A future after all?
What a time to graduate. Covid-19 has exposed many of the rotten structures holding up a contemporary art world that so often says one thing and does another. It is now 23 years since Bill Readings advocated for a Community of Dissensus as one possible way to live and work in the ruins of the university, hollowed out by capital in the name of empty “excellence”. With this year's graduating artists pressed into hosting their degree shows online, my inbox fills with press releases from different institutions celebrating the “exciting and inspiring projects” of “a vibrant new wave of creative talent”. Meanwhile, students at some universities are refused deferrals or refunds by the corporatised academy and staff on precarious contracts at others are thrown “under the bus”. Across the country, Black staff and people of colour are disproportionately affected. The government that introduced tuition fees is now blaming universities for saddling students with debt. Who will be able to find work in the art world this time next year? Who will want to?
No wonder my conversations with four of this year's graduating artists were so charged by a sense of what once was: people they've lost; places that can no longer be visited; projects that have not been realised – and maybe never will be. How can you think of the future when the future is history? Art school is so much about the peer group, but Covid has torn that apart, precipitated an accelerated atomisation.
The students show me their work: an empty plastic chair, a rumpled bed, a newspaper headline, a path heading straight to nowhere. The edges of photographs have caught fire. Memories no longer quite ring true. A town crumbles, even the certainty of its destruction now held in abeyance. A bulldozer is shrouded in black. “It seems to me that we are facing a future where capitalism is already living in its own ruins,” said Isabelle Stengers once upon a time.
But photography has always been inseparable from death, loss, absence. And so perhaps these four artists are well-placed to cope. Or, more precisely, they can develop languages to express the ways in which they – we – cannot cope.
It is always a privilege to be allowed into the studio. Those studios may currently sit empty, the darkrooms locked, conversations enacted via multiple modalities of separation, but it remains a joy to see works in progress, to discuss ideas and possible directions. None of the artists I spoke with seemed to think of their work as finished. They were all thinking ahead. Perhaps there is to be a future after all.
Siyan Liu got me thinking about escape. Her series, Breath – four photographs in an unspecified rural field, far from the world – articulates the artist's desire to escape from the overproduction and consumption of images, from the need to perform identity over and over again in public online. A figure – the artist herself, one presumes – curls up into a ball, alone against the world. But ultimately it's all in vain: the fourth image shows the figure with phone in hand – taking a selfie perhaps or checking the news. Etched in Poussin's classical landscape, Death famously proclaimed his ubiquity: Et in Arcadio Ego. Today, technology – like death – etches itself across the world. There is no escape from the freedom it promises.
Haydn West got me thinking about stories. How do some stories come to dominate over others? And which stories can artists tell that maybe others cannot? Do artists have a duty to show us alternatives, those images that resist or somehow overrun dominant narratives? A bridge where kids once gathered in the heart of Thomas Hardy land. But which steals my heart? The beauty or the mess? All places, especially in the UK, have histories – complex and contested. What memories should landscape photography hold on to now, at a time when those most attuned to the enduring power of the past are all of a sudden accused of trying to erase it? Or, in response: who is anyone to tell an artist what to do?
Beth Goldstone got me thinking about fear. How much of oneself to give? Your family, your home town, yourself. When we spoke, I got a sense of an artist drawn towards something before pulling away, and I wondered what Beth was most afraid to confront in her work. Afterwards, I asked myself the same question: what do I find myself writing away from? And might that be precisely what I should be writing about? One of Beth's projects consists of an intimate retelling of a forgotten story of loneliness and despair: an unmade bed, a pair of glasses on a window frame, saw-toothed roof tops, a pier stretching out to a rumpled sea. Beth's photographs are full of texts: street signs, journal entries. Artists make the best writers – or is it the other way around?
Rachel Gordon got me feeling loss. The physical ache of absence, located somewhere inside, rooted I imagine among the organs and nameless nerves. Such a simple image: a hollow in the base of a tree – a hide-out, a down-low place where a person once was or might still be. The hollowness of the trunk is the hollowness you can feel yourself. Art does this for me more than life has yet. Grasses wear to dust at the entrance. The hollow returns a little later in the sequence, up close, after a square of mud and a field of bronze-lit ferns. There are peaches and white cloth, a plant in a pot beckons you over – so small among surrounding sheets of white. Loss is what photography and writing will always share. The subject is forever absent. The moment always evades the words.
Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Edinburgh. His work has been published in the likes of art-agenda, ArtReview, Frieze, The Independent, Monocle, New Scientist, Photomonitor and The World of Interiors. He is the author of Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot (Influx Press, 2017) and The White Birch (Little, Brown) 2021). He is also the editor of online magazine The Learned Pig.