It’s a balmy summer evening in New Cross. The sun beats down even as the day draws on, and a warm breeze plays through the trees that surround the great shining metallic behemoth that is the Ben Pimlott Building, home of Goldsmiths’ famous art department.
The event of the evening is the MFA exhibition – the final show for students completing the college’s renowned Masters course in Fine Art – and the overall mood is a relaxed one.
Groups of students and well-wishers sit outside the building’s entrance, clutching beers and chatting. Fashionably-dressed punters pass me as I climb the raw concrete stairs to the fifth floor, where I’ve elected to begin my tour of the building’s art.
When I reach the light-filled gallery, the first thing to greet me is what appears to be a stripped-down recreation of an IKEA showroom – complete with mocked-up order slips and a neat container of multicoloured pencils.
On closer inspection, the bedroom furniture carries large red and white shop-style tags, as if truly on display in the Swedish retail giant – but the names of the pieces have a distinctly Korean flavour.
Jin Hee Park is the artist responsible for this curious scene. A portfolio of supporting work reveals a collection of hauntingly simple images, which play solemnly with natural motifs that recall elements of landscape.
Downstairs, this natural theme is echoed in the work of fellow exhibitor Ji-Yen Lee, whose piece ‘What A Wonderful World’ comprises a mesmerising collage of meticulously cut-out photographs of tiny people, marching along silvery snaking lines formed from what look like steely escalators.
Nearby, ‘River Flows In You’ is another beautiful and serene image, composed from aerial photos of people climbing steps. Against a sandy yellow background, they undulate with a stirring rhythm.
Video-based exhibit ‘On A Slow Jam’ consists of a cluster of screens, each glowing with different jewel-like colours. At first I think the figures swimming floatily across them are fish – but then see that they, too, are people. The effect is mesmerising.
The show features a number of filmed works, some of which, to my mind, are more successful than others. Una Knox’s videos are compelling, if not readily comprehensible. In one, a man stands on a roof in an anonymous urban street. He deliberates and then jumps, only to land back at the other side of the frame in what seems to be a never ending loop.
One of the most interesting video works on display is Christine Ng’s ‘Untitled’ – seemingly a compelling meditation on Asian landscapes. Two screens alternately synchronise and diverge, occasionally creating a striking kaleidoscope effect, as they visit a city skyline by night, then misty forests and mountains – occasionally accompanied by loud, eerie, almost oppressive ambient noise and snatches of speech.
The presentation of the other half of the show is a far cry from the sparse modernity of the department’s more modern venue – hosted as it is inside the fascinating Victorian Baths building in Laurie Grove.
Here, I find the ornate stairwell crowded with people who have paused to watch a group of red-clad singers, who seem to be giving an impromptu concert. After announcing that they are a local ‘Socialist choir,’ they proceed to sing rousing renditions of left-wing songs as visitors mill around, perusing the art.
It’s all a bit much, and growing feelings of fatigue are only increased by the cramped layout and rising temperature. Appropriately enough given the astonishing decor of the baths building, which feels like something plucked out of a Victorian fever dream, the atmosphere is beginning to resemble that of a sauna.
What’s on display here is mixed – much of it involves minimal displays of painted works that, while occasionally eye-catching, are rather sparse.
Among the white-painted artificial walls, I discover a curious monkey-themed installation, ‘The Journey To The West’ by Chu ChunTeng. Its carefully-arranged collection of curios, centred around a television screen on which a clockwork monkey repeatedly clashes together a tiny pair of cymbals, is more than a little hypnotic.
Some works, however, seem less successful. One features a series of paintings in which the World Trade Center towers are juxtaposed on a series of different cities, each painted in a different style. While the execution is skillful and witty, the concept feels somewhat trite – though perhaps it’s just the effect of the socialist singalong taking place across the room.
Ultimately, the show is a mixed bag. Some pieces suffer from the frustrating whiff of pretension so loathed by critics of Goldsmiths art. But its strongest works are mysterious and enigmatic, combining exciting visual experiences with subtle and thought-provoking themes.
The exhibition is open 9–12 July from 10am– 7pm, except Sun: 12– 4pm
To see the catalogue online, visit http://www.goldsmiths2010.com/