Goldsmiths: But is it Art?

Here’s a recap of the first part of BBC Four’s Goldmiths documentary which follows a group of students in the run up to their final masters show. The main players are Blue Curry, Roisin Byrne, Ian Gonczarow and Thomas Leahy and they are joined by Goldsmiths tutors David Mabb and Gerard Hemsworth…

We begin with some talking head type confessionals which emphasise the fact that Goldsmiths is about ideas over technique. The edit backs this up by following that with a look at some misshapen painted lumps.

First up is Roisin Byrne who explains that she shoplifts items by swallowing them and then “I shit them out and present them as art objects”. An interest in property is her justification for theft. “I don’t have to be focused primarily on creating original artwork, I just steal stuff. ” I get the feeling that Goldsmiths probably rather like her but the edit is a deliberately provocative one.

A gentleman named Blue Curry seems more thoughtful. He points out that visitors and viewers are looking for evidence of labour above other things which is why conceptual artists are often questioned or required to justify themselves.

Then to the sordid topic of coin: How skint are you? “Very skint” replies Ian Gonczarow. There is talk of maxed credit cards and loans which are paying off maxed credit cards. There is a furrowed brow during this explanation which I would argue is pretty standard when discussing the average fledgling artist’s business model – spending money to make work and then worrying about selling it.

Roisin is trekking to Spain to find some rhododendrons that Simon Starling originally transplanted there from Scotland. True to her ethic, Roisin is intending to steal them back. Her tutor thinks this is not necessarily an interesting route to go down.

Thomas Leahy, a former armour designer, has come to art later in life. He describes Goldmiths as “a troublesome journey”. He shows some of his work including a police vest  created on the day of the 7/7 bombings which reads ‘Metropolitan Peace’ in place of the usual logo.  He describes the literal nature of his work as problematic for Goldsmiths.

Blue Curry is intending to woo visitors to the show with strobe lights inside large conch shells in a darkened room. He reveals that in a recent tutorial the idea was criticised for being unsophisticated and tries to explain his reasons but falters. “I was hoping I was going to say something really good just then!”

Ian is worried and is becoming more worried because he thinks everyone else is really confident and self-assured. His own previous work focuses on Olympic mascots from Beijing – the cuddly, cutesy face of an authoritarian regime. He’s looking to build on that success but seems to be experiencing painters’ block.

Thomas is keen to point out the literal nature of his art as its virtue, making it accessible to the masses, not just the cultured few. His piece involves shooting a paintball gun at a military fabric. He and Blue agree that above all what they should have taken from their time at Goldmiths is the confidence to stand by their work. Thomas is concerned that this move towards abstract expressionism shows that Goldsmiths is influencing him.

Thomas’ final seminar reminds me of a panel at the laast Frieze art fair where Barbara Bloom expressed horror at a student becoming preoccupied with whether astroturf had a gender and was countered by a woman in the audience from Goldsmiths who felt that was actually an exciting idea. I experience a vaguely similar moment when someone carefully asks Thomas whether the fabric has to be camouflage print.

Roisin returns from Spain with one of Simon Starling’s rhododendrons. She reassures us that she has every intention of keeping it alive. She reveals that her project is entirely dependent on whether Simon Starling or his galleries are remotely bothered by the theft. No reaction equals no project. “I feel like the girl waiting for the fucking phonecall,” she sighs.

The Artists Move In

The artists arrive in their empty spaces and set about exploring. Thomas’ space is enormous, Blue can’t find a light switch and Roisin has a high wall to paint.

Thomas describes feeling like he’s trying to play by Goldsmiths’ rules and the reality of what’s marketable. I’m struggling to engage with his art (perhaps because he is too and the whole thing doesn’t flow) but have a lot of sympathy with what he’s saying.

Post Tropical is Blue’s final piece and he is still struggling to say what his strobing conch shells mean. All the elements of his art have a tropical aspect but take you in another direction. An unnerving paradise with annoyance over warmth. At this stage I think it would be more striking in a pitch black room

David Mabb explains that his role is to offer advice, what the students choose to do with it is up to them. Ian stands in his space with all the art on one side of the room. David advises: “This is dreadful”. He and Gerard Hemsworth make Ian get out his Chinese mascot paintings instead. There is a vague standoff but Ian decides to go ahead with his original plans.

Roisin has heard from Simon Starling. He is apparently a bit upset but she shrugs: “You can’t be taking these things too seriously”. She reads a little of his response which is basically ‘I thought you empathised with and understood my artwork but instead you chose to destroy it and that’s upsetting’. She seems a little deflated by his response but continues taping it to the wall.

Gerard and David arrive at Thomas’ room. Gerard is preoccupied with whether viewers will know that the marks were made by a gun. They agree that the gun needs to be physically present. Thomas appears slightly frustrated, telling the camera that he has been constantly told off for being literal but the having the gun on the gallery floor is just as bad.

The tutors appear far more on board with Roisin’s work. She asks for their input in the presentation but they think what she has done, taping the sheets of correspondence to the wall, is fine. The camera lingers on the last line from Simon: “I’m sad and disappointed.”

Ooh – wine! It must be an art show. The final show, to be precise. According to his final speech the key points Gerard has tried to instill in the artists are visibility and responsibility. David admits that the people he really feels for during the final show are those with great work but who are ignored by the collectors – affability and confidence are often as important as the work.

During the show Blue emphasises the importance of having cards and contact details to hand. Roisin has not done this. “I prefer to spend my coppers on a few drinks” she grins. Thomas (entirely at odds with his preoccupation with being marketable) explains that he doesn’t think he wants to sell his works.

The camera then cuts to Ian who has an interested party – “£1,000?” he asks Gerard, although when Gerard leaves with this information Ian whispers “I’ll take anything – I’d take a can of coke. I’d take a cheeseburger for it.” He sells two paintings and is jubilant but wonders if he should have asked for £1,500. I suspect that after watching this the buyer will wonder if he should have just offered a Happy Meal.