silver, or a wasp in mock amber.

Connie Viney is on her own. She has chosen a cupboard off a corridor and filled it with a profusion of artificial flowers, baubles and coloured streamers that would make an Hindu wedding look low-key. In contrast Sarah Hardie has worked a wistful variation on the ancient theme of the music of the spheres. Advised by astronomer Professor Ian Robson, she has produced a soliloquy on the subject of lost stars: stars once visible, but now longer to be seen in the heavens.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, the history of the college began with the Trustees Academy of Drawing and there is evidence here that drawing is still alive and well even though it is has long since ceased to be the backbone of art teaching.

Kamila Kocialkowska has, for instance, turned the studio itself into a drawing with lines of thread making intricate patterns on the doors.

Remony Kerray produces lively comment on items of daily news in rumbustious drawings, while Sophie Milner produces whole environments from black-and-white surrealist drawings of eyes and other more intimate disembodied body parts. Thomas Adam’s life-size drawing of a man face-down is impressive. Rosamund Garrett draws lines on the globe itself following the route of Magellan’s ship the Nao Victoria in the first circumnavigation. Then on a map she contrasts the line of its three-year voyage with her own circumnavigation in cyberspace, by great ingenuity, linking up people online to follow that three year voyage in just nine and half seconds. 

As an English student in Scotland, Elliott Burns has become intrigued by the relationship between landscape and identity and has merged them in a union flag composed of mud from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

Anna Geissler has approached the landscape in a different and very original way. She has constructed a range of pinhole cameras from the most unlikely objects – including old suitcases, sweetie tins and the like – and has recorded both landscape and makeshift camera in a series of intriguing photographs.

Although generally anything goes and the old definitions mean little, among the sculptors several do make actual sculpture. Pavlos Georgiou even puts his carved geometrical objects into museum cases. Emily Dowler’s paint tin spilling cloth as though it were paint is an effective and economical essay in the tradition of Surrealist sculpture.

Peter Simpson’s blocky heads and figures seem to be inspired by Eduardo Paolozzi, a great surrealist himself and a fitting model for an Edinburgh student. Chris Howison echoes Man Ray in a series of disturbing objects apparently composed of skin and his own hair.

Stephanie Mann is actually her own living sculpture, however. Her long pink hair adorned with lilies echoes a pink fountain flowing with golden liquid as she pours out a golden drink for visitors. (She promises that it’s perfectly innocuous.) Outstanding among the sculptors though is the elegant simplicity of Margaret Malcolm’s work, especially two pale, self-coloured rings like freestanding drawings balanced in space.

In Intermedia, Heather Dimarco scores both for most exotic materials and for miniaturisation with gold plated magnets and guinea fowl feathers in a tiny sculpture. Finally Philippa Graham improves on Anish Kapoor’s cannon that fired brown matter across the RA galleries with a catapult drawing machine composed of a jelly on a spring. It reminded me of Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot as he marvels at Marilyn Monroe retreating down the station platform. “Look how she moves!” he says. “It’s like Jell-O on springs!”

• Until 19 June

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