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MA Fine Art: Contemporary Practice 2008

Nigel Ayers


The MA Fine Art course at Falmouth has something distinctive about it. It is uniquely geared towards contemporary artists based in Cornwall, and towards artists facing similar challenges who may choose to live elsewhere. The course is closely linked to the highly-regarded RANE project, which promotes research into art, nature and the environment. The work arising from course tends to reflect a process-based approach to art, it is often found to be using methodologies of academic research than from the self-promotional (and sensationalistic) approach more often associated with contemporary artists.

The end result, as far as members of the public get to see, are a number of show pieces, tending to conform to art installation or gallery-based relational art criteria. These are shown in individual rooms in Lamorva House, a building which looks more or less like one of Falmouth's  seaside hotels.

University College Falmouth is going through some reorganisation at present. One welcome revision is that the course now bears the moniker MA Fine Art: Contemporary Practice instead of its former MA Contemporary Visual Arts, otherwise known as “CVA”. Using the words “Fine Art” implies a continuity of tradition running back to the 1960s when the concept of free expression was introduced into art school pedagogy. Dropping the word “visual” is consistent with the fact that a good proportion of what is produced on Fine Art courses is not primarily visual. And the word “Practice” focuses on the complex mental, physical and social processes contemporary artists tend to be involved in. It isn't just simplistic materialisation of art-as-commodity. And the “Fine” bit in Fine Art is what distinguishes it from being a primarily craft-based activity.

This year there were twelve artists' work on display.

Perhaps it's misleading to describe the MA works as “installation art”, that would imply objects installed in a gallery. Here each artist takes over a room in a large house, which means that within that space they can exercise a fairly high degree of control over the setting their work is displayed in. By default, the artists here are able to provide an experience, enclosed within four or more walls with a door that opens and closes, rather than the other exhibition spaces within the college studios (which tend to be manky-looking spaces divided by softboard walls). There is far easier control over lighting, for example, in these rooms that there is in many of the other buildings in the campus. Likewise, with the rooms being discrete, there is also the possibility of greater control over sound and senses such as smell being used as part of the experience.

Something strange is afoot in Sarah Bunker’s contribution (picture above). The door is propped open by a small concrete object that looks a bit like cat-eyes from out of the road or it could be some sort of primitive sculpture. In the half light it’s very difficult to make out what is going on as you enter a sort of an institutional bathroom with three bathtubs in a row. In the next room there is something odd in the watertank. It could be some sort of a miniature city, or an electronic device, or a special jewel that is kept in water tanks in attics. You expect a dead pigeon, but what the hell is this?

It's like scenes from Eraserhead: a dreamlike effect which somehow triggers off associations with childhood, entering strange rooms, happening upon private adult things and not quite understanding what is going on.

Richard Rooks has some huge wall drawings, executed in sharp black lines directly on the walls surface. They are portraits of Bernard Cribbens. The thought flashes into my mind that this may be something to do with the Wombles, as Cribbens most famous role is the narrator’s voice to the TV series. But no, in this portrait Bernard Cribbens is in his 2008 role in Doctor Who. I’m not sure what exactly is the link between these portraits and what looks like some sort of sociological research being carried out by a young man with a laptop. He is asking a visitor questions and entering the answers into his computer. There is a large table in the centre of the room full of card cubes, forming some sort of graph, each cube is a subtly different colour. They seem to relate to the colours of cars bought by a family group over a period of years. Rooks is up to something interesting and a bit quirky, to do with recently passed-away Britishness and folk memory.

Georgina Maxwell’s pieces (picture above left) directly confront the issue of toxic waste and its effect on sea creatures. One room holds a wall full of red printed postcards to which visitors can help themselves. Each carries a straightforward message about the undesirability of plastic waste in the sea, one wall of this room is taken up with a video projection of similar images. In her other room, hundreds of used cigarette filters are clustered together in a square Perspex gallery frame, a bit like St Ives minimalism, but more “green”. Also somehow the presentation has slightly different effect to displays on similar themes you might see somewhere like the Eden Project. It looks far more like art than an informative display done by graphic designers and it feels personal. Maxwell’s flyposting of a plastic industries conference is also personal it is not presented as a group campaign activity.

