The NGV’s Top Arts exhibition is always a great celebration of the output of Victoria’s secondary college students.
Still I fret a little for the students put under pressure to produce a folio and a body of work under such constraints and at a time in their lives which is anything but straightforward.
The challenge is that students are not working through the technical and theoretical aspects of art alone to produce a VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education) folio. They are expected to ‘dig deep’ to produce works which are an expose of themselves in a way no other VCE subject matter is.
For almost every other VCE subject the student produces a bundle of coursework and then heads into an exam room, commits herself to paper and the consequences are soon forgotten. For music there is a performance element but this is generally with a small and supportive audience from my experience (although some schools may turn it into something grander.)
But an art work, if plucked for selection and exhibition for Top Arts, can develop a life of its own. One work in the exhibition was actually a disturbingly graphic representation of a student’s life and her underlying stresses. Whether it was truly autobiographical or a ‘typified’ reflection of aspects we associate with the modern teenager’s lot – sex, rejection, alcohol, drugs, binge eating and self-harm – we were left as the viewer to digest whether art classes or a few sessions with a psychologist would have been a better option (and as a mother of two daughters I’m not being trivial).
I thought the work by Prudence Coburn from Geelong Grammar, which was awarded the ‘top prize’ by the exhibition sponsors, was an amazing and striking piece – reminding me of Ai Wei Wei’s or Andrew Goldsworthy’s sculptural works.
However the worry I have is that these student works are also now subjected to being awarded prizes rather than the exhibition simply being an opportunity to showcase examples of work from the Victorian student body. The idea of competitive prizes seems unnecessary for what is after all an educational journey for which the prize, for most students and their families at least, is survival and a return to sanity.
Also, in some cases, the cost of production of the works must be exceptionally high – the high quality panoramic photographs are truly gallery worthy but ‘whoa’ – I can see many parents walking past and dissuading their child from ever picking up a camera.
In some cases, I fear, going beyond the ‘showcase’ may also play into the competitive nature of some schools – and I’m sorry to say city and private school students are highly represented in the exhibition – which possibly says that a lot of young emerging artists from rural and low socio-economic backgrounds don’t make the cut.
Is there a risk that raising VCE art to such accolades could put art students and their teachers in the insidious position of being pushed each year to ‘win’ or at least secure a Top Arts place, thus providing some schools with yet another advertising angle to aspiring parents?
Is this unfounded?
I once sat through an awards evening in my daughter’s school in the UK where five GCSE students were granted National Art prizes. When the girls stepped up to collect their awards they didn’t strike me as the confident, capable students who would be able to make this achievement. (The probability of having five students in one school also seemed strange.) In fact my daughter had stopped taking art as she said the teacher would often take over and complete much of (his) students’ work while the students sat around chatting.
At another school where my husband taught I was amazed at the quality and consistency of the student art displayed around the school. The fact was the art teacher was doing most of it.
While I’m sure this doesn’t happen in VCE – the folio the student produces has to be a testament to the personal development and intent of the work – the level of polish in some of the works on exhibition in Top Arts means either some schools or parents are putting up a lot for art materials and its production or the guiding hand of the teacher is more firm than perhaps it should be.
Despite my niggling concerns there is so much to enjoy in the exhibition, including those works that confront challenging personal or public issues such as homelessness and war. Also I should allow that the students of today are worldly and mature beyond their years so their pursuit of ideas and will of expression shouldn’t be surprising to anyone.
I especially loved this work by Mahalia Kluwer from Kew High School which says so much about the world – with Paris Hilton as the Madonna – but most particularly because it says that don’t have to take yourself too seriously to be an artist. There is also something wonderfully ‘hand wrought’ about the piece that makes it authentic for me.
Another work that resonated with me because of a link it made with my own experience was ‘Seven Hours Apart’ by Sophie Anstis from Damascus College Ballarat, showing two images of comparable lives in Australia and Indonesia. To me her images show real maturity in the composition and some great skill in getting her models and locations just right. Once again Sophie’s work speaks for itself as a highly original and well realised concept – (but then the cost of airfares might be another cause for concern!)
Perhaps we should ask the VCE Gods to put a cap on the cost of production of art works in VCE and level the playing field a little.
I’m sure as these students go down their various paths, some may come to that point of re-learning that art is life and life is art.
For all of them I hope that, with the pressure of VCE now over, they can pursue their next 20 years as apprentices of their art in whatever form that takes.
Images of Ai Wei Wei’s work Pillar Through a Round Table from ArtBlart’s site by Dr Marcus Bunyan which includes great information on the NGV exhibition held earlier this year.
Andy Goldsworthy, Layered Land from the Tate and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park