Every degree show has its own character, a distinctive flavour concocted by the interests, ambitions, desires and dynamics of the student cohort. Named after the man-made river that rises and falls on a perpetual tide beside Spike Island, New Cut is a creative and uncompromising exhibition.

The work of 42 students from BA Fine Art and BA Art & Visual Culture courses at University of the West of England, almost every artform is represented – sculpture, video, photography, painting, performance and installation.

It’s not the most polished exhibition; the scuffed, pigment-strewn floors have not been painted over, clearly marking the space as only temporarily repurposed from working studios. This also has to be the most difficult degree show I have ever attempted to navigate.

Battling not one but two giant fold-out maps, along with a separate plan and key, I can’t help but feel that the students are being wilfully and playfully evasive: “Makes you look like a tourist,” chuckles James Norman, whose installation The Dirty Raincoat (hinged found window panes with a notice stating ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’ still tacked) is similarly provocative and irreverent.

Perfect escape

On opening night, it takes a compelling work to steal attention from navigational exasperation, mingling and glasses of Pimms. Muhammad Asadi’s 00853-38200 provides the perfect escape from the crowd, a boxed room, with a floor deeply carpeted by golden thread. Visitors gather, loll in the heavenly hay, muse on biblical and fairytale allusions. That is, until they notice the security camera watching in the corner and realise, like the map-readers outside, that they’ve become another performer.

Caroline Wendling also employs surveillance, in striking grid-like photographs (pictured above) that show figures silhouetted in the windows of a tower block. She describes her culture shock on moving to Hong Kong, where the pressure on space leads to an extreme compartmentalisation of the private sphere. “Your home is a process of identification – it’s where you retreat from everyone, and reconcile your values. In the tower blocks, you are surrounded by people but feel alone.”

That’s a common symptom of degree shows too – the tight division of space is apparent here, and I see few obvious connections between works that sit side-by-side. Sound spillage is a particular problem: this former tea-packing warehouse is not a space designed to contain audio work tidily.

However, individual works retain their distinctiveness and resonance. Shauna Flannigan’s video installation, My World, in which the screen is stacked on top of silent speakers, is a powerful attempt to open up and create a connection between the deaf world and the hearing world.

Otto Stoneman’s simple but brilliant posters (pictured above) include one depicting a figure atop another person’s shoulders, dangling a carrot in front of the other’s head. These are well-executed visual gags (think David Shrigley, with politics less-disguised) and appropriately echoed by a simultaneous exhibition, unattributed, on the other side of the city in Bristol’s Bearpit, a space known for social exclusion and current attempts at regeneration.

UWE has become renowned for the artist collectives that are formed by its graduates each year, and which go on to have a formative, if only temporarily active, impact on the city’s art scene – previous examples include Bristol Diving School, Lacuna Crux and CHAMP).

Wendling explains that while her year group were formerly fairly disparate, the cooperative process of planning, fundraising and executing the degree show has brought them closer together. No collective has yet been named, but with a number of graduates planning to stay in Bristol, I’m certain something tenacious will emerge.

The UWE Fine Art and Art and Visual Culture BA degree show continues at Spike Island, Bristol, until 12 June 2015

For more on degree shows across the UK, read the a-n Degree Shows Guide 2015. Featuring interviews, previews and listings, you can view it as an ebook or download the pdf

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