Talented artists or just con artists?

May 29, 1998

Was the recent Spanish holiday hoax by Leeds University art students performance art or just a stunt? Alison Utley reports

Leeds University's fine art department could not believe its luck last week. After all, it was Andy Warhol who reminded a media-shy world in the 1960s that any publicity is good publicity. Those university officials seeking to damp down the journalistic frenzy surrounding 13 third-year art students who arguably pulled off the biggest Fleet Street hoax this decade were clearly not in on the joke. But was it any more than that, a well performed and amusing stunt? Or have the students succeeded, as has been claimed, in raising fundamental questions about the nature of truth and art?

The story so far: a group of fine art students raise a grant of Pounds 1,000 from their students' union plus hundreds of pounds in private sponsorship to supposedly back an artistic expedition to Spain. Prominent stories appear in several national newspapers, complete with "incriminating" photographs, berating the students for wasting taxpayers' money by doing little more than lounging around a pool and sampling the nightlife of Estepona. On their return, instead of the expected exhibition of their work, 60 invited guests, including senior university academics, are first shown an empty exhibition space then bussed out to Leeds Airport to witness the suntanned students coming off their plane. Instead of the anticipated artistic offerings, the audience is asked to judge the event - the holiday - as art.

In fact the students did not go to Spain. They posed for the photos, which were sent to the press, on a beach in Scarborough and at a private pool in Leeds, facts they gleefully announced to vexed and humiliated journalists 24 hours later. They even hired a sunbed for added authenticity. The grant money was not used. It is still sitting in a bank account gathering interest.

Ken Hay, head of Leeds University fine art department (who was hoodwinked along with everyone else), was last week enthusiastic about the "simulation''. "This is performance art in the best possible tradition. It is an attempt to out-sensationalise sensation. The students have taken on board difficult questions about what is truth in art. We have always encouraged them to problem-solve, think laterally and question what they are doing. If they had produced chocolate-box images would anyone have noticed?'' The press, Hay says, are so plodding about art, and never more so if they perceive it to be a waste of public money.

Third-year tutor Terry Atkinson is also backing his group to the hilt. "Intellectually this is a very good runner. It raises questions about what can be used for art, about the lack of tight boundaries between objects and process, about the media feeding on itself and about the assessment of work produced by 13 people.'' But this enthusiasm is not shared by academics in other universities. According to Nigel Whiteley, head of the art department at Lancaster University, the points made by Hay and Atkinson do not disguise the shallowness of what the students have achieved and the unpleasantness that has been caused. "People will always feel resentful when they have been duped and to claim this sort of exercise raises fundamental questions about art is really too easy. I could place a turd on a podium in a gallery and claim that raises questions about art. But the event in neither case is intrinsically interesting. All this tells us is something about the way art and the media rely on each other. It does not further the debate about the nature of art which, anyway, is a dead issue.'' The question we should really be asking, says Whiteley, is whether the experience is useful or whether it has resonance. After all, it is not the first such hoax in recent months. Already we have seen William Boyd stage a deception with his biography of fictitious artist Nat Tate and Staffordshire University lecturer Paul Rooney stage an exhibition of works by fictitious painter Gary Richer along with a fake suicide note. "This (kind of event) will quickly reach its sell-by date,'' Whiteley predicts. "There is nothing new about event as art. The difficulty is that we can no longer be shocked today by shock tactics."

But after all the pontificating about what the event means, the real question for many academics is: how do you mark an art work where there is no tangible material to examine? Hay acknowledges the dichotomy between his department's philosophical approach to teaching art and the need for academic assessment. But, he says, there is no reason why the criteria for usual work should conform to those for written pieces - even if the disparity makes it difficult for a university to work with an art department. John Stezaker, an artist and senior tutor at London's Royal College of Art, agrees. "The nature of fine art education has changed dramatically over recent years. Many more theories are now circulating. This work is an imaginary voyage and a response to contemporary ideas that have a theoretical grounding.'' He thinks all 13 students ought to be awarded a first.

"Rather than posing the tabloid question of whether it is art, the students have raised the question of whether it is interesting art,'' he added. "And the answer is yes.'' Ironically, he adds, at the RCA, students are moving in an opposite direction. "This sort of young British conceptualism is on the wane in favour of a return to painting, sculpture, print - essentially image-based work with a real sense of enchanted involvement with the image."

What are the theoretical ideas behind the Leeds art students' work? According to John Crossley, one of the students involved, in staging the deception they were playing with the viewer's expectations in a tradition that goes back to the early 20th-century artist Marcel Duchamp and the surrealists. Duchamp proclaimed himself more interested in ideas than the final product. In 1917 he took a urinal, signed it "R. Mutt'' and entered it as a piece of sculpture titled Fountain for an exhibition in New York. Art was perhaps never the same again.

But David Reason, a senior lecturer at Kent University's school of arts and image studies, draws a distinction between the Leeds work and that of Duchamp. "For Duchamp there has to be equivocation, the sincerity of the artist is always in doubt and never resolved. We tolerate uncertainty. In this work the students have refused equivocation and they are saying instead, no, we lie.'' It will confirm society's image of artists. "This really shows up that artists are untrustworthy, immoral and malicious and can abuse the possibilities offered to them.'' For Ken Hay though, all art is a deception, an illusion of representation, while John Crossley points out that in fact their deception was pretty thin. The students were seen in Leeds during the supposed holiday despite elaborate disguises. The photographs issued to the media contained tell-tale signs. The students were surprised when some members of the press reacted with fury at being so successfully taken for a ride. "Journalists are lied to all the time by politicians,'' he said. "You'd think they'd be used to it".

Art has had a century of trying to do something new. By the 1960s the terrain was diminishing. Today's students cannot dissect sheep and claim to be original, so they have moved on to a different level of illusion. But the question must remain: is it art? "We are not interested in hard and fast categories,'' Hay says. "Postmodernism makes us aware that everything is relative. It may be art today. It may not be tomorrow."

THE ART STUDENT'S VIEW

One of the Leeds art students, John Crossley says their work cannot be described as outrageous when judged alongside dissected sheep, dead cows and mutilated human bodies, all of which have recently been in vogue. The point was not to shock, rather the idea grew up around concerns about the "eternal conundrum" of the art student. The only real shock was the extent of media interest.

"This [Leeds] art course is a very loose one with no real criteria. That's its strength. The tutors don't tell you what to do but they still assess your practical product and in a way this has immobilised us into producing nothing. We knew what the reaction would be. We relished the thought that people would call us lazy and question whether this is art. But we have resisted producing a commodity."

In fact the students have not produced anything tangible that could be bought or exhibited although they did fake postcards, air tickets, Polaroid beach snaps and a video. "People are trying to latch on to these now but the art is in people's minds. The event existed but it has been and gone," Crossley says.

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