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Art stars on their thesis exhibitions


Ever wonder what the rich and famous were like before, well, they were rich and famous? The Guardian has compiled tales from artists of previous generations, and their degree show experience.

David Shrigley
Glasgow School of Art BA, 1988-91
I thought my degree show was brilliant, but the people who were marking it didn’t. I got a 2:2. They didn’t appreciate my genius.

There were large photos of things I had made, including Leisure Centre, and some very silly sculptures: a child-sized coffin with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles relief on it, a giant hurdle called The First Hurdle, and a giant walnut whip that had a little door in it. I don’t really know what I meant by that piece. I didn’t sell anything at the show – it was 1991, before the YBAs. There wasn’t a precedent for people selling work that wasn’t figurative painting.

I was angry and bitter about my 2:2. My friend Malcolm got a first. He’d made a water feature, which I thought was pretentious and stupid. At the final show, somebody’s mum got really drunk and fell into Malcolm’s water feature.

Gillian Wearing
Goldsmiths MA, 1987-90
My final works were crates with objects inside – a bicycle seat protruding from one, pumps coming out of another. I also did a remake of the Duchamp bicycle wheel with a state-of-the-art wheel loaned from a bike shop. The Duchamp piece still relates to my work – the idea of remakes. I had originally made the crates myself, but for the final show I panicked and had them professionally made. It made them anaemic. I was disappointed – I knew they had looked better. Afterwards I destroyed most of the crates, gave back the wheel, threw away the chair, and turned one crate into my bed.

You always hope something will come of your degree show, although I didn’t think it was going to. And nothing did. The one thing I remember was that Michael Landy – who wasn’t my partner then – came and said that he really liked the wheel piece.

The year above me were very exciting: it was Damien Hirst and Michael Landy, and they were all in Freeze. But the first conversation I had when I arrived at art school was that when we left we most likely wouldn’t be artists. I remember saying, if I have one exhibition when I leave I will be happy. That’s all I expected.

Tracey Emin
Royal College of Art MA, 1987-89

I felt very lost at the RCA. It was very conservative, non-experimