Farnham UCA Degree Show : June 2012

Farnham UCA Degree Show : 13th June 2012

I visited the Farnham UCA Degree Show last year (write up here on my AOP blog) and decided I would go again this year.

Before I went I checked on websites I had noted from last year to see if any of the students had done new work. I was particularly interested in Chris Spackman  who had created a project, ‘Unstill Life’,  in memory of a friend of his who had died from cancer.  He had used an analogue large format camera to produce a series of flower images resulting from continuous exposure of around 3 weeks. Chris has continued to work experimentally exploring time, memory and loss and I see from his CV that he is continuing with postgraduate study at Farnham  UCA. One of his projects concerns 89 glass negatives, created in the 1920s, which he bought on an online auction. His research revealed that they were made by a photographer located in the Hay area on the Welsh/English border. He has researched some of the sitters and is also developing the project by making his own portraits of local people – an interesting way of bringing together people, place and time I think.

The 2012 Show

The Reception area at Farnham is quite spacious with a welcoming atmosphere and pleasant to walk into. Amongst other interesting information I picked up two issues of the UCA magazine and information on workshops run by the Bookroom Press – both of which I will return to later.

Last year photography was displayed in the light and airy James Hockey gallery but this year that gallery hosted Fine Art.

There was some photography there, including an image by Carlmaria Jackson (no website details):

A large glossy print on, I think aluminium.  Called Allure 4, it was the tattoo which fascinated me. It looks like one of a series and I would have liked to have seen the rest.

From there we went to the textiles display; 3D creations and photography.

There were some wonderful textiles and we spoke to Ify Katherine Umunna.  

I asked her what she would be doing next and, of course, (which I realised as soon as I spoke!) she said that she was going to relax for a while and enjoy having completed her Degree, although she has had her own online shop anyway for the last five years.

After speaking to another student who was doing some print screening we went to the 3D section. I though this seemed a strange title as I had expected videos/films but it was glass and ceramics. Not a large room, with not a lot on display but we spoke with Grace Johnson  .

Grace’s final degree project was to design and create a range of cake stands and ceramic cake covers.  I had seen some of her cake covers before at an Art in Clay Exhibition at Farnham Maltings last December and they actually looked good enough to eat. Grace is certainly entrepreneurial as well as creative and told us that she is setting up her own business in actual cake making as she loves baking so much but will continue to make cake stands etc to order.

Photography display

I was disappointed that there were no photography students around in the three rooms allocated to the display because it would have been good to have been able to speak with them about their work.  There were a whole range of subjects/themes and so I will only mention a few here which caught my attention.

i. James Sinclair Stewart:  ‘ Interior Essence of Self

The aim of this particular project was an attempt to capture the subconscious in photography by giving his subjects the freedom of choice to represent themselves neutrally/without pretension. This was to be achieved by having them sitting in front of the lens, not knowing when the shutter would be released.  The quality of the prints looked very good and it was a good idea.  I do have to say though that, to me, all his subjects looked slightly dazed/frozen. I would love to have known what they were thinking as they were waiting for that shutter to open.

ii. Debra Lorraine Grant : Episodic Memory

These images were accompanied by a sound track of two sisters reminiscing about the past through the medium of looking at  old photographs. I think the scenes had been rephotographed and then layered selectively on the old scenes, to quote from her website here “Episodic memories are represented within the work by various densities of image, depending on their clarity and strength of recollection.  When a memory is uncertain or not so clearly recollected, it becomes translucent.” Interesting to look at and listen too.

iii. Katie Lee : Family Album

Again using old photographs of family occasions this time. The aim to provide a different context for reading family photographs. Comments written under the images by Katie (blue pen), her mother (black pen) and her step-father (pencil) and it was interesting to see the varied reactions and memories evoked. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a website link mentioned anywhere.

There was another set of images, (Polaroid I think) portraying people (with faces anonymised in various ways) in varying stages of undress who are members of a sex swingers group.  There was no explanation/commentary on the purpose of this series which might have made it more interesting than just looking at semi-pornogrraphic images. At least there was some humour and energy in another students look at  5 burlesque performers (although I’m not sure they were genuine performers). Each subject also had their own set of images in small, individual flipbooks which had been produced through the Bookroom Press which is a research cluster founded in 2004 at UCA by Anna Fox and Emmanuelle Waeckerlé.  They also offer one day Workshops on the production of self-published bookworks and I shall explore further. I noticed as well that quite a lot of the work displayed was accompanied by Blurb books (with white cotton gloves by their side for turning pages).

