We’re sitting facing Sacha Craddock. She’s the director of New Contemporaries, the annual poll of the UK’s best art students and graduates. It’s open to anyone in their last year of study, or in their first year as a graduate. Every year it attracts over 1000 entrants. This year, only 29 were selected to exhibit.
For the few who make the grade, it represents a serious step on the road to a career as a practicing artist. The show has been going, on and off, since 1949, as Sacha tells us. “In the old days, New Contemporaries was called Young Contemporaries – until people realised that was a bit oppressive to mature students. It has existed in many guises, in this particular one since ’89, when it was established as a notion and launched at the ICA.”
1989 was quite a year for New Contemporaries, with participants including Glenn Brown, Damien Hirst and Mark Leckey. Subsequent years have seen the likes of Chris Ofili, Tacita Dean, Gillian Wearing and Bob & Roberta Smith to name but a few. In fact, since Hirst won in 1995, former New Contemporaries have been regularly cropping up in the Turner Prize, both as winners and nominees.
The core principles upon which New Contemporaries was rebooted centre around a democratic approach; when asked how the show has evolved over the years, Sacha is unembarrassed to report that it hasn’t, really. “It has developed, but it hasn’t really changed, in that the principle of it has remained very sound. I feel that my role is one of maintaining simple, democratic ideas about the selection and the process. Development is important, but at some level one also has to admit what matters is if the structure is strong enough for the work itself to succeed.”
These “democratic ideas” can be understood, more simply, as fairness: the application process is gruelling, but only to ensure applicants get the opportunity to best represent themselves and their practice. “We make the application incredibly open for the artists, in that you can send in a tremendous number of images, films and proposals. We try and allow people to show themselves in quite a three-dimensional way, it’s not a matter of just looking at one image, but of actually getting a sense of what somebody’s work might be about.”
The panel of selectors is carefully picked to minimise the risk of elitism, with discord often contrived to stimulate real discourse. “It’s important the panel doesn’t just consist of the usual suspects, that there’s not some sense of pre-judgement or knowledge and that there’s some kind of difficulty on the panel, that there’s actually a discussion.” The priority, really, is to make sure every applicant’s voice will be fairly catered for.
This year’s exhibition won’t necessarily surprise. Impeccably curated, it’s a great looking show, but the fact is that – bar a few exceptions – much of the work is exactly what you’d expect to see. Take, for example, Lauren Godfrey. Her work is bang on-trend, with grainy textures and kooky motifs. However it is also substantive. Her large sculpture Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther runs alongside one wall of the ground floor gallery. Like a finishing line, two pieces of what could be fencing support a piece of white fabric, half printed with tally marks. Refreshingly, the wood at either end has also been nicely finished, giving it an aesthetic distance from the ubiquitous art-school look of plain MDF. We also like her piece Spaghetti alle vongole, because we like spaghetti alle vongole. There’s a sense of humour present that lifts it above some other work in the exhibition.
Elsewhere on the ground floor, there’s Piotr Krzymowski’s film 73, an enjoyable series of film snippets, looped and separated by a series of slightly ominous numbers. The film snippets are great; beautiful Mediterranean frames that never run for more than a few seconds and loop several times before moving on to the next. Piotr, like Lauren, ticks the trendy-art boxes, name checking hip tropes, but also like Lauren he pokes his head above the parapet. There are misses, but curator Matt Williams has done a fine job of balancing the work and its distribution.
During our interview, Matt discussed the difficulties this kind of group show represents in terms of maintaining an equilibrium. “I have to try and ensure there’s a balance between the lower and the upper galleries, that they are as strong as one another and that the upper gallery doesn’t feel fragmented or neglected.” The ICA is interestingly, if challengingly, laid out; the upstairs and downstairs galleries are interrupted by a café, which effectively severs any contiguity between the two, but despite this the upper floors feel as much a part of the exhibition as the downstairs.
The dark space is a particular triumph, helped by an extremely strong roster of films. Evariste Maiga’s Improvisation, pain and joy, in which the artist dances in a white space to Knowing Looks’ rather silly track Ghost Baby, is very strong. As the film continues, the fun and irreverence starts to wear thin, the dancing changes from celebration to compulsion and it suddenly becomes intense. Jamie Buckley’s MUC 72 is also powerful; beautifully composed shots of the now decaying Olympic Village from Munich’s notorious 1972 Olympic games are juxtaposed with archive footage of the athletes inhabiting them. They become like ghosts, haunting what remains with their absence.
This exhibition is always going to be tricky; degree shows are notoriously hard to curate into something cohesive, and in many ways this is what Bloomberg New Contemporaries is, albeit one with the highest possible standards. It offers the best new work a platform to be seen, and to breathe, and the artists “their first chance to be separate from art school, and to have their work seen as something separate from it.” These guys are just starting their careers, and it all seems very promising.
- – - – - – - – - -
Bloomberg New Contemporaries runs at the ICA until January 13th 2013.
Words: Augustin Macellari
Main Image, clockwise from left: George Little – Entrance to the Restaurant; Natalie Finnemore - Arrangement #18; Piotr Krzymowski – Boys
Jennifer Bailey – Daniella In The Studio
Nicole Morris – I am here
Jack Brindley – Silicone Paintings