Britart's new wave: Who are the successors to Hirst and Emin?

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London's prestigious art-college degree shows are where the gallery stars of the future are often born. Laura McLean-Ferris tours this summer's final exhibitions in search of the next generation

Full of tension, ambition, sureness and uncertainty, the annual postgraduate art-degree shows are a chance to take a look at how an upcoming generation of artists sees our fast-changing world. Among the families and fellow students visiting the shows are always a number of collectors (despite his dwindling influence, the name of Charles Saatchi is still whispered in the corridors, with "who has he bought?") and talent-spotting gallerists. There have been better times to be graduating. A conservative, shakily recovering art market, diminished public-sector finances and even the Olympics, which will likely see many gallery shows by well-established names, spell a difficult few years after graduating for many of those leaving college this year.

The summer shows, however, throw up particular trends and generational concerns as well as new artists. I visited four of the capital's top colleges in search of London's artistic future. "Information is power!" a girl, dressed in a masculine suit, hair slicked back, boomed as she stalked the exhibition space at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in Battersea; as well as: "I have a burning mission!" These and 19 other soundbites are the words of David Cameron, given to performers taking the role of the Prime Minister to deliver around this year's MA show.

The RCA exhibition was, typically, an experimental affair – many of the students presented work that was attention seeking, heavy on narrative and original in execution. Noisy too, with several sculptural contraptions that were based around sound and music: Simon Schäfer's works, for example, made from outdated technologies and machines. Adapted IBM Thinkpads and computer keys spinning in washing machines joined the artist's performances made from old computers, instruments and mixers bodged together in an improvised fashion. There were quieter works too: Freya Wright's paintings taken from cinematic screenshots had a desolate, Hitchcock-ian atmosphere: women sunbathing on muted screens in a sunny filmic nowhere-land, while Dolores de Sade's zinc etchings saw crumbling towers and the back ends of horses leaping off paper, as though they might be meant to accompany some fragmentary type of occult 19th-century poetry.

While there was no David Cameron stalking the halls at Goldsmiths in New Cross, he might as well have been. At no other college was the "big society" more referenced. The college's central position in the anti-cuts marches of the past year, and the demonstrations against tuition fees (and several occupations of the college by students), meant many students addressed the political climate. There were videos of demonstrations, and a work by Tom Crawford in which he replaced an old, worn-down Haringey park bench with a new one, onto which he had attached a plaque reading: "There is no such thing as the big society".

Overall, however, Goldsmiths, the college famed for fostering the YBAs, didn't put on a wonderful show this year: it's tough to turn an absolutely current political issue, one that hasn't even played out yet, into a strong work of art.

The persuasive film and sound-works of Patrick Goddard stood out here, one of which smashed together the Lord of the Rings film score with old BBC News themes, as did a taught installation by Alex Lawler, which brought together coffee tables, fine-art prints, old cigarette advertisements and interior furnishings, exploring the personal, sensual, aspects to austere minimalist art.

The Slade put on perhaps the most traditional art exhibition this year: Elaine Mullings's large installation of several shattered car-windscreens seemed to drape prettily over a huge frame-like washing hung up to dry, in a mix of macho violence and decorative appeal. This sculpture shared a space with the cloudy landscape paintings of Ernesto Canovas that the artist makes by applying paint and resin on top of found photographic imagery of landscapes and explosions.

Jeremy Hutchinson asked manufacturers all over the world to create deliberately faulty goods, which he displayed alongside emails detailing his difficulty in getting such faults through customs. Twitter and Facebook made their appearances several times too, most notably in the work of Princess Belsize Dollar, the alter ego of Helen Benigson, who printed out the Twitter feed of her fantasy LA rap-star character on a large roll of paper.

The most formally refined degree show was at the Royal Academy Schools, where there were only 16 artists on view, each of whom was given an exhibition space to themselves.

The traditional media of painting and sculpture dominated here, seen in the works of Nicholas Hatfull, who mixed imagery of old telephones, wine glasses and restaurant menus in his sparse paintings, and Sara Knowland, who upholstered brown, ribbed, furnishing fabrics on boards and hung them next to her pulsing paintings of faintly glowing colour. Amy McDonough filmed characters singing and telling modern stories of death and sorrow as though they were old Northumberland sea shanties. Sad, threatening and darkly comic, these tales, clawed from contemporary culture, seemed to have been beamed from a creepy British television station from some kind of alternative present.