I also mentioned the student magazine at the beginning. This is ‘Glue’  and there’s an e-version of their first issue on the website. It’s run by students and supported by the UCA Students’ Union.  I think it only came into being at the end of last year and I picked up issues 2 (March 2012)  and 3 (May 2012). If you live near any of the campuses (Canterbury, Epsom, Farnham, Maidstone and Rochester) then I guess you could pop in and collect one. It’s well produced, which you would expect from a University of the Creative Arts, and the showcase section gives a good idea of the standard of student work from all the creative disciplines. Just think what our own ‘Untitled’ could be like if it branches into print!


As before, it was interesting to visit and see Degree work because it sets a benchmark mark for me. So far as photography is concerned, some work was better than others and, of course, there was no indication of grades.  I don’t think that the rooms themselves displayed the work at its best and this might have been the reason why I felt less impressed overall. Farnham UCA does have a problem I think in terms of its previous life as an Art College and the rather school-like atmosphere.  Even so, there was still that sense of students being engaged in creative projects and sparking off each other.

13th June 2012


Farnham Campus of UCA: http://ucreative.ac.uk/farnham










Gillian Wearing Exhibition : Whitechapel Gallery 28th April 2012

Whitechapel Gallery : 28 April 2012

Gillian Wearing Exhibition

Study Visit with OCA

I felt very well-prepared for this visit, with a good briefing from OCA concerning ‘Looking and Reading’. A video  to watch; Guardian  interview to read, and suggestions for some thinking to do beforehand.

Gillian Wearing has a degree in Fine Art, is a conceptual artist and was a member of the Young British Artists Movement. This group rose to fame in the 1990s; its members often used shock tactics; used new materials to produce art and were from the East of London (e.g. Tracey Emin).  I’m assuming they were part of the postmodernist movement.

It’s obvious that the Guardian interviewer, Tim Adams, had difficulty in getting her to speak as freely about herself as she achieved with her own subjects.  I gained a sense of an unsettled, shifting ground between them with Wearing using words to elude and the interviewer trying to pin her down.  Wearing describes herself as a listener and I’ve found that people who are more used to listening can certainly find it hard to talk about themselves – and vice versa.  There is another  interview on the Guardian site (talking to Kira Cochrane)  where she describes her own inarticulacy and problems she had at comprehensive school in Birmingham that pioneered large class sizes. Thinking about it, there’s a ‘listening’ mask and a ‘talking’ mask we wear when we’re interacting with others and we switch between them with greater or lesser facility according to our intrinsic personality and whom we’re with at the time.

After my preparatory reading I noted down masks, sense of self; many different selves; unexpressed selves; boundaries; verbal/non-verbal; Erving Goffman; Eleanor Rigby, and showing yourself through your art.   I read Goffman many years ago and was entertained by his notion of the front and back stage personalities – that we all enact multiple roles in our lives. That was the biggest question I took with me to the Exhibition – is Gillian Wearing going to show me herself through her art – ‘communicate an inner life by proxy’ as her interviewer writes?

It was good to meet up with everyone from OCA and link some more names to faces.  As before, we were greeted by Michael Lawton of the Gallery who  provided a commentary as we walked round. He gave us his introduction whilst standing under a monitor playing a video of Gillian Wearing singing to herself in a shopping mall. So far as I could tell, none of the other shoppers actually paused to look at her so she was in her own inner world there.  Maybe they thought she was madly eccentric. Michael Lawton drew attention to her use of colour; her switch into films and the performance element in her work.

We looked at one short film before we went to the upper gallery. This was of a girl called Lindsay, a street drinker who subsequently died. The film is grainy, in slow motion and synced with Lindsay’s twin sister speaking about her.  Thinking about it now, the graininess and slow motion added a slightly drunk effect.  I wonder if this was Wearing’s intention.

Whilst Michael Lawton had been talking to us I had had this odd thought that maybe Gillian Wearing was actually with us; playing the part of one of the group and observing us. Maybe it was because I’d caught sight of her self-portrait at the bottom of the stairs – wearing a mask of her own face with just her (real) eyes looking through.  The smooth rigidity of the expressionless mask combined with those large eyes was quite unnerving and, throughout, the rest of the tour it was the eyes within masks that were the most compelling yet weirdly skewed to me.

