Monograph published by Forma, 2016
I have been chairing the rather arduous and intense selection process of New Contemporaries, Britain’s influential and prestigious exhibition for recent graduates, for over 20 years. The exhibition is open to all third year British art school undergraduates, all post graduates and those a year out of post graduate. The selection process comes out of the time honoured, not necessarily fashionable, notion of the open send in where fine art students and graduates submit images, moving images, proposals, a mixture of all that, without the name, sex, art school or age of the applicant being made known to those on the selection panel. The result is an exhibition of such fascination and compulsion that still receives the hugest audiences by providing a range of national venues with a show of the utmost moment and ultimate currency. It makes a great moment at the beginning of an artist’s career to be included in this highly competitive exhibition but such a democratic process, however, inevitably creates a double level of labour intensity for those who are actually doing the selecting. There is absolutely nothing for them to lean on, no contextualisation of work to help ease an incessant pressure on brain and body to think, understand and even appreciate what you are looking at. Much of the challenge is one of understanding, of category, of definition. Chris Ofili, who selected in 200? with Mike Nelson and Jennifer Higgie, constantly cried out , at the appearance of every new image, with ‘what is this?’ ‘What is that?’ Whether a still image of a moving piece, for instance, or the other way around, a seriously shot rendition of an inanimate object, or not, image after image, moving piece after moving piece, proposal after proposal, comes through very quickly and my job is to maintain concentration, to keep up morale, and to institute general and local discussion and concern. Selectors are generally well known artists, many of whom have been selected for the exhibition in the past. Over years, the technology has changed as the soporific lilt of the rhythmic click of slide in circling carousel gives way to the sound of video loaded into player, or now the dull blue of waiting for the next input to register and the moving image to load.
On this occasion artist/selectors Jane and Louise Wilson, Phil Collins and Jeremy Akerman lay in varying positions, sometimes on the floor, eating nuts and fruit trying to avoid chocolate. Over and over, short films from the days before You Tube, youthful moments, sometimes funny , but usually not, would crank up on the screen. As the Chair, after so many years experience, I had a burning desire for the camera to step out of the art school, away from the apparent value of repeated action, durational truth with limited means, clothes placed on top of clothes, walking in a circle, dancing on the bed, low budget sucking, spitting, drowning. I wanted the constant regard for early structural, Modern, film and the documentation of grungy performance with its durational labour intensity to be preplaced by imagery of somewhere else, by other preoccupations.
The minute a film takes you somewhere else is exciting. The selection process of moving image alone is driven by the need to get through well over 1000 pieces. Anything serious, studied, and apparently substantial does get held back, of course, but knowing something is probably good but not really having the time to look at it properly is a permanent fixture and we constantly have to say ‘Let’s see it later; let’s go through the whole thing later, and so on’.
Anyway, in a sort of lethargy of tiredness, working our way through a parade of either adolescent or pretentious work, we were pushing the videos into the slots, so to speak, over and over, when suddenly a totally different level of sophistication cranked up on the screen. The four selectors were shocked, surely this is in the wrong place, this does not look like art at all? It takes us somewhere different, is it documentary? As no information comes with work at the first stage of selection and there is so little time to ask about it at that point I always insist if there seems to be any value at all to a work, film, or proposal then it must be kept back. Once rejected it can never return.
It started with the proper view of a city, obviously Damascus because of the title. A woman hanging out washing with perfectly recovered sound, was an introduction to place, to somewhere else, but why? The woman looking out is not acting, she is not there to pretend to make art, not a ‘mate’, or art student acting. We are encountering something else, something that is happening that is real outside our world of art and life. It is important to state how very hard it is at this stage to find such a thing. The film seemed immediately different in its scope, colour and sophistication. The documentary style was relatively unusual then, the sense that someone, obviously not a ‘normal’ poor student, had the ability and access to go somewhere provided a sense of disorientation. At the level of post graduate, undergraduate, and someone just a year out of college the slick, instant, touching, palpably close representation of somewhere quite else had a powerful effect on the selectors. Something is happening was totally, I mean totally, different. Food is being prepared and brought in - again real food, someone else’s, not made for the film. Inside there is an independent narrative. Jesus trust in us, a surgeon says, there is talk of obvious characteristics, of stigmata, praying, still an account, saying ‘we can not quite believe’. But how do you come onto something, into this, and at what angle?
Such heightened proficiency is shocking, such competence, the almost visceral relation between the subject, a woman in the throes of a visible religious manifestation, and the film itself, so shiny and even oozy. The woman, in bed now surrounded by banks of cameras, cries and obviously has a sense that something magnificent and powerful is happening to her. We are brought close up, it is all a bit embarrassing as she writhes in the bed, displays a scratch, the wound of Jesus, perhaps? The bedroom is mobbed, people fill the street and the balcony; the domestic and personal is turned inside out. A full and joyous procession takes place in the street while people kiss the woman in bed.
After a mass of discussion it stayed in order, anyway, to be seen again, and properly. But how did it work? Who was it for? It looked to be a total outsider, an intruder or infiltrator from a world of reason, function and probably television.
New Contemporaries is known and respected for the fact that the second stage of selection is about seeing short listed work for real. The second stage is also the most pleasurable. It is exciting because a painting that was just an image is seen to be not nearly as good as imagined while another turns out to be so much better. The sculpture which surprises with surface and scale turns out to be much might be much bigger, smaller, rougher, more polished than ever imaged. The film too has to be seen all the way through, to show itself in full, the narrative, in real time, is crucial. But the film has to be seen through to the end, because so much at this stage can easily disappoint. Selectors have to see what others will see and a very stupid ending, a sort of denial disclaimer can often spring up at the last moment. Something can seem to lose its nerve, and the students’ last minute self destructive gesture of denial can kill. This Damascus film, however, had the look of professional documentary about it, something that really could not have been set up. The absence of filmmaker’s fellow students, or even parents, acting, was unusually telling. There seemed to be an unusually high level of drama here for any art student, with drama from elsewhere. Where was it, how was it, why was it? Art tends to be on the other side of intention and yet here this powerful incident, and so strangely Christian, was being portrayed and why?
There was a lot of discussion, we thought and imagined the film had got itself into the wrong category, rather like a maths exam written in full lyrical English. The selectors were reluctant to keep it exactly because it looks so different. But it had definitely been sent to New Contemporaries, and was meant to be considered. At long last we looked at it all the way through and understood how much was going on. Great parallels between the form and the content of this film were also accompanied by the sense of an over view, a series of pictorial stills, an understanding and even love of the history of painting, of religious painting, highly luxurious painterly moments pieced together with fabric, face, and skin a closeness of surface. A series of artistically sophisticated moments were strung together in a way that was unique.
Even ten years ago the differentiation between representation and art was even more difficult. Art was not there to tell you something simply, using the method of television documentary, narrative, truth, visiting somewhere and capturing the image. That soon became normal, but here was a work shown in such a way that it seemed, also, to carry a great level of ambiguity in terms of the questioning of our role and involvement. A formal difference, the beginning of a new wave in the relation between apparent function and artistic endeavour in moving image.
© Sacha Craddock October 2015