From 23 – 28th September 2022 the graduation show of students of the Royal College of Art in London, UK took place. RCA is one of the most well-known public research universities in the UK with its program devoted to arts & humanities, design, architecture, and communications. The university has a long list of graduates who after finishing their degrees became well-distinguished artists. Royal College of Art was also the birthplace where Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moor began The New Sculpture Movement which broke with tradition to introduce modernist forms of expression. Along with the tradition of openness and innovation RCA holds each year a graduation show of the degree programmes where students obtain a space to present their work. The show is open to the public and students have an opportunity to exhibit and discuss their works with the audience. In this GUP’s portfolio review, we will be taking a closer look at graduates from Master’s and Research programmes in the photography department – Lea Lerma, William Zou, and Benjamin Bird. In this year’s edition students explored topics such as cultural identity, queerness, politics, eroticism, materiality, care, and many more.
William Zou through his photography creates an archive, that is constantly revived. In this review, we focus on four works from his Soloquay project- Buttny, Clockwork Toy, Crucifixion, and Narcissus. Soloquay explores Zou’s memories to reconstruct queer narratives of his own family while at the same time gaining insight into the context of the Chinese queer community. Archival photography introduces the viewer to the life of his parents spent in Budapest as well as shows various celebratory moments of his childhood. Next to them in the project are portraits that might depict himself and a series of still lifes. In the final presentation, Zou juxtaposed still lifes with pictures depicting his family members. An image of a butterfly is displayed next to an image of a heteronormative couple who appears to question the norms expected by society. Another time, Narcissus for example is a self-portrait where the depicted figure might be Zou himself, yet the posture of the face in the self-portrait prevents the viewer from recognising the face. The fact that the figure does not show his face hints at the necessity of hiding one’s identity. An average viewer who is not familiar with Zou’s family history can only guess the relations behind the works. Simultaneously this openness in interpretation can be read as a starting point to a discussion on the in/visibility of queer identities. Instead of explaining everything up front to the public, Zou rather aims to pinpoint the permeating presence of heteronormativity in our society.
The images from the graduation show position us out of the normative cultural ‘grid’ paradigm into which we were born. A paradigm that demarcates who we are and can be based on solely male or female gender. The lack of fixed meanings in Zou’s work creates new possibilities. Zou uses the medium and the installation space around it to visually remap the sphere of identity politics. This compilation creates a narrative that is made out of joy, pleasure, and beauty but also abandonment.
The attitude of construction appears as well in the works of the second graduate – Benjamin Bird. Bird approaches photography as a spatial medium by its frame to visually represent the boundaries of urban space. It can be in the form of a three-dimensional photography sculpture or an image. As the final effect Bird creates a hybrid installation whose metaphorical meaning is based on a dichotomy of stable versus uncertain. Installation medium resembles Bird’s leading theme in photography – architecture. Bird works intervene with the space of the city to question the meaning it embodies. For him, a photograph and a sculpture stand for “visualizing the new or unfinished building” as he adds, one which forms a counterpoint to commercial urban settings built by development agencies. The two projects shown give testimony to an emerging trend in photography graduates that the medium is becoming a form of craftsmanship rather than a mere depiction of reality. Hence, a photograph which is ‘traditionally’ a digital medium, changes its status into a three-dimensional tactile installation. Bird’s photographic “language of render” works with the texture of the building, showing us an unromantic vision of the future.
As a final project is The Super Star by Lea Lerma. Her graduation project captures the daily routines of a group of women who decided to live together when the pandemic started. This project is an intimate experience for both sides, as for two years Lerma shared their space and time observing them with her camera. She sees photography as a tool for diving into the common fast-paced tempo of everyday life by condensing the narrative into units such as time and montage. This focus gives her images a cinematic quality. Lerma set out to capture the in-between moments not leaving out intimate scenes, such as moments of waking up or sleeping. The Super Star amplifies a meditative approach to photography that implies an attitude of care both towards the models that she works with and simultaneously towards the story which she visually creates. Lerma’s photographs give attention to moments that we sometimes take for granted while protagonists are simply represented as their natural, authentic selves.
One could say that the three photographers apply three different views on capturing time – by remembering, rendering, or slowing down. William Zou uses photography to visually explore the past and the present. At the same time, Zou’s approach activates the notion of an archive by taking the images from the static context of family albums into a collective setting where his story can interact with the public. For Benjamin Bird, photography is meant to open up spaces rather than enclose the story within its frames. Finally, Lea Lerma’s standpoint takes control over time, by doing so it extends the way it is felt in the imagery, opening up the possibilities for a deeper sense of connection.
Mateo Ruiz González (b. 1989, Colombia) is a photographer and researcher based in New York. He is also the co-founder of Antics Publication, a publishing house focusing on inclusivity and the open photo...