Issue Number: 114
The RA Schools students have a unique chance to exhibit in a prestigious museum setting in the RA’s annual ‘Premiums’ show. Jerry Brotton caught up with them after a study trip to Venice to find out how the city and the Biennale have informed their art
An RA Schools student examines work by Seth Price installed in the Venice Biennale’s Central Pavilion at the Giardini. Royal Academy of Arts. ‘Premiums’, the annual exhibition of work by the Royal Academy Schools’ second-year students, has come a long way since the RA’s formative years in the 1760s. Premiums, or cash prizes, originated in 1754 with the Society of Arts (a precursor to the RA) and were awarded in a variety of categories including young artists. The first was given to Richard Cosway, later a Royal Academician, but then aged 12. Robert Edge Pine won in 1760 for his painting The Surrender of Calais to Edward III. Pine received a premium of 100 guineas before going on to exhibit at the Royal Academy in the 1770s, where premiums had been established as part of the Royal Academy Schools curriculum. Today, there is no cash incentive for the students: instead, they are given an opportunity unique to the Royal Academy Schools to exhibit their work in museum conditions halfway through their three-year postgraduate degree.
Several new initiatives make this year’s exhibition more keenly anticipated. First, the title has been amended to ‘Premiums: Interim Projects’ to reflect the increased involvement of the 17 second-year students who are now designing the show collectively and choosing the work they wish to present. In previous years works were submitted to the Keeper for selection. The students will also exhibit in a new space. Having traditionally used the Sackler Galleries, this year’s ‘Premiums’ takes place in the much larger galleries of the RA’s splendid building at 6 Burlington Gardens, the former Museum of Mankind.
The Palladian cloister of the Cini Foundation on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice. Royal Academy of Arts. When I met the students alongside senior tutors at the RA Schools, Vanessa Jackson and Brian Griffiths, they pointed out that the new venue offers more chance to experiment with installation and performance pieces, besides painting, sculpture and photography. The students have more involvement in the show than ever before, which means ‘more control over success or failure’ as one student quipped.
They are also preparing ‘Premiums’ in the wake of their study visit to last year’s Venice Biennale, where they stayed at the new Vittore Branca academic residence of the Giorgio Cini Foundation on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. The experience offered the students a unique chance to immerse themselves in contemporary
The library at the Cini Foundation. Royal Academy of Arts. art in an atmospheric historical setting at the heart of the Western art tradition. Indeed the Cini itself has an extraordinary ability to keep the city’s rich cultural history alive, while also launching a series of contemporary artistic initiatives, exemplified by the motto of its Secretary General Pasquale Gagliardi, taken from Mahler: ‘Tradition is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire.’
Talking to the second-year students preparing ‘Premiums’, I was intrigued to find out how the contrast between the historic buildings of the Cini with its Palladian refectory and courtyard alongside the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, and the contemporary bustle of the Biennale had affected them and their approach to both tradition and innovation in their own work. After all, artists have been visiting Venice for centuries, and it can feel difficult to escape the city’s clichés and find fresh creative inspiration and critical originality.
The Borges Labyrinth at the Cini Foundation. Courtesy Fondazione Giorgio Cini onlus. In the run-up to ‘Premiums’ all of the students felt they were still digesting the impact of the trip, but Adham Faramawy says he found it particularly helpful for his own work with digital video and sculptural installations. ‘Venice is a place steeped in a European orientalist history, famously built at a time when Constantinople was more powerful than Rome,’ he says. ‘This trip provided a historical context to the image-making I had been carrying out in China and the Middle East.’ Having spent time photographing public spaces in Beijing and Dubai that drew on the geometry of classical architecture, Faramawy says he was able ‘to learn about some of the Renaissance applications of these formal rules of geometry as seen in Palladio’s church on San Giorgio Maggiore, with its symbolic cross formation, arches and domes’. He was also impressed by ‘the Cini’s Benedictine monastery and monks’ cloisters, the baroque library with its extensive book and photography collection and the topiary labyrinth inspired by Borges in the garden’.
Anish Kapoor RA, 'Ascension, 2011', installed in the church of San Giorgio Maggiore to coincide with the 2011 Venice Biennale. Royal Academy of Arts. Others with less immediate artistic investment in Venice’s Renaissance past took very different inspiration from the city. Eddie Peake, whose work explores ‘the ambiguity of gender, transcending sexual categorisation’, felt it was ‘like entering a sci-fi fantasy world, like Blade Runner in negative, a place which feels like it wants to sink, and yet there’s a massive effort to preserve it. I was very self-conscious about being in this artificial parody of a city as it once was, which was generative and inspiring.’
Bradley Grievson told me that, despite his interest in the Biennale, he was ‘always desperate to get back to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore where the Cini is located. I spent a whole day walking around it, which I didn’t expect; just being on the island, without any specific objective, was incredibly helpful to me’.
Julia Born Schwartz also found the Cini ‘a good place to reflect on the daily impressions from the Biennale’. She describes her art as ‘defined by a passion for the photographic medium’ and a fascination with the religious baroque, and says she was struck by how ‘the warm light falling through the
YHBHS (You Have Been Here Sometime), 2011, by Anya Titova, installed at the Corderie of the Arsenale at the Venice Biennale. Royal Academy of Arts. huge church windows of San Giorgio Maggiore and the reflections from the surrounding water evokes a certain mood. I was very inspired by the colours I saw – a pale and dusty pastel coloured palette’. She was also intrigued by the recently opened garden labyrinth, which is now regarded as the island’s ‘third cloister’.
The labyrinth was also a draw for Toby Christian, as the hedges spell out Borges’ name, and his work has concentrated on ‘producing writing that uses descriptions of relations between spaces and objects’. As part of the portfolio of work the students are making to thank the Cini, he is creating a text that captures ‘the juxtaposition of art historical moments’ which echoed his movement between the Cini and the Biennale.
RA Schools’ students researching in the Cini’s extensive photograph archive. Royal Academy of Arts. For this new generation of artists the Biennale itself seemed a strangely dated event, with its national pavilions – ‘almost like a Eurovision Contest’, as one observed – yet shaped by an increasingly globalised art world. Although there was general agreement about what the students liked – the Russian pavilion by Boris Groys, and Thomas Hirschhorn’s Swiss pavilion were particular favourites – even these were seen as cosmopolitan contributions that made little sense within a national context. It seemed that the effortless cosmopolitanism of the Cini was more amenable to the new generation of artists from the RA Schools than was the contrived nationalism of the Biennale.
How the trip’s fusion of historical and contemporary will manifest itself in this year’s ‘Premiums’ show remains to be seen, but with the new venue and its larger spaces the students are primed to step up to the challenge with confidence.