Study visit: Recording Britain Now: Society

OCA tutor Diana Ali led the study visit to the New Art Gallery in Walsall, West Midlands where there was an exhibition of the 30 short-listed finalists of the 3rd John Ruskin award. Student, amateur and professional artists were invited to respond to this year’s theme of Recording Britain Now: Society.

The John Ruskin Prize is named after the prominent Victorian artist, writer and philosopher John Ruskin (1819-1900). Ruskin was well known for his questioning of social and political issues of the day. For the past three years the John Ruskin Prize has been affiliated with Recording Britain and takes it inspiration from the original project initiated by Sir Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) the art historian, author and historian. The original Recording Britain project employed artists on the home front make a record of Britain at the outbreak of the WWII. The resultant collection of 1500 water colours and drawings now reside at The Victoria and Albert museum, London.

The exhibition featured many of the themes of social life which are regarded as significant in Britain today such as inequality, homelessness, immigration, the impacts of technology, urban decline and regeneration/gentrification, self-image possibly explained and to be expected given the personal ethos of the founding father of the prize.

Was there a lack of diversity? Possibly, certainly there was a very definite left wing liberalism about virtually all of the entrants a point I make beyond the question of political belief. My thoughts are whether aspects of Martha Rosler’s argument as set out in her essay In, around, and afterthoughts (On documentary photography) (1981) can shed any light on this distinct orientation. Rosler’s view is that documentary, in her case photography, which is designed to bring about social change is effectively dead and that current documentary is motivated by other often ulterior motives, not least, “the social conscience of liberal sensibility presented in visual imagery,” (Rosler, M. (1981). This point is not necessarily levelled at the artists but possibly reflect the panel of judges?

Where I believe Rosler is wrong is her absolute judgement in her opinions as whilst I do believe that there can be a tendency for people, not just artists, to voice liberalist and often left wing views so as to appear more open-minded and good spirited I am also convinced that there are many true and genuine motives behind these and other works of art which might carry similar messages.

I believe the argument stretches beyond photography or even art in that we are increasingly locked in an all-consuming global capitalist system ultimately controlling economic, social and political movement which creates the path to make money out of any situation, even if that involves marketing a work of art which is originally by the artist with the intention to undermine the system. And so individuals or a particular work of art or an exhibition are less than a drop in the ocean and swimming in a one-way river.

I found the exhibition extremely interesting in terms of engaging with a different art medium to photography. I have recently begun to really understand the photographer’s responsibility to offer their expression and interpretation and not just to take pictures in a state of semi-consciousness. Whilst I fully appreciate that it is also possible to draw or paint without any real conviction this does not compare to the ease of process in capturing images with a modern camera so the temptation in photography to just to blindly click away is far greater.

Ruskin prize-2

Julian Bovis, 100 Bristol Houses, 2015.

I was very interested to see how artists used their medium to convey and communicate their message and this was an interesting process. I particularly liked the above ink drawing by Julian Bovis 100 Bristol Houses, 2015. I found the perspective and congestion of the composition very effective in creating a sense of claustrophobia and this combined with the cardboard material selected by Bovis to act as his canvass which created a sense that the picture had been drawn on the inside of a discarded giant box of cornflakes. My interpretation was that the artist created this combination so as to create an everyday sense of cramped living conditions within a monotonous social environment as his reflection on today’s Britain.

One of my colleagues Alan from Liverpool, a drawing and painting student even gave me a quick overview and lesson in creating perspective which was extremely useful. The process of mixing and sharing ideas, knowledge and experiences with other OCA students is invaluable and Diana Ali did an excellent job of leading the group with genuine enthusiasm, patience and knowledge.

A really productive and enjoyable day, the second study visit in recent months in the West Midlands and a very positive and good humoured group of students developing!

Reference List

Rosler, M In, around, and afterthoughts (On documentary photography) (1981) copy of the original essay can be seen following the link: (accessed 30/03/16)

Bibliography (accessed 30/03/16) (accessed 30/03/2016)


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