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Review: SURGE, the 13th East Wing Biennial

Hiroki Ishikawa, Sediment of a Day, 2018. (Image courtesy of EWB)

For its thirteenth edition, SURGE, the East Wing Biennial has turned its focus not only to contemporary art but to the art of the future. Curated and organised by Courtauld students, this year’s exhibition brings together a number of emerging artists from across the capital.

Following the legacy of Joshua Compston, former Courtauld student and founder of the biennial, this year’s team of curators, led by Claire Ping and Aileen Dowling, have undertaken the task of installing works of contemporary artworks in the unconventional spaces offered by the Courtauld’s architecture. And, as ever, have sought to restore art to its “rightful place”, on the walls of the institute.

The artists that feature in the exhibition have been predominantly drawn from the big London schools, with students from the Royal College of Art dominating the line-up and the rest selected from the Slade, Central Saint Martins, Chelsea and Goldsmiths. Only one artist, Katie Bonner, currently studying at Ravensbourne, breaks the mould.

Perhaps it is because of this fact that the energy of the biennial’s title does not overwhelmingly translate into the works on show. For the most part, they are safely confined to the walls of the Courtauld’s seminar rooms and around the East Wing staircase—a space that is useful for the display of artworks, if a little sealed off from the daily workings of the institute. Only Robert O’Leary’s pair of red-stained concrete and steel sculptures break from the wall—although unfortunately the pair are displayed apart, an inferior arrangement compared to the depiction in the catalogue in which they are presented together.

Having said that, two pieces stand out from the rest and demonstrate the exciting potential that can be found in student work. The first is MA Fine Art student Hiroki Ishikawa’s Sediment of a Day (2018). The work is a triptych of newspapers that have been manipulated to reveal the layers of information contained within them. Through a process of warping and holing-through the surfaces of the objects, Ishikawa’s piece highlights the physicality of print media, reifying the depths of information that are rendered incomprehensible in digital forms.

Sijong Kim, Invasion, 2018. (Image courtesy of EWB)

The second is by Sijong Kim, currently studying for an MA in Sculpture at the Royal College of Art. Kim’s piece, Invasion (2018), is a collection of photographs displayed in a number of mismatching frames. On first impression, the photographs appear to simply be representations of South Korean men and women. However, quickly you recognise the familiar compositions, such as the famous image of Francis Bacon and William S. Burroughs by Harry Diamond, and realise the nature of the eponymous “invasion”— Kim superimposes his own face onto each portrait. Kim’s act of intervention into these historical images demonstrates a sophisticated strategy for negotiating self-identity—a challenge frequently tackled by artists in diaspora, oftentimes less eloquently than as by Kim.

When I heard the news last year that East Wing 13 was inviting student artists to exhibit I was hesitant, and instantly I assumed that this was an effort to make life easier for the curators—naturally, appealing to students thirsty for representation is less of a challenge than persuading established artists. However, despite the fact that many of the artworks fall into common contemporary tropes, and some simply offer decoration for the Courtauld’s walls, a few pieces demonstrate that just because artists are students, their conceptual and formal abilities are on par with the “professionals”.

Unlike last year, SURGE will only be on display for just over a month due to the Courtauld’s impending move from the East Wing of Somerset House to near King’s Cross. For some of the artists on show, though, hopefully, their “surge” will last for much longer.

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