Nottingham Trent University
East Midlands

A first contact with artwork always raises several questions. Before any deeper consideration is given to criticality or meaning, the viewer is asked to question what it is he or she is observing. These initial answers will lead the deeper discussions and considerations, that first impression being key to the final conclusions, or to the residual questions the viewer is left with. Is the work about the medium, or is the medium a means to an end for communicating the idea? This is often a poseur, the more traditional forms now becoming difficult to hold onto alongside a relentless pursuit of new technologies. For some, the medium is a direct reference to a culture or a history, for others it is what has allowed them to solve the issue of communication, fit for purpose. At times this is only obvious after longer consideration, or through previous knowledge of the artists practice.

There follows another question. How does the work fit into its environment? Is it making deliberate use of the space, becoming site specific, or does it fit into a given space? The idea that the artist might make reference to the surroundings of the work, that as a result the work is temporary and would not work anywhere else creates a sense of belonging for the work, whereas a work which is transferable from space to space will end up if a slightly different light depending on its surroundings. This is related to the other work hung in its vicinity, how do neighbouring works communicate, do they, should they? Are the contents of the space related in any way, or are they placed to suit the space itself, perhaps a s a matter of convenience, or has the layout been carefully considered and a digression of how a walk through the space might help or hinder the viewer from making considered judgements of the intricacies and critical nature of each individual piece.

A degree show is a show unlike any other. It is not such a considered curatorial exercise, but a collection of work produced by a year group. Undoubtedly there will be common themes and techniques, but within the group of students there will always be work which doesn’t quite fit, which doesn’t quite sit within the wider contexts presented. The show serves two purposes, a first ‘major’ for the students, and as a publicity tool for the institution. It is something both groups should be rightly proud of, but there is conflicting interest. Yes, it is in both party’s interests to make each individual work look its best, but it is also an assessed show, each student looked at carefully to gauge what standards they have achieved. So what effect would a less well presented work have on a piece that achieves highly? In fact, how do we gauge what has achieved? On encountering the work, do we make a conscious decision to consider each work on its own merits and not look for the conversation between work, or do we expect that there may have been a curatorial miracle worked in creating an all-inclusive, flowing show? At times this may be highly achievable, but at others the show may inevitably feel disjointed, fragmented, busy or sparse.

There is one other factor that sets a degree show apart from shows we encounter in the ‘real’ world. There is no title. There is no overriding theme. There is no gallery ‘blurb’ to guide us through the concepts and ideas the work contests with. This will be due to the variety, but a glance at the catalogue, which the viewer might hope would provide pointers, leaves us in the same position. A set of images of previous work, useful at times to show how work has progressed, a hindrance at others as we see stills from time based work, or snapshots that don’t always relay their relevance. There are no artist’s statements, no commissioned essays. So what does the viewer have to influence their thinking? The work itself. That perhaps is what makes some work triumphant, work which communicates well, or which allows conclusions to be drawn from the questions it inspires, whilst other work falls away as it offers little. For the visiting viewer, having no knowledge of the students work and ideas, this is a challenge, but the work which succeeds will be noticed. For the viewer who knows, perhaps the challenge is to remove themselves from that knowledge. For if you have discussed and helped install the work, is it possible to remain objective about what you see? If you know the space as a busy, working studio, is it possible to look at it as a gallery?

Objectivity is key to viewing a degree show. The viewer must remove themselves from what they know, whether that is the work or a cynicism of the promotional nature of the institution. Taking each work, as it is, as it comes, is vital, for judging one piece before another can open a danger zone of generalisation. This is an overview, not a group show, it is a necessity, not a choice, it is a collection, not a selection. Yes, it can be a survey of the institutions ability to produce good students and an opportunity to judge its credibility, and a bad year could result in a struggle for the next group of students to surmount, the show is both about the individual and the group. There is an adage that what goes in comes out, that wise selection of students will result in an exporting of well rounded artists, yet the processing of them whilst part of the institution plays a huge role in the development in those in-between years, and the allowed progression of students from year to year becomes vital in the scheme. A good degree show begins at interview. A good degree show is a product of hard work from both the institution and the students. A good degree show is both a collective effort and an individual effort; it is both a survey of the institutions ability and the students prowess. Which of those, however, is most important? That probably depends on who you are.