Graduating from Lockdown: TNG talks to four UAL MA graduates about their work and the experience of studying during a pandemic

As society at large continues to grapple with the changing landscape of restrictions implemented in response to COVID-19, university teaching staff and their students are having to adapt and re-adapt to a fluctuating regime of remote learning, face-to-face interaction and digital solutions. One big consequence for art students graduating this year was the cancellation of almost all physical degree shows. At UAL, which incorporates many of London’s top art colleges, the decision was taken to replace the physical shows with an online Graduate Showcase.

To get some insight into how individual students have been affected, and to learn about the work they made for the Showcase, we spoke to four UAL graduates who have just completed courses at Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon Colleges of Art.

Hamish Pringle: MFA Fine Art, Wimbledon College of Arts

Hamish Pringle creates “ergonomic art for people to exercise with” using “abrasives to explore the process of attrition in nature, society, relationships, and language.” Explaining about the way he approaches his work, and the question of audience interaction, Hamish says:

“I used to think that physical participation with my work was of paramount importance. Indeed I spent two thirds of my MFA co-creating art in collaboration with my colleagues and visitors to my exhibitions. This was based upon the idea that doing something with an art work increases its emotional and intellectual impact. However, by the end I admitted defeat. The reactions of tutors, colleagues, and visitors were simply not as good as I desired. More importantly I didn’t think the co-created work that resulted was of sufficient quality to make continued attempts worthwhile.

“Now I think of my work as ‘gym equipment’ for the mind, as opposed to the body. It’s intended to test the viewer’s aesthetic and intellectual muscles and to elicit their ‘beholder’s share’. The initial visual impact of the work needs to engage the viewer at an emotional level, and pique their curiosity.  Then they may go on to explore the layers of meaning embedded in the work and gain intellectual reward.”

‘Lockdown’ by Hamish Pringle. Styling and photography by Vivienne Pringle. Abrasive sandpaper belts formed into Möbius Strips and wrapped around the artist’s head.

While lockdown obviously led to changes in the way Hamish experienced the MFA at Wimbledon, he adds that:

“Ironically the pandemic meant it was much easier to complete my MFA. The lockdown enabled me to focus almost exclusively on my studies, the solitude led to deeper reflection, and the unprecedented events were inspirational.

“The pandemic played to one of the key strengths of the MFA course at Wimbledon which led me to chose it in the first place. This was the requirement to build three websites as a mandatory element of the programme. So when the customary 30% of the marks allocated to the Finals website became 100%, it wasn’t such a problem.

“Edwina fitzPatrick, our MFA course leader, hates plinths (and fish wire) when used to install sculptures. She pointed out that these become inevitably part of the work, usually to its detriment. So Edwina encouraged us to think about how our work would be presented right at the start of making it. This advice turned out to be the key to my Degree Show. I started from the fact that my final show of work would be presented on a website and created it accordingly. Our independent reviewer, David Gryn, founder of Daata, was kind enough to say this about it: ‘These are perfectly self-contained sculptural artworks. The pure effort of making always yield results. Impressive outcome and a brilliant way forward for you.’”

You can learn more about Hamish and his work via his page on the UAL 2020 Graduate Showcase.

Tabby Cooper: MA Fine Art: Printmaking, Camberwell College of Arts

‘I can’t seem to find my keys’ (2020). Digital Print on Graph Paper, A4. By Tabby Cooper.’

Tabby Cooper is a London-based artist who makes work around the idea of longing for the past, whilst being playfully aware that we live hand in hand with the internet. Talking about completing her MA at Camberwell amid the unprecedented events of 2020, Tabby notes:

“Doing an MA during a pandemic was a very interesting experience. There were quite a few ups and downs, but I created a routine with my course mates having lunch with them virtually every day-so that we all did not feel so isolated and we could keep up some sort of critical conversation around art. The actual making side of things during the pandemic was a bizarre thing to navigate. I was working from my kitchen table with various family members thinking ‘what is she up to’, though the artworks I was making did not change dramatically from what I was doing before the pandemic.

“I create physical and digital artworks, my work sits within a flux of the two worlds: photoshop, lo-fi photos, sculptures and drawings. I could still make these at home, but everything was slowed down as I did not have access to certain things, so I would have to try and figure out an alternative way of doing something. I had to become flexible and even more care-free than I was before about an artwork not being perfect. The imperfections became part of the character of the artwork.”

‘We’re Not in Sainsbury’s’ (2020). Variable Digital Print. By Tabby Cooper.

Explaining about the role of ‘longing’ and ‘nostalgia’ in her work, Tabby says:

“I approach the idea of longing for the past from more of a universal sense. The idea of nostalgia is quite important for me when thinking about longing for the past- there is a sense for me of kitsch, slippage and childhood. When thinking about childhood, I am thinking about the way in which we all used to explore and navigate the world as children with a sense of curiosity. I want my artworks to enable a moment of curiosity, as adults we lose the curiosity we had as children.