It's rather difficult to spot future movements among such a large group of young and emerging artists, partly due to the fact that artistic groups, styles and movements, such as the YBAs of the early 1990s – still Britain's most significant international contribution to contemporary art in recent memory – rely on the self-organisation and co-operation of the students as much as they rely on the patronage of a collector or the support of curators. That said, certain tendencies do make themselves apparent as one tours these exhibitions.

While the YBAs' collective shadow still does hang over London somewhat, the last decade has consolidated backlashes against such bombast, and produced movements away from those artists and their "bold-as-brass" attitudes, their shocks and sensationalism, towards quieter, conceptual, uncertain forms of art, with focuses on hybrid forms and potted histories rather than the sharpened big statements that came from Hirst et al (one might look to the recent British Art Show, for examples of more tentative, unresolved recent artistic inclinations).

This is in part, perhaps unsurprisingly, an effect of the internet. If you want shocks, if you want to see a disturbing image of a gunshot wound, a pornographic film, or strange animals or machines, they are there at the click of a button. McDonough's rescuing of a news story or Goddard's wresting of outdated BBC News intro themes, as well as Schäfer's cobbling together of old musical instruments, are indicative of the artistic processes of this generation, of rescuing stuff from the overwhelming swamp of images and information and putting it to distinct, different uses. This is the cut-and-paste/Wikipedia generation who have grown up with rapid changes in technology that have developed as they have grown older.

Artists seem to be in the business of pulling images, objects and processes, either saving them from a sea of obsolescence or ensuring that they aren't lost in the flood. Old books and screen-printing techniques are revived, alongside dated Casio keyboards, archive footage and sound, and made to tell us something about our contemporary world. An emphasis on traditional sculptural materials (plaster, porcelain, clay, steel) may be evidence of a desire for physical experience now that so much of our lives are lived online.

Many of the works are loaded with references: Soviet design, Minimalist sculpture and the 1980s being major points of departure for many artists today. While artists often become fascinated with the time that they grew up in, there's still a very tangible sense that many of today's young artists are in the business of cobbling together histories, materials and images in order to understand what has happened in the past. They have grown up in a moment analogous to the huge cultural shifts that happened in the 1950s and 1960s in mass media (which explains the popular fascination with watching people going through these changes in television series such as Mad Men and The Hour).

Will these young artists then, pull things from physical and digital rubble to tell us something more, about where we are today? Perhaps some of them will.

TEN TO WATCH

Rose O'Gallivan

RCA

O'Gallivan, a print-making student, works in a place in which fabric, sculpture, print and paper meet. Her work includes a large sheet of purple iridescent paper that has been folded into a grid formation, then unfolded; the lines, cracks and breaks now visible as sculptural cuts and bends. Her screen-prints include imagery of fabrics draping and covering, sometimes doubled up. One beautifully tinted image of a pinned-up fabric sheet is pinned up on a bigger image of the same pinned-up sheet, pinned to the wall, leaving you wanting to peel back the layers.

Yelena Popova

RCA

A Russian-born artist, Yelena Popova created an installation of paintings at the RCA. Each painting, featuring thinly painted abstract shapes in pale colour on linen, was installed so that the paintings were propped up on objects at odd angles, making them appear like an interconnected, precarious system. Popova's film, 'Nameless', about a secret town in Russia, is a disturbing exploration of secrecy, nuclear disaster and nationalism, and the relationship between radioactivity and knowledge, in a movie full of frightening and memorable imagery. Popova can be seen in New Contemporaries 2011, which launches in Sheffield later this year.

Faye Nicolson

RCA

Nicolson digitally printed thin lines of school graph paper overlaid with bright, painterly geometric shapes onto fragile silk in 'We Exist! We Have the Will! We Are Producing!' for her final show at the RCA. There's a pedagogical sense to Nicolson's work, evidenced by a stake of prints titled 'A is for Albers (divided stack)', referring to the artist and Black Mountain College teacher, that is cut in two by a piece of Perspex – one half remains inaccessible to us. Catch her in group show KnowHow! at Campbell Works in North London.