Maxwell presents an autonomous form of direct action to do with personal choices and self-empowerment through ethical choices. A set of shelves full of jam jars where items of plastic waste have been collected during a meditative walk. And you know what this display reminds me of? A cabinet full of fish in formaldehyde done by Damien Hirst. I can't help it - the figure of Damien looms over contemporary British art like some sort of big horrible multi-national-cocaine-fuelled-Thatcherite-from-out-of-The-Omen.

On other hand, Sarah Maxwell's cabinet piece is more sort of like an anti-Hirst. Instead of pickling majestic sea critters and flogging them off to men-in-suits to store in corporate vaults, she’s tidying up some of the crap that’s been killing the poor sea creatures off. Instead of presenting them in museum style vitrines, she's re-using old jam-jars.

Rod Maclachlan has a room painted entirely white (picture above right). High up on a slowly revolving turntable is an empty can of Trago-brand household emulsion paint, probably what he's painted the walls with. There are a couple of spotlights trained on the paint can and as it revolves they cast grey shadows on the white walls...

Chris Bruce has some small impasto oils: The Famous Five go Mad in Iraq (picture left). Small boys in false beards and Osama shirts set off a remote control car bomb. A small boy does his rifle practice on the beach. Heavily pregnant Enid Blyton girls.

Bonnie Jenkins has a seductive video display projected into shallow water. Justyna Suesser has disturbing latex rubber body casts and effects-sodden surround sound softly bouncing around a darkened room. James Harthill has digitally modelled white seagulls flying in an endless video loop over Falmouth harbour.

Words escape and run all over the walls and floors and ceiling from out of Richard Ward's altered, modified and cut-up books (picture right). Irene Waters has a long row of party snapshots, frocks dangle on fishing line. Mark Walker has turf growing in rows of plastic boxes with some sort of formula written on a whiteboard. Ruth Brown has a room done up like some scientist-philosopher’s study with quotes from Magritte on the blackboard.

And then into another pitch black room, bumping into small children who are already inside there. There's a huge great moon kind-of thing filling up the entire wall. It looks like “2001” as seen on Imax, and as it revolves there’s this incredible image as rays of light radiate out of it, and it fills your entire field of vision so it looks like it's in 3D. And then the hairs stand up on the back of your neck as you realise it's that same can of emulsion paint you saw earlier... and what Rod Machlachlan's done is really clever, what looked like a crappy minimalist installation is in fact one half of a camera obscura, with which he has created this incredible absorbing image projection. The room is full of kids who are absolutely gobsmacked by it all (picture below right).

Sometimes I wonder what exactly is the point of the general public being invited to see these show pieces when much of the context of the work, including the history of research that has gone into them is invisible.

As a visitor this cannot help but to impose a level of puzzlement at the work being shown. Mindset and “framing” are important as regards contemporary art. If you don’t know what’s going on, the effect, even for someone with lots of experience with contemporary art be just so baffling that you lose interest.

But then surely the point of fine art as opposed to live art is that it stands apart from the artist and has a life of its own. This point often gets missed by both students and staff. The background can be banal, but often it can be more complex and more engaging than what is offered as the show piece. It's not just the colleges' fault, it happens in all sorts of galleries. I often find myself staring at new-fangled electrical fittings convinced they must be some sort of minimal art pieces. Thank goodness the Tate has explainers there to tell you what is art and what is not.

Historically, art environments have had a very radical psycho-political agenda. Up until the ‘90s they tended to be more ideologically- than commercially- driven. The idea was to create some kind of small 'temporary autonomous zones' which would create altered states of consciousness, to help destroy the bourgeois mind-control which at the root of the world’s problems. This is sort of what I hoped to see happening here. Perhaps I did a bit.

MA Fine Art: Contemporary Practice 2008 Exhibition. Artists: Ruth Brown, Sarah Bunker, Chris Bruce, James Harthill, Bonnie Jenkins, Georgina Maxwell, Rod Mclachlan, Richard Rooks, Justyna Suesser, Mark Walker, Richard Ward, Irene Waters.


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