How did the preparation for fine art performances go during a global pandemic?


Here’s a successful graduation: a pic from Paola Estrella’s Journey To The Underworld (2021)
Courtesy of the artist and RCA

You could say it’s never a good time to be a new arts graduate. But a global pandemic is surely a worse time than most. As Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Fine Arts (MFA) students across the country prepare to put on their graduation shows, many of their exhibits will hardly resemble those of years past.

“The pandemic made me rethink my work and had an impact on the questions I ask about vulnerability, fantasy and escape,” says Paola Estrella, MA Contemporary Art Practice student at the Royal College of Art in London . Like many master’s students, RCA graduates this summer completed nearly all of their degree course during the lockdown, and the institution’s graduation shows RCA2021 will take place virtually for the second consecutive summer. Additional physical satellite events are planned at venues across London, including the gallery hub Cromwell Square in South Kensington. For the digital iteration, Estrella will show a video of her grandmother as the goddess of the underworld, while a video installation of a human aspiring to become a jellyfish will be on display at Cromwell Place.

“Our studio mates have literally become our bubble. There was a sense of community in the daily tests together ”
Niamh Schmidtke, Goldsmith student MFA Beaux-Arts

The Glasgow School of Art (GSA) Masters of Fine Arts programming will also take a hybrid form, with its formal assessment conducted entirely online in the form of a digital portfolio. A three-day “physical showcase” will also take place, but its size and viewing capacity will be significantly reduced compared to a conventional diploma show.

However, for Matthew Cosslett, an MFA student who will show a multi-channel video installation, his graduation derailment began before the pandemic. He says he “encountered significant and consistent issues with the GSA as an institution” during the pandemic, but structural issues existed long before Covid-19. There were also union strikes over staff wages and precarious contracts in February 2020, which essentially shut down several universities across the country, including GSA and CAR, and meant many were already closed as the UK was entering its first lockdown.

The expulsion of Nana Wolke (2021)
Courtesy of the artist

Fine arts students at Goldsmiths, University of London, also had only three months of instruction before a strike closed their university. The 2021 cohort of around 60 quickly fell to less than 30, as around half of the class postponed their education for at least a year. Nana Wolke, from Slovenia, was among those who chose to stay, explaining that she was at Goldsmiths on a scholarship that could not be extended. Wolke says luckily his practice, which is largely based on painting, has been less disrupted than others due to the reduced access to workshops students faced for around seven months in total.

For Wolke’s studio partner Niamh Schmidtke, who moved from Ireland to London for the course, the practicalities of the accommodation played a role in his decision to stick it out, as did the increased attention and l studio space that she says she received from tutors, similar to “how AMFs were 10 years ago”.

However, with a practice largely based on 3D printing and ceramics, Schmidtke had to completely rethink what she would produce for her degree. Without access to an oven or an industrial printer, she focused on writing and will present a radio play, which can also be experienced at home. “Even though our show is physical, we had to think throughout our degree about how a work could be successful in a hybrid format,” says Schmidtke.

The 72 building bodies of Niamh Schmidtke (2020)
Courtesy of the artist

What’s remarkable, say Wolke and Schmidtke, is that the pandemic has forced this year’s more intimate-sized cohort to develop a sense of solidarity and reify their commitment to caring for one another. “Our studio mates have literally become our bubble. There was a sense of community in the daily tests together, ”Schmidtke said. “So we spent our evenings reviewing each other’s work and growing together.”

In April, an ad hoc group exhibition entitled Access, organized by the students of Goldsmiths MFA, occupied the shop windows of Deptford High Street in south London. It was one of many DIY student projects to have emerged during the pandemic and reflects the spirit of camaraderie and ingenuity that the past year sparked. These are qualities that will prove essential as art students emerge in a new and more precarious professional landscape.

• RCA2021, online, June 26-July 4

• Glasgow School of Art Postgraduate Showcase, Glasgow School of Art, Glasgow, June 17-20 and June 24-27

• Goldsmiths MFA Diploma Show 2021, Goldsmiths, London, July 15-20


Kayleen C. Rice

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