Graduate exhibition pilgrimages 2008: on imitation, sincerity and competition

Twelve months after my own graduation, the annual art college Degree Shows came rolling around again, and caught me off guard with their incidence.  Motivated equally by a sense of nostalgia and genuine curiosity, I trekked across the city and down the country in pursuit of studio spaces humbly converted into white cubes and empty corridors lined with meticulously framed doodles. I filled my backpack with sub-standard business cards and postcards, I hesitated and deliberated over the complex A4 photocopies that constituted floor plans, and I even jotted shorthand notes in a little orange book.

Revisiting my notes revealed them to be thoroughly useless as a cohesive guide to the art that had been witnessed. There was neither a single sentence of description nor a bookmarked individual; instead my notes read as a slightly repetitive list of successful international contemporary artists: Gary Hume, Kara Walker, Peter Doig, Jenny Saville, Karen Kilimnik, Fred Tomaselli, Jeff Koons, and so on. These were the names that struck me on my meanders through the student work, as though I had unknowingly stumbled across a diluted version of the curated shows at the Venice Biennale , or the hippest stalls at Frieze Art Fair

A comfortably wealthy couple in search of an unchallenging, well-executed  figurative landscape or still life to adorn the mantelpiece would leave most painting departments empty-handed and slightly disturbed. Traditional skill has long been out of vogue, and now is everywhere replaced by a lazy and frustrated freedom of  method and topic alike. Repeatedly I encountered Wilhelm Sasnal, Luc Tuymans, Laura Owens, Marlene Dumas and Norbert Schwontkowski. What appear to be fragments of bigger pictures, illustrations of half-remembered dreams, and loose depictions of mundane realities alternate and combine to distinguish contemporary painting. A troubling tone of melancholy and despondency exerted itself across all specialities. There is nothing inherently wrong with looking at and emulating established artists, but it should be done in order to equip oneself with the tools necessary to remodel and remould whatever it is that is admirable about a given method, style or concept, as a personal response to the society that surrounds one and the things that one personally feels and sees and believes worthy of making art about.

While it hardly comes as a surprise that Installation is the new Sculpture, it quickly became apparent that Installation is also the new Painting, the new Drawing, and even the new Fine Print, with graduates from across departments gravitating toward all-encompassing environments as opposed to more traditional methods of display.  No longer satisfied with a single significant projection, video artists similarly succumbed to the scourge of installationisation. All too often I was bombarded from several directions at once by multiple screens simultaneously depicting differing actions. Unless this is implemented and timed to perfection, the resonance of each separate piece, and consequently the built-in narrative, can all too easily be lost in confusion. Neither was any series of abstract canvases quite complete without a central sculpture about which to position itself, a pair of headphones leading into a sound intervention, or a swarm of abstract items suspended from the rafters.  In some cases the distractions enhanced the overall displays, and in others they only served to smother something that was strong enough to exist in isolation.  In a number of cases, where the installation has been true to installation and not preoccupied with the integration of a separate discipline, or multiple separate disciplines, ‘encompassing environments’ had been achieved to great effect.   But where students were inclined to stumble into the trap of spreading themselves too thin, the unfortunate consequence was that everything began  to fade quietly out of significance.

My own close proximity to the process of preparing for the end-of-year show allowed me to appreciate the pressure that exists to shout louder than your neighbours.  If  you can stamp your feet and flay your limbs simultaneously, then all the better.  This too often gives rise to a clutter of images, objects, notebooks, sounds and experiences dispersed artfully within the allotted space.  When tactics are employed solely in order to impress with an ability to work across a range of disciplines then the cracks inevitably begin to show, and the sincerity and passion that should shine through becomes watered down and dispersed.  Exacerbating the urge to drown out contemporaries is the added desire to show how much has been learned and the variety of projects engaged in throughout the preceding  years of artistic education.  Frequently a modest but beautiful artwork is smothered as a result.  It repeatedly happens that installation is used as the most effective way to disguise a premature retrospective as a consolidated finished piece. 

The 2008 Graduate exhibitions emphasised that the vast majority of contemporary practice can be pigeonholed into one of two distinct categories: the introspective and the outrospective. The majority of artists appeared unmotivated by society or politics, but by self-interest. Those who did attempt to flirt with issues of more global importance did so with little success, clumsily tripping around situations or conditions that gave no sense of having been experienced first hand. Nine times out of ten, the outrospective artwork which resorted to speculation had accordingly sacrificed authenticity in pursuit of making a point. While seemingly egocentric and indulgent,  the introspective practice that revolved around an exploration of superficial self, inner-self, and self’s interaction with outside realities, was generally accomplished to greater success and managed to evoke some kind of tangible emotion. Both introspection and outrospection as working methods and resulting aesthetics sit comfortably within the landscape of modern Ireland. We are affluent and liberal now, open to the universe and all its myriad influences, and yet simultaneously obsessed by the minutiae of our own complex existences, appearances, relationships, emotions, states of mental health and so on. When overwhelmed by attempting to react to the availability and accessibility of the global, art appears to retreat back inside itself and fixate upon the tiny, controllable details of the ordinary. In an unusual recurrence of instances, this has manifested itself in the construction of miniature, self-contained and comfortingly familiar environments, reminiscent of Thomas Demand in particular. In the Degree Shows, as in the contemporary scene, art responds to the times that we are living in, as it has always done.

Regretfully, an unconscious undertone of negativity subtly and stubbornly underpinned the process of viewing, assimilating and reflecting on the Degree Shows. However, the level of professionalism that students demonstrated in their presentation was of a predominantly high standard across the colleges. Respective bodies of work were carefully planned, engaged and consistent, despite the fluctuations between media. As a relatively recent product of the system, I am sensitive to the trend in tutoring methods toward the development of thought process and presentation, often to the detriment of physical craft. While the colleges should be proud of the emerging generation of informed and ambitious individuals that is churned out as a result, I found it disappointing that so much of the work essentially failed to impact or resonate beyond a mere surface level. With more fine artists graduating than ever before, sincerity can be too easily misplaced in the competitive scramble to a sustained, successful career - producing work that is either disingenuously global or gloomily narcissistic - everywhere well intentioned, everything a little empty.

Sara Baume is an artist and writer.