LONDON — On a particularly sweltering day in London’s Battersea neighborhood, I avoided the city’s summer heatwave with a trip to the Royal College of Art‘s industrial complex of studios. What I stumbled upon was a massive and exemplary MFA exhibition that includes hundreds of students’ work across disciplines — from painting and sculpture to multimedia art, glassblowing, and jewelry work. With an alumni list that includes Henry Moore, David Hockney, Tracey Emin, and Barbara Hepworth, the students in this year’s MFA exhibition must reach a high bar of excellence.
In a quiet, yet political work, Shamma Al Amri examines the linguistic gulf between English and Arabic as an origin point of beauty. Al Amri, who was born in the United Arab Emirates and now lives in London, riffs off themes of language, assimilation, and technology. Here, we see Arabic words on a television screen that flicker into blurry double images. Nearby, Arabic symbols circle around each other, their shadows occasionally forming words, like “thinking” and “banishing.”
Upstairs, Jade Ching-yuk Ng displays a series of prints inspired by her expeditions around Central Asia. Loosely adopting the compositional qualities of Soviet mosaics, she creates brightly colored abstractions on Eastern and Western forms of spirituality. Playing with symmetry, Ng fractures her picture plane with a bright palette of colors and intricate patterns, creating an enticing blur of imagery that takes the viewer time to fully parse. In some works, like “Tundra: self seduction” (2018), there is also a clear reference to the artist Francis Bacon. Here, Ng outlines her fears with a golden border allowing her nightmarish dark greens and blues to fill in the empty spaces.
Through another maze of hallways is a gallery of glass and ceramics. Kaja Upelj’s “Kairos” (2018) glassworks are an obvious standout. Looking like a handful of rainbow jellybeans, these bulbous works somehow capture light like a prism but retain all their colors inside their frosted surface to stunning effect.
Within the painting portion of the exhibition is Emma Fineman’s “At Your Bedside” (2018), a massive triptych of oil paint and charcoal that attempts to collapse figural space by confusing the logic and chronology of the canvas. The scene sputters into endless loops of images that metaphorize mourning as ceaseless. A child stands beside their dying parent’s bed in the leftmost panel. The middle panel is desolate, the curtains of an open window blowing through it, and the rightmost image shows the end of the bed, a pair of feet poking out from under the covers.
But the highlight of the Royal College of Art’s exhibition, for me, is Ada Hao’s collection of works. A performance artist and multimedia creator, Hao’s work first caught my ear before my eye, her voice echoing in the gallery, shouting, “YOU MUST GO THERE AND LIVE!” Nearby, her “Preserved Hands” (2018) are exactly what they sound like: what appear to be plastic molds of the artist’s hands. The coup de grace of the artist’s work is her film, “Soma(tic) Apparatus” (2018), which distorts the female figure with a black latex substance reminiscent of the faddish charcoal facials of last year. Slowly, the artist removes the substance from her body, stretching the polymer until it snaps off her skin. Again in the background, I hear the artist’s words, “YOU MUST GO THERE AND LIVE.” But where is “there”? In our own skin or out in the world? Like so much in this labyrinthian exhibition, the answer remains provocatively elusive.
The Graduate Showcase continues at the Royal College of Art (Kensington Gore, Kensington, London ) through July 1.