Arts: It's Show Time

If you want to see what the leading painters, sculptors and designers of the future are doing now, head off down to the Royal College of Art 1999 degree exhibition.
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The Independent Culture
Roll up! Roll up! On Wednesday the Big Top opened its doors with a fanfare. "The Show" they're calling it this year, a title that suggests Barnum & Bailey, or a supermodel so famous that she is known only by her first name. If such branding of its final degree exhibition smacks of the grandstand, the Royal College of Art is entitled to a little immodesty. As the world's only entirely postgraduate university of art and design it routinely attracts top students from all over the world - and charges them top prices for a reputation which guarantees that the overwhelming majority of its graduates will go on to work in their chosen fields at a level that reflects their skills and experience.

Some of them, of course, fall through the employment net. Poor Ridley Scott, though he graduated from the Royal College in 1961 with a degree in graphic design had to settle for Hollywood. But James Dyson (interior design, 1970) didn't find himself in a vacuum; he developed the celebrated Dyson Dual Cyclone. Peter Cattaneo graduated from Film School to direct a gaggle of naked men in the hit film The Full Monty, and Chris Ofili's painting degree led to his winning the Turner prize last year for his elephant dung pictures. But then the Royal College has always been famous for fertilising ideas.

Britain still isn't good at blowing its own trumpet, so I'll add a blast from my horn. My view is that the RCA could call this "The Show of Shows" and get away with it. Admittedly, I'm partisan. Without the RCA stamp on my CV I would not have bagged the design job at BBC Television Centre, which led to 10 years of writing and illustrating my own food and travel books, which in turn led to a nine-year stint as a broadcaster for BBC Radio, which led to my novel about art forgery and the Indian cinema, which led to a film contract with Warner Brothers this month.

In fact, without the Royal College of Art, I would not even be in London. Twenty-six years ago, quite by accident, I visited the college's 1973 final degree show and the spectacle so dazzled me that I returned home to Canada, exchanged university for art school and determined to return to London one day to enter that magic circle.

You could say that I ran away to join the circus, because the RCA's degree show always has a full contingent of clowns, freaks, sleight-of-hand tricksters and dizzying high-wire acts, plus a high quotient of showmanship. Hocus pocus, hey presto! This year's show features such baroque curiosities as a personal alarm bra, a photographer who courts controversy with her images of Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Fayed lookalikes (complete with coffee-coloured offspring) and a virtual-reality car that opens before your eyes to take you on a guided tour of its interior.

There are a lot of firsts in 1999. For the first time, the shows will have a late night, with music and bar (and barbecue, in the case of the Sculpture Battersea School) until midnight. For the first time in five years, the fashion show will be held at the Kensington Gore site. And it's the first graduating fashion show under the auspices of Wendy Dagworthy, following her recent departure from Central St Martin's. All this, and it's free.

A carnival huckster's attitude to overt self-promotion is one reproach often levelled at RCA graduates. "But why shouldn't artists have some power?" asks Simeon Banner, a painting graduate who worked in an office before entering the college. "At the end of the 20th century, with all the technology we have around now, you have to be pretty strong - or pretty crazy - to be still doing what the cavemen did thousands of years ago. The thought fills me with a deep sense of absurdity." His only criticism of fellow students is that some of their work lacks context. "It's just performance for performance's sake."

Have pity on these circus performers, though. The pressure building up to the final degree show is so enormous that you have to be a little cocky to survive. As one young graduate confesses worriedly, "What am I going to do after the show? Every day here I felt guilty that I wasn't making full use of the facilities and the contacts. I'd think: `Oh my God, I haven't visited the video suite today!' Where do I go from here? I don't have a studio but I guess I could paint in my room - my paintings are small enough."

Not so the canvases of Esther Martins Moreira. If Gabriel Garca Mrquez were a painter, he would probably produce these haunting images of spiritual metamorphosis, in exactly these Amazon greens and desert golds. A Brazilian psychology graduate, who has turned her passion for myths and storytelling into paint, on exam day Moreira looks as anxious as her subject matter. "I would love to do my PhD here," she says, "but it all depends on funding." She pays pounds 15,000 a year as an overseas student, so it's worth remembering that if you buy one of her pounds 1,500 canvases at the show, that money goes directly to her, without the additional 60 per cent a gallery would charge.

This is, after all, a selling exhibition. Over the next five weeks, 6,000 exhibits will go on sale from the 17 degree courses. If you like it - from Olivia Low's lush, organic odes to the colour green to Hiroshi Susuki's profoundly beautiful bowl that resembles a Jurassic seedpod in patinated copper - buy it now; within a few years, prices will rocket. It's a sure thing that this year's graduates will soon be designing museums in Tokyo, cars in Turin, furniture in Milan, winning awards at the Cannes Film Festival and ruling over the Paris catwalks and the Venice Biennale. In other words, these are the stars who will produce the cultural icons of the future.

For proof, you need only consult a few of the Royal College's catalogues from previous years. How many other art schools can claim to have spawned the designer of an Indian capital city (Edwin Lutyens, architecture, 1887), the Habitat chicken brick (Martin Hunt, ceramics, 1967, current visiting professor), the new Ford Ka (Chris Svenssen, vehicle design, 1992), the new Mini, the new taxi, the cover of The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album (Peter Blake, painting, 1956)? Not to mention that the RCA nurtured the man who has done more for thick spectacles than Nana Mouskouri (David Hockney, painting, 1962).

Of course, in a college famous for encouraging ideas and a sense of fun, there's sure to be wit as well as controversy. While Angel Monzon has a witty flair for "artificial nature" - turning the table into a cross between a tree and a coat rack for the RCA ArtBar - Steve Bunn does an allegory of the vanitas of human life, with a skull using the medium of hundreds and thousands. Every year, someone at the RCA does innards, pubic hair or penises; this year you can choose between Justine Cawsey's naked midgets (stoneware skin, real hair) and Annie Cattrell's exquisite blown-glass heart and lungs.

The textile students always produce a memorable show (it's coming up in June) that has been known to put the more hyped fashion graduates to shame. And anyone in the market for the next Barbara Hepworth (sculpture, 1924) should keep in mind that there is a real buzz in the air regarding this year's sculpture.

My only regret is that in 1978, at the end of my first year at the Royal College, I was too flat broke to finish the degree. When the college offered to pay half my fees if the Canadian government would put up the rest, Canada declined - unless I guaranteed to return home on completion of the MA programme. The Royal College's generosity encouraged me to switch national allegiances. It's got a lot to answer for.

See for yourself

"THE SHOW" is in two parts. Part One consists of fine and applied art: painting, photography, printmaking, ceramics and glass, gold- and silversmithing, at Kensington Gore, London SW7, 27 May-6 June,

10am-6pm daily. Late night 2 June. Sculpture is at the RCA Sculpture School, 15-25 Howie St, London SW11, open 10am-8pm weekdays, 10am-6pm weekends; Late night 1 June.

Part Two will include architecture and interiors, design, industrial design and furniture, vehicle design, fashion, textiles, animation, graphic design and illustration, at Kensington Gore, London SW11. 23 June-4 July (closed 2 July), open 10am-6pm daily. Late night 30 June.

Admission is free, except to the Fashion Show and Champagne Reception, 9 June, 3pm and 6.15pm, which is by ticket only. Contact Margaret Manley on 0171-590 4370