Special At Enjoy. First Year Show
Intrepidly, I started art school just after I turned eighteen. I had moved to a big city in which I knew no one. Still, I was as much excited as I was frightened at being alone: I had romantic notions of spending all my waking hours slaving away at an easel, becoming an alcoholic in a dark garret, growing old, growing thin, being poisoned by paint fumes, dying young. That, or all day taking hallucinogens and looking at the afternoon sun through the trees and shafts of light breaking through the clouds. Just by being there I dreamed I would become a different person: great, or at the very least tragic. This is the view Colin McCahon looked out at, I would say.
Instead I found myself slap-bang in the middle of what I wanted to avoid: mediocrity. Discovering that there were seventy nine other students who had exactly the same dreams was deflating, not comforting or inspiring. I soon discovered our studios were neither new enough nor decrepit enough. They were cheap and industrial but not artfully dilapidated. New to be owned by the art school, they didn’t have illustrious ghosts. From the rooftop though, where we had weekly drinks, vegetarian barbeques and early morning sketching classes, if you squinted, the silhouetted skyline could maybe almost be New York, or what I imagined New York to be.
I remember one of the first assignments we were given. The brief required that we make a work examining our identity. Art to most of us was about symbols and every thing meant something else. We had to take a pragmatic approach; we had tables to work at and so a lot of our work was table-scaled, hand-sized, portable objects. I didn’t have the material staples which come with living at home; the jam jars for washing brushes, holey tea towels to use as rags, the bundles of newspaper, worn toothbrushes and old cutlery. Everything I used I had to buy new and seemed weirdly synthetic.
For my work I photocopied and enlarged my hands to about ten times their size. I traced Wellington street maps on to them so they looked like abstracted veins. I backed them onto corrugated cardboard and glue-gunned them to bent metal coat hangers. Using clay and papier-maché I made a huge coffee cup for my hands to hold, and suspended it from the ceiling with fishing line. The inside of the cup was painted red, like blood pooling inside from my road map veins. Like many other student’s work, it was quickly, roughly made, was cringingly clichéd and was a sculpture that only looked good from the front. I’m not really sure now what this work had to do with ‘my identity’, but there was something charming about its ridiculousness and brave in its stupidity.
I think I destroyed most of my first year work at the end of the year, saving myself from ever having to look at it again. The first year of art school was like a rite of passage, of being disappointed and becoming more realistic. But some of the most successful graduates since managed to keep their enthusiasm and romance towards art making alive, and when I think back I feel happy and homesick.