The Rag Factory off Brick Lane currently has a lot of silent, empty space. On Saturday, students from Croydon’s BRIT School of Performing Arts will fill it with an exhibition dubbed ‘Young BRIT School Artists’ (YBsA). EastLondonLines went along to the school to see how preparations were going.
The Year 13 students on the National Diploma Art and Design course look as though they are members of an avant-garde art movement. Attitude is stamped all over their features. Like the professionals whose name inspired theirs, they are ready to make their mark on the world.
“I like how they’re a collective,” says Zak MacPherson, 17, of Damien Hirst and his fellow Young British Artists (YBAs). “Because that’s what we are. I see us as a group of artists, not students.” The others nod and murmur agreement.
In three days, these students will be displaying their artwork in the inviting spaces of the Rag Factory, a charitable organisation in Tower Hamlets that offers rehearsal space, filming space, and, above all, space to house an ‘interdisciplinary arts’ project. The scheme, which will showcase work by students aged 14–19, is the brainchild of Harriet Poole, director of visual arts and design at The BRIT School.
“I just found it such a magic experience, so now. So many of my peers, practising artists, are doing this stuff. They’re taking over redundant and alternative spaces. It’s very important for the students to experience the White Cube gallery, but also to go to the less conventional, more quirky spaces. They’re hugely ambitious and skilled, and their work is just as important as someone who’s 34, so why not?”
It is an ambitious project. Students from four year-groups have been experimenting in, among others, painting, photography, jewellery and fashion illustration. So close to the show, most of the works are covered in bubble wrap for safety, but some pieces are still under construction – including a giant interactive commemoration of Alexander McQueen, with hundreds of black spray-painted old telephones and other assorted junk resting at the bottom, as though fawning fans at one of his shows.
The piece is one work from the Year 13 strand of the project, the humorously-named ‘alTURNERtive’ prize, inspired by its famous counterpart. Students were asked to use experimental approaches to painting and photography, and the best work from each category, judged by Oliver Evans, assistant director at Maureen Paley gallery, and Dazed and Confused journalist and artist Yara El Sherbini, will win a prize.
“We’ve not really taken this kind of show out of the school before, so this is a really good opportunity for them to be thinking of it [professionally]. They’ll have that experience [of how] to curate a show together,” says Zoe Makesymiw, visual arts and design teacher. “And to produce something as a department is really nice, especially for the Year 13s. They can go away with that achievement. I think it’s something they’ll really hold on to.”
Although not quite on the level of their multi-millionaire icons, the YBsAs are displaying early signs of the dynamism and ‘shock tactics’ that defined two generations of contemporary British art.
“It’s a shrine to him, but we’ve distressed it a bit, because we don’t want to just promote him as this amazing artist,” says Corrie Foreman, 18, of the Alexander McQueen piece. “He is – this sounds so cheesy – a modern Van Gogh in a way; he was a troubled artist. He did try and commit suicide many times. We don’t want to just show all his work is amazing – he was still part of the real world.”
Antonia Ramsey, 17, says she is inspired by the more conceptual YBAs. “Tracy Emin’s a big influence because she’s so controversial and out-there,” she says. “My piece consists of 8 pieces of cucumber painted white to show how we control natural things and try and put boundaries on them. Then I’ve let them decay – so that’s nature fighting back against us controlling it.”
The exhibition transcends its school-project brief. Principal Nick Williams sees it as a way of connecting communities.
“[The aim] is to take this on the road,” he says. “Particularly to a part of London that has a fine tradition experimenting in innovative art, to place themselves within that environment – and that of course is an original thing for many of the young people involved in this.”
The Year 10 students connected with east London on a more personal level.
“We started by looking at different cultures in east London. After that we went round the market stalls and looked at what people were selling,” says 14-year-old Finn Godwin. “You can get inspiration from absolutely anything. There’s a mix of old and new architecture, so many different people, so many different things going on. It’s constantly changing, Brick Lane: nothing stays the same.”
Ms Poole is pleased with the wider implications of the show: “I think it’s interesting taking the school out of Croydon for the first time, because although it’s based in Croydon many of the students don’t come from here, they come from all over. Plus, this is where they all hang out.”
Mr Williams has grander views. “We are a national and international institution. I think Britain is at its best when it’s reaching for the unlikely. I think that we rediscover things all the time, in new ways, and that’s what the original YBAs did: they went somewhere that no one else had been before.”