As a dead cow and its calf draw the crowds at the Turner Prize show, John Davies talks to this year's crop of art students to discover the sentiments behind the sensational.
As crowds flock to the Turner Prize exhibition at London's Tate Gallery to see Damien Hirst's sculpture of a dead cow and its calf and Mona Hatoum's video of her own insides, what is the next generation of artists, those soon to leave art school, producing? The student artists featured here are an arbitrary selection, but one thing is clear: there is no one kind of art that predominates. "We certainly don't have a house style here," says Michael Heindorff, senior tutor in painting at the Royal College of Art.
Of course conventional sculpture and painting are only small parts of what art is about these days, and today's students are just as likely to be working with video or sound or performance in environments outside galleries, as in a conventional studio. As Nicholas de Ville, head of visual arts at Goldsmiths College, puts it: "Image-making still underpins the experience of going to an art school, but it draws on a much wider view. Contemporary art is not medium-specific."
Joanna Greenhill, who runs the fine art MA course at Central St Martin's College of Art, sees "the area of ideas-based sculpture" (most prominent example, Damien Hirst) as having the highest profile. "But there's a tremendous breadth of practice among students," she says. "There is a lot of excitement about new technology. Many students are well versed in computer skills, and we have a computer workshop that we try to keep up to date."
So is fine art taught better in the United Kingdom than elsewhere? The RCA's Heindorff, who has experience of German and Italian art schools, thinks so. (About 25 per cent of fine art students at the RCA - which is a wholly postgraduate institution - are from abroad.) "British art education has an excellent reputation due to its tutorial care," he says. "There is greater personal contact here. The English way is the liberal way, to develop talents as you find them. We don't instruct. We might say 'If you want to paint this cloud in a very soft way, there's a better medium than the one you're using.' We give advice like that, but we are leading their thinking rather than directing ."
Colin Cina, dean of fine arts at Chelsea College of Arts, echoes this: "Students come to us because they recognise that we teach far more intensively than our mainland European partners do. However avant-gardist they may be, they're still locked into that older academic system that elevated the professor to a position where he or she didn't have to do very much except be there."
Of course London is not only one of the great art centres but also attracts foreign students for other reasons. "No youth culture in Europe has influenced others as much as the British," Heindorff says; students "choose the city not just the institution" when they come to the RCA. Not that the cultural climate is ideal, he adds: outside art school, "the British have a spirit of ignorant tolerance that makes art seem redundant."
Sheila Cluett, head of sculpture at Chelsea, agrees: "London is now an exciting place to be for a young artist" - though it is "quite perverse" that this excitement has coincided with the collapse of the art market. "But a lot of alternative spaces have opened up, and they have proved fertile ground."
However, Joanna Greenhill thinks that perhaps art colleges outside London are losing out. "A few years ago a whole lot of figurative painting came out of the Scottish schools, and that shifted things a bit. But since then there's been a kind of pull back to London. Which is very hard for students who aren't here ."
At the RCA, students are helped with costs, but says Heindorff, students who "work ambitiously and every day" could find themselves spending Pounds 200 a month on materials. (No doubt there are economic as well as artistic reasons for the frequent use of recycled materials in student paintings and sculptures.) Art students, says Colin Cina, "have no choice but to be Thatcher's children. They have a much clearer awareness of how the world works - they have toIThere isn't an expectation that any bright young artist will get a public platform from the Arts Council or their local arts association or whatever. They have to look to ways to platform themselves."
As for the Turner Prize, do art students care who wins? Cina reports "a lot of debate". "It's one of those iconic prizes. It's the establishment trying to make a representation of what they think is quality in a generation art students still feel very close to. Yes, there's healthy cynicism about it but they do get excited about it as well."
A miniaturised security camera surveys a doll's-house size room containing a table, a broken chair and other tiny furniture. The only moving things in the room are some young slugs, gathered from an East End garden, which glide across the carpet.
