Art preview: GSA Degree Show and Phoenix Bursaries, Glasgow School of Art
Undergraduate Fine Art students whose work was destroyed in the blaze to feature in special exhibition
‘I was in the building when the fire happened, but I didn’t hang about for long.’ Artist Frank McElhinney wryly remembers the day last May when Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building was engulfed by flames. In some ways he was lucky, because much of the photography and film work he’d gathered for a Graduate Show piece on Bannockburn’s 700th anniversary that summer was saved elsewhere. Tess Vaughan, however, was hit much harder: ‘I lost all of the work, lots of equipment, a TV monitor, everything.’
They and the other near-100 frustrated Undergraduate Fine Art students whose work was destroyed were pitied in the days which followed, prompting the Scottish government and private donors to act quickly in establishing the Phoenix Bursary scheme. These gave those involved an extra 15 weeks of creative space later in the year to make new work. ‘I think the fact the government moved so quickly, within a week or so, was impressive,’ says Sam De Santis, coordinator of the Phoenix Bursary project, which resulted in new studio space being set up in the Whisky Bond and students using the money to continue their work abroad.
‘It was a way of trying to keep the momentum going from the build-up to their degree show,’ says De Santis. ‘We had 46 students in Glasgow, while the rest of the 100 went around the world to places like New York, Zurich, Berlin and elsewhere in the UK, even in the Mongolian State School of Art and Culture. Institutions around the world opened their doors to the students and gave them studio space and teaching support; they knew what had happened and were keen to help. As a student at GSA you always hear how high a regard the place is held in internationally, but this was an acid test. It’s testament to Glasgow’s position that they agreed.’
While many of those involved chose to recreate their degree show work as best they could, others moved on to other projects. ‘I still had the work, but the Bannockburn anniversary had passed so there didn’t seem much point,’ said McElhinney. Instead, he responded to the Scottish independence referendum result with another piece about national identity, placing 45 pinhole cameras homemade from crisp tubes around Scotland’s largest towns to create images of them.
Vaughan, whose original show blended elements of sculpture and dance, also came up with new work. ‘The really difficult thing for anyone coming out of art school is to keep that momentum going,’ she says. ‘You’ve done so much work and you understand your practice better than ever, then you have to do low-paid work or work for free to get on the latter. For all of us, the Phoenix Bursaries were an amazing opportunity to take some time and breathing space to set ourselves up professionally.’
The works which will be exhibited in the show are being decided upon at the moment, and of course the Art School has two regularly-scheduled degree shows to get through first. ‘Life goes on, you have to get back to business as usual,’ says Mick McGraw, programme leader of this year’s MFA show at the Tontine Building just off Argyle Street. ‘Bar the difference in location, which is a bigger building than the Mackintosh, there shouldn’t be too many differences for the students.’
‘If the show is a success, then it becomes meaningful,’ says McElhinney on his hopes for this show. ‘As an artist you create things, that’s what you’re about. Being connected to that difficult and tragic event isn’t really how you want to see yourself contributing to the cultural history of your country. You want to make a positive contribution by creating something meaningful and memorable.’
The Glasgow School of Art Degree Show runs from Sat 13–Sat 20 Jun; the school’s MFA Degree Show runs from Thu 11–Sat 20 Jun; the Phoenix Bursaries exhibition runs from Fri 24 Jul–Sun 2 Aug