So What of the Future, the University of Leeds Fine Art degree show, features work by thirty-four artists exhibited in the studios and gallery space of the new school of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies building. The question imbedded in the exhibition title, So What of the Future, not only holds personal relevance for the University of Leeds’ graduating BA and MA fine artists, as they look beyond the glistening walls of the Fine Art building, but the title also resonates with the political atmosphere of the UK and further afield as the exhibition opened mid-June, after the general election reached its pitch and with current affairs continuing to question the limits and value of life.
In 2016 History of Art was almost removed from the A-Level curriculum, only being saved by a high-profile campaign in which the University of Leeds was a part. It is in this context, with art education under threat, that we return to the question, So What of the Future? Although the white-washed studios and ornamental hallways of the newly renovated Fine Art building seemed to displace any threat of the apparent fall of the arts, collectively, the thirty-four exhibiting artists examine the place of art within wider society, addressing its changing position within contemporary politics and education.
One of the major themes of the exhibition this year is the question of the artist’s body and the characteristics which create an individual. Many of the artworks approach issues of gender, ethnicity, belief systems, bodily capabilities or reactions of some kind. This focus emphasises the importance of the artist against the uncertainty of the future. So What of the Future showcases a diverse mix of artists working with a range of media and on different scales. In contrast to some of the large textile pieces and installations in the exhibition, for example, Fatima Faisal, presents a delicate miniature ‘Fee Unta’ which was influenced by Faisal’s religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
Usual to degree shows, the exhibition felt a little overwhelming at times. In a small studio the position of sculpture by Zhuoran Zhang, seemed to reflect the threat of competition and increasingly compromised space of the arts. The central sculpture seemed cramped and restricted, yet set in a larger room, a fuller appreciation and investigation of the piece might have been reached. This was a potential issue in some other rooms, as work overlapped and the barrier between ground and art often became unclear. Thus, contrasting moments of minimalism and calm, especially in the shape of Zoe Carlon’s pastel interior scenes, appeared and excelled.
Suki Penrose Britton’s performance further reflect this feeling of restlessness, pace and compressed space. In the performance, two figures face each other, dressed head-to-toe in a nude one-piece suit covered in faux pubic hair and breasts. Stood completely motionless, the performers restricted the flow of viewers by their presence and forced those who passed to pause and consider the bodies and costumes. This also demanded that the often unwilling participant consider their own movement and it established a unique way of moving around negotiating the figures. This performance seems to epitomise the overarching conversation of the exhibition about relations of power. Although the future is uncertain, and the position of art is constantly challenged, So What of the Future and other degree shows prove that art education and work that artists so is still so relevant today.
So What of the Future, 16-22 June 2017, University of Leeds.
Saffron Ward is a History of Art student and writer based in Leeds