The early series, ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say’ was the most ‘traditional’ to me. 600 portraits ranged around the room with the subjects holding signs. It was the sheer number of them that was impressive.  Some of the signs were at odds with the subject such as a woman smiling whilst holding a sign ‘I am depressed at the moment’, and a man unsmiling and with eyes closed stating ‘Queer and happy. The latter made me think of how small children can often believe that if their eyes are closed people can’t see them. My other thought was, “How do I know that the signs are telling the truth in any case?”

There are further films where the subject’s words are synced with someone else’s voice. The twins and their mother for example.  How often do I now hear my mother’s words coming out of my mouth.  My daughter and I were only talking about this a few weeks ago and she said sometimes she almost horrifies herself by doing this.  Sometimes my grandchildren say things in such an old-fashioned way that I know it’s a parent speaking – out of the mouths of babes and sucklings and all that!.  I find those occasions amusing but it was odd to see here – not knowing whether to close my eyes and listen to the words or watch the non verbal behaviour of the now muted subjects. Maybe it was harder because these were strangers I was watching and listening to.

There were further portraits – again with the use of masks.  Gillian Wearing as her favourite photographers, and also as members of her own family.  Again it was the eyes that seemed weird, like those films where aliens take over humans or The Midwich Cuckoos.  You know there’s something not quite right about their behaviour but it’s hard to work out exactly why. Gilllian Wearing attempting to get behind the skin of other people – is this because she thinks she can or because she wants to know what it’s like to be them? I don’t know what her living family thought about the portraits but there’s an interesting  Guardian piece here on the creation of the masks.

Beyond this were booths where one could watch film of more people in masks giving intimate details of their lives and secret thoughts – some of which I really didn’t want to hear! One of my fellow students Julia has compared this to confessional booths, whilst also raising an important point to me concerning the ethics of this kind or work. What effect do these confessions have on the speakers; how do they deal afterwards with any feelings raised.  I think it’s fine to say, “Well they volunteered to do this”, but people don’t always take into account what the consequences might be.

There were some harrowing stories as well in ‘10-16’. Volunteer actors, trained in method-acting, lip-synced to the voices of children and young people. Reminding me of how so many adults carry the bruising of their childhood within them.


I might not like her methods but Gillian Wearing is certainly full of talent and creativity. I suppose I’m left wondering how she felt about the stories she heard and whether they helped her to express or make any connection with her own feelings and thoughts. I certainly didn’t get a sense of the real Gillian Wearing behind all those different masks – even her own.

I think that in speaking as yourself from behind a mask you become an actor in your own drama and so, in a sense, unreal. Also, how real do you feel when you speak as someone else?  I know I’ve certainly engaged in role plays in the past where I found I was identifying with the person I was portraying. This kind of projective identification also gave me more of an insight into them as a person – I found clues and answers I hadn’t been aware of before. This brings to mind the role of empathy in our lives and the effect of confluence. If we enter into someone else’s thoughts and feelings then the boundaries between us become a little blurred and we sometimes have to work hard to distinguish between self and other.

In the Exhibition itself seeing through masks actually distanced me from the person behind them, despite their often tragic stories. Their stories were just that – not quite real and so I felt both slightly troubled yet uninvolved at the same time. Thinking of theatrical tradition I’m reminded of Greek tragedies and the masked actors. The masks de-personalize and so the subjects become Everyman and their stories take on a universal resonance.

There’s a lot more of a philosophical nature concerning self, aspects of self and how all those different possibilities of our birthing gradually become distilled into a central core, so that we know when we are, or not, ‘being ourselves’. If we don’t then we can become psychotic or suffer various personality disorders. I want to re-read Goffman to remind myself whether or not he touches upon this aspect.  What comes through in Gillian Wearing’s Exhibition is a view of life which seems to believe that we take on these ‘masks’ to hide something negative about ourselves.  I don’t remember that coming through to me when I read Goffman all those years ago.

I’ve been given a lot of food for thought here, including how as a photographer I want to interact with my subjects. I certainly don’t want to de-personalize them yet, in the very act of pressing the shutter button, I do freeze them in time.

1st May 2012






 http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/exhibitions/gillian-wearing  to watch