LONDON— There’s no better barometer for the state of higher education than undergraduate arts degrees, the traditional first-against-the-wall of government spending cuts. Goldsmiths (a university in south-east London, best-known for its fine art degree programme, from which many of the now-greying YBAs derive) has this year seen a 23% drop in applications after implementing the highest-possible undergraduate tuition fee of £9000 per year. This follows a 20% cut in spending on university arts programmes, in favour of what the UK government calls, disingenuously, “priority subjects.” What this staggering drop means for Goldsmiths as an institution is yet to be fully articulated, but it’s worth noting that Goldsmiths has always been a cradle of kind of old-school activism that last showed its face two years ago, with mobilised occupations and impassioned protests against the cuts. While the institution holds its breath, its BA graduating show—the last before the fees come into effect this autumn—embodies, in conceptual rigour and discreet politics, an argument for the value of arts education that’s no less potent for having been lost.
Take, for instance, Belle Clare Pressnell’s The Banquet, made up of tabletop maquettes of the local Brutalist architecture rendered in sugar modelling paste (the stuff you make wedding cakes out of; you’re encouraged to break bits off and eat). As a metaphor of archetypal greed, it’s straightforward: we munch on bits of broken wall, looking out across the spread of south London towards the winking towers of Canary Wharf, London’s commercial heart. What makes it work is its knowing sickliness. Two days after the opening, many of the work’s original structures remained pretty much intact, visitors having perhaps realised that wedding cake is never as good as it looks. Pressnell’s work is a token of privileged celebration that undercuts itself: the sugar clings nastily to your teeth, and you’re a latecomer to the party anyway. The work stays with you, figuratively and literally, slicked to the roof of your mouth.
Architecture’s spatial embodiment of political and civic ideals is very much a theme in this year’s show. It’s appropriate, then, that the larger part of the BA show is housed in Will Alsop’s Ben Pimlott Building, a boxy stack with Alsop’s trademark deconstructivist flourishes, overlooking the economic melange of New Cross, with its housing estates cheek-by-jowl with grand Victorian terraces. Everywhere you look is a metaphor of economic success and failure. Politics—perhaps surprisingly held at bay, given Goldsmiths’ energetic opposition to the government cuts—comes most often in architectural guise. Bláithín Mac Donnell’s architectural model of an Irish ‘ghost estate’—an abandoned housing estate, built during the early-2000s economic boom and since left unoccupied — radiates gloom while absorbing attention in its meticulous construction. Despair is in the details: you lean into it, enacting the housing developer or government official, your breath disturbing the artificial trees.
Most notable in this BA show is the absence of orthodoxy; at no point is the heavy breathing of the tutors detectable, nor are influences ever worn on sleeves. The formal confidence of Hannah Lyons’ pseudo-classical works—they recall fragmented Greek sculptures, but are cast in off-white polyurethane and often given their own soundtrack, blasted out from hidden speakers—makes them entirely unique and totally compelling, in the way that the best YBA work was. In one piece, a headless Venus de Milo is set on a high plinth, behind which speakers play N*E*R*D’s ‘Lapdance’. The sculpture jiggles like a bum. Conflations of commercial and classical sexuality are Lyons’ particular interest (see her hilarious and self-explanatory ‘Shaking Chode’ here), but the work engages with materiality in a way that sidesteps the mere one-liner: it impresses physically in the way classical sculpture does, carrying its sculptural learning lightly.
Materiality and its meanings carry through as an interest in a variety of works. Esme Toler’s mould of a full-size seal is both profoundly melancholic (a paean to the end of play, which takes on a strange pathos in the context of Goldsmiths) and formally enlivened, painted in a rusty ochre the colour of a bad banana. In Eleanor Davies’ No Visible Streaks, a pair of not-quite-mops are leaned against the wall, their heads replaced with long, dangling threads that puddle on the floor. The work takes on the found object and the figurative sculptural tradition and tweaks both, becoming at once conceptually startling and visually charming. Davies’ GBF Series, a symmetrical arrangement of more mop-like poles and props jutting from the ground, uses a My Little Pony-esque palette to riff on girlish accouterments while nodding to the hieratic structures of totemic modernist sculpture. As with Toler’s seal, though, exuberance is stilled, and there’s a solemnity here, in spite of the dayglo palette.
Physicality is all, even—or perhaps even especially—in the excellent video work. Take Micah Harbon’s high definition videos Dripping Epic Wide Shot and Gaping Epic Wide Shot (both viewable on his website). Each films a sculptural arrangement – plants, logs, orchids, oars – being invaded by globs of mucous or seminal slime, shot with a kind of high-gloss fascination. That tension between the contained and the unpredictable, between hold and release, characterises this and the best work here: strategies appear, forms assert themselves. But the space of play—the architecture of creative fecundity—has taken on new and more melancholy meanings, in spite of it all.