Helen Benigson

Slade

The world of ugly pink GIFs, Twitter profiles, aspirational feminine imagery and over-saturated colours and patterns are put together in a fantasy mash-up by Benigson's alter ego Princess Belsize Dollar in her performances, her online identity, her films and installations. Like a Pipilotti Rist for a harder, more media-savvy generation au fait with 'The Hills' and the Kardashians, Benigson's dreamy films blend together Cheryl Cole songs, religious buildings, plants and her own body. Benigson has an upcoming solo show at Rollo gallery later in the year.

Rowena Hughes

Slade

Hughes's screen-printed triangles and diamonds, like abstracted fluttering birds, or books flying through the air, are made on top of found black-and-white photographs and book pages. They create a swirling vortex of movement, bringing to life imagery deadened by time. Her geometric shapes are based on the Penrose tiling system explored by Roger Penrose in the 1970s, and Hughes uses them to highlighting the careful proportions of architectural imagery and the natural world. An image of a fox running overlaid with these shapes was a particular highlight of Hughes's show at the Slade. Hughes features in group show Wit, Fear and Sarcasm at FAS Contemporary from 10 August and has a solo show at Room gallery later in the year.

Tomas Downes

RA

Downes's elegant milled-steel sculptures look like they might be supremely elegant towel-racks or shelves: they are essentially neat frames that divide up a large section of rectangular wall-space into steel segments, some of which are pulled out from the wall at angles creating a somewhat confusing sense of the space. At the RA he exhibited several floor works too, which were slick, low, box structures that looked like they contained images of clay or mud. These could only be seen through tinted glass that, too, was divided up into segments. These were placed around the room, creating a chopping-up of the floor space that into a form of minimalist sculpture that was both expressionistic and clinical, dirty and clean. Downes can currently be seen in Glaze at Bischoff/Weiss gallery.

Amy McDonough

RA

McDonough's father found a story about a boy who was poisoned by anthrax hidden in a drum-skin in a newspaper, and the artist turned this story into a tragic narrative, told by an old woman with an accordion, sat on a beach, in a broad Northumbrian accent. McDonough's films have previously referenced the Chuckle Brothers, transforming the pair's ridiculous exchanges into a form of Beckett-ian profundity. In one film, shown in her Royal Academy final exhibition, fishermen force-feed disgusting goop to a strange figure on a boat.

Chooc Ly Tan

Goldsmiths

Chooc Ly Tan's final exhibition involved a number of sculptural installations that comprised bricks, spanners, glass tiles and slide projectors connected together with yarn as though it might be sightlines. These are elegant and visually interesting enough in themselves, but they are formed around an intriguing sci-fi narrative. Some nearby emails pinned to the wall, dated from the year 2165, claim to be from a researcher who is applying to a scientist for information about his 'Oublian Structure' made in 2142. Are those sculptures Oublian structures, then? Also part of the installation is a frenetic video about Oublism, narrated to a synthy set of pop beats, which appears to be a kind of Utopian scientific and revolutionary movement from the future.

Patrick Goddard

Goldsmiths

Goddard's minimally executed sound- and film-works are utterly engaging, often mixing personal narratives with the more persuasive elements of popular culture. In one of his installations, for example, two plain red screens are a backdrop for speakers that play out fragments of climactic music from the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, each of which then is blended seamlessly into a series of BBC News themes from recent history. In another film, 'White Tantrum', the artist shrieks out death-metal tracks as the lyrics appear in karaoke style on the bottom of the screen, while on the top of the screen a text appears that relates a story about the artist watching his eight-year old nephew in the garden. Despite the song's hyperbolic lyrics, the emotional punch of the film is the moment when he witnesses his nephew kill a blackbird.

Alex Lawler

Goldsmiths

Lawler's installation at Goldsmiths walked those very fine, and recently rather fashionable, lines between art and functionality, between a sculpture and a bookshelf or a coffee table, between design and art, and between an artwork and a poster. Lawler's sculptures and fabric paintings look like a fashionable home from the 1970s, but there are elements that spring out as particularly painterly or sensational: a projection, of obviously beautiful corals and crystals, or sets of fabrics made to resemble Abstract Expressionist paintings from the same period, as well as advertising prints for cigarettes, add some contextual, historical texture to his installations.

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