This is what Gary Perkins is working on when I meet him in his corner of a studio at Chelsea College of Art. He is a couple of months into a 12-month MA in sculpture (sculpture in the sense of "anything in fine art that isn't painting"), and as well as the slugs-in-a-room work he is also preparing a piece for "Station Deutschland", an exhibition at Berlin's Kunsthalle.
Provisionally entitled "The Fifteenth of the Second", 1995, Perkins's piece is a miniature hotel corridor whose theme is "the hotel as an international dead zone".
Like much of his work, it includes a video camera. Pieces like this, he explains, "are trying, with a camera and an imaginary place, to give the opportunity to question the spaces we move around. They are about asking what is more real, more authentic, more honest. . . . The miniature scale heightens the sense of awkwardness."
Before starting his MA course this autumn, the 28-year-old Perkins had been an art student in Rochdale and Liverpool and then earned a living as a facilitator at the Liverpool Tate Gallery "coordinating workshops, mostly for schoolchildren" while still keeping a studio for his own work.
He has had shows as part of Liverpool's annual Visionfest. But he feels he has now "almost outgrown" that city. London, on the other hand, is "vast enough to work in for the rest of my life."
After leaving Cheltenham School of Art, Moyra Derby felt she "wanted a bit of a change" and headed north for Sheffield. "I knew I could get a cheap studio there," she says, "and I organised an exhibition in an empty shop to try to get things going. I sold a few pieces, but it was all very slow."
Now 25 and in her second year at the Royal College of Art, Derby thinks of her two years in Sheffield as "a kind of practice run" for her life as an artist. "When you get to this stage (at the RCA), you see art is so involved with business, with money - it's a shock to see it up close . . . But at least here you've got some space to do your own work and talk to some good people. The other good thing about the RCA is that you get to go places. I've been to Paris and New York thanks to them. " Derby's paintings are figurative, but she is "wary of being put in a figurative corner", cut off from the rest of the art world. Her subjects, as in "Minor Explosion" pictured above, are found in urban settings, "with the atmosphere that you can get in film noir: nothing happens but there's a feeling of impending doom.'' Although she grew up in Northern Ireland, she doesn't think that "the sense of menace" her tutor Michael Heindorff detects in her paintings comes from there. "I've had more influence from living in England,'' she says. "I paint cities in general, not a specific one, but the sort of place you might recognise.'' And what will she do when she leaves the college? "I just want to stay out of any compromised situations. I feel wary of how things can develop. Unlike some of my fellow students, who are doing installations or that sort of thing and are supported by sponsorship, I'm making something that people can buy.''
Cleo Evans and Nick Davies
Cleo Evans, 28, and Nick Davies, 25, have more in common than that they are both just about to finish their MAs in art as environment at Manchester Metropolitan University. They have created environmental art together - most noticeably last summer at the Harlech Biennals, when they used eight outdoor sites to make work that was "accessible to people who wouldn't seek out art".
Thus they put pictures of lips, with audiotape accompaniment, at a kissing-gate (pictured above); created in a churchyard a bench made out of wire alongside a real bench that was popular with the local old-age pensioners; and set up windshields on Harlech beach, with extracts from diaries written on the cotton tape that secured the material of the windshield to poles. "It was lovely," recalls Evans. "People would untie the strings to read, then tie them up again."
Cleo Evans has a first degree from Staffordshire College of Art. Nick - short for Nicola - Davies, on the other hand, has a BA in psychology from Manchester University; she then did a foundation year at MMU "which helped me become more visually aware." Along with MMU lecturer Joanne Vickers, the two are now part of Out Skirts, an organisation that aims, as well as bringing art to people, "to deal with women's issues, lesbian and gay issues."
The twin aims of Out Skirts are reflected in the pair's MA dissertations. Evans has written about "activist art" and illustrates it, among other things, with pictures from Harlech; Davies has looked at "the representation of lesbians in history and cinema, relating that to the video piece we are planning on 'Harry Stokes'", a woman who lived her life as a man in 19th-century Manchester.