“Fairy tales and craft influence some of my artwork due to the feeling of nostalgia they create. They have been around for centuries; they are a ubiquitous global language. And in some ways the internet overlaps with some of these characteristics. Who owns a fairy tale? Who owns an internet image? But also, Fairy tales and Craft have managed to stay relevant in a time of multiple forms of making and dispersing information. We all crave to be connected with the past and fairy tales enable us to be, they have a magical side to them, connecting everybody across the world. We all long for the past more than 40 years ago as technology has embedded itself firmly in our everyday lives and, sometimes, we just need to feel grounded.

“Childhood brings up ideas around play, freedom and exploration. I want my artworks to enable this for the viewer. Play mingles within my work due to play influencing the way in which I make. I play with the digital using photoshop, Giphys and other lo-fi apps, I also play with physical materials such as clay. My work is not perfect and smooth, it’s more crafted and almost seems glued together with Pritt Stick. I want the hand to be visible within the digital, as the majority of all our lives today is made up of digital and physical interactions within the world.”

Tabby’s contribution to the UAL Graduate Showcase is here.

Xuan Liu, MA Fine Art, Chelsea College of Arts

Xuan Liu is a Chinese sound artist based in London. Her practice orientates around installation and performance using sound. Discussing how her time at Chelsea has helped to develop her practice, Xuan explains:

“I think the design of the MA course at Chelsea is fantastic. The emphasis on practice and the parallel teaching of theory throughout the course helped me to develop my practice. On the other hand, not only the structure of this course, but also the mutual influence among classmates is great. I think the course is not about specific practical categories, but about bringing together artists from different fields. From this point of view, our classmates help each other to grow and develop our practice. I’ve been preparing for my PhD application recently. In sound art, concepts and philosophical concepts are very important. I need and I want to take this direction going further.”

Talking about the relationship between her work and the audience, Xuan adds:

“In the series of my installations, the authority of sound creation is given to the audience. I would like to apply this method in order to break the gap within “gaze and be gazed”. However, as the audience are encouraged to interact with the installation, that made me think whether or not we should regard this stage as an another “political issue” between the audience and the artist? Sound itself is a physical / material phenomenon, with each vibration phenomenon passing through a given medium. I think the most important part of my work is not only the interaction, but also the focus on the body and the sound itself. It’s an acoustic ontology of thought. My studio work has so far largely focused on analogue and digital audio technologies, sculptures, video, performances and event productions. So you can imagine that some mediums are appropriate for online showcase, especially in the post-epidemic context. I think based on the nature of sound, the interaction in my work is valued in any context.”

Xuan’s Graduate Showcase page is here.

Nick Rooney: MA Fine Art: Painting, Camberwell College of Arts

‘Market’ (2020). Oil on Linen, 50x 66 cm. By Nick Rooney.

Born in Canada, Nick Rooney spent much of his early career focusing on the craft of oil painting, developing a contemporary art practice deeply rooted in art history. His current studio work and research looks at the relationship between the reductive formalism of geometric minimalism and the complexity of classical realism. Describing his personal experience of 2020, Nick says:

“The experience of completing my MA during the pandemic created a rollercoaster full of both positive and negative experiences. Moving my one-month-old son to the UK to pursue my dream of studying in London was a big decision. A decision that I could have never seen ending up with us catching an emergency flight back to Canada just six months later. Leaving London was very hard, but ultimately we chose to be closer to family, and at the time cases in Canada were low. Moving back to Canada earlier than expected did leave us homeless and the time change meant that I would be attending the rest of my MA classes online between 5 and 8 in the morning. We ended up packing my studio in the car and driving to the West Coast of Canada, Vancouver Island. Renting a place close to the ocean and large enough for me to set up a studio and paint, making for a wonderful summer. Another positive was that by finishing the course online I gained valuable experience in how to effectively teach a studio-based course, that experience has become more valuable as I’m applying for teaching positions, many online now.”

Talking about the inspiration behind his painting ‘Market, Nick explains:

“While in a two-week quarantine in Canada due to the COVID-19 virus, many North American media outlets were quick to label wet markets as the cause of the pandemic. The closure of wet markets, the end of a way of life for many cultures is not the black and white solution suggested by some. This led me to think about the relevance of the Dutch still life and the depiction of hunting scenes like those often painted by Jan Weenix.”

‘Reclaimed’ (2020). Oil on canvas. By Nick Rooney.

In regard to ‘Reclaimed’, Nick adds:

“Once again thinking about the effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic, I was interested in how, as humanity suffered, the environment and animal population in some areas began to thrive. This work was created using oil paint that’s was reclaimed from Acid Mine Drainage, the toxic sludge found in the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.”

Nick’s contribution to the Graduate Showcase is available to view here.

Article by Richard Unwin.

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