(Images at the bottom of the text)
I remember secondary school with mixed feelings. I was an okay student but by the time I was 16 I was ready to leave. I flunked my A’Levels with two E’s and a B in art. I didn’t even finish my physics A’Level. I got more from reading the NME than paying attention during class. I’ve always been a terrible day dreamer and I couldn’t wait to get to art school where my experience of education suddenly alighted. Fettes College is nothing like the school I went to. Established in 1870, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, it’s a private boarding school and name checked in numerous books and films. Ian Fleming made it the school that a young James Bond attended after he got kicked out of Eton. Tony Blair spent his formative years here. There is a picture of an adolescent and awkward Blair, looking like the bassist in in dodgy prog rock band standing on the lawn outside.
The artist Thomas Whittle is currently undertaking a year long residency at Fettes and has collaborated with the Viennese gallery Mauve to stage an exhibition across the college. From technician’s pockets to teacher’s neck ties, corridors to classrooms and libraries, the exhibition fits into the nooks and crannies of the grand institution. The artists have had obvious fun with the unique invitation. My afternoon, spent with Whittle as host, counts as one of the more surreal experiences I’ve had while looking at art. It’s not often you get fish and chips and home-made ice cream for lunch while visiting an exhibition.
The work in The Eventuality Dispenser encompasses largely figurative painting, collage, drawing, sculpture and video. There’s a lot of dissolute paintings populated by inscrutable figures. Aubrey Beardsley, Odilon Redon and James Ensor are frequent touchstones. A Fin de siècle and symbolist quality permeates much of the work. Katharina Höglinger’s hand drawn t-shirts and shirts provide an alternative uniform for staff and students. Bernhard Rappold’s Shrink Head Amazone, 2017, installed in an English class room, dominates its context. A psychedelic goddess with multiple breasts and elongated limbs fills the canvas. Are we looking at some kind of deity, or figment of the artist’s ribald imagination? The painting is painted loosely with the bright pigment stained into the canvas. The juxtaposition between the painting’s hedonism and the discipline of the school environment feels stark.
Lukas Thaler plaster heads greet visitors in the foyer. Nestled amongst notable alumni, their featureless faces, complete with only a wonky nose and fake flames billowing from the top, seem like comic side-kicks to the bronze protagonists on display nearby. Continuing the theme of oblique satire, Stefan Fuchs’ Real to the Touch, 2018, is installed opposite a portrait of the school’s founder. The work recalls Franz Erhard Walther’s folded fabric works, over-painted with the simple outlines of bulbous forms that recall breasts and bums. It’s a common theme through much of the work; the body is highly stylised and malleable, evoked rather than explicated.
Outside on the college lawn, Paulina Semkowicz and Myles Starr have placed empty laundry bags that billow in the wind and stand out like a persistent pimple against the grand Scottish Baronial architecture. Anastasia Jermolaewa’s large pieces of shaped soap have been placed in bathroom sinks across the college. Whittle takes me to one of the bathrooms but the soap missing. We wonder whether a student has nabbed it as a memento. Like the billowing bags outside, there is a lightness to the work, of being too big or too small, wonky and ill-fitting.
Lisa Slawitz’s Six Drawings for Fettes, 2018, are dotted around on notice boards in the corridors. Under a sign that says ‘examinations’ is a drawing of a figure struggling with an exercise ball. Slawitz’s drawings would probably fail a GCSE art class — which, I’m guessing, is half of the point. Drawings of crappy swans and wonky hands poke fun at school system that is built around promoting a particular form of success. The drawings fail at being good, but are great at being bad.
The Eventuality Dispenser presents art as a series of unanswerable questions in an institution where students may feel like they need to know the answers. The exhibition foregrounds errancy, queerness and failure, slowing down and distorting the pedagogy that provides the physical and conceptual framework. Decadent characters and dumb gestures. The show is full of disobedient bodies that valorise inefficiency. Taken collectively, the exhibition suggests that there is a certain pleasure derived from getting lost. Can art help us to tear up the roadmap? Of course, it’s only when we’re really lost do we ever start to learn anything. To paraphrase Rebecca Solnit, “it’s the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, to work with what is unknown and unfamiliar.” Can students start to lead us the way? Imagine where we’d end up if we put artists in charge of schools? Or students in charge of artists? I wonder what the teachers and parents make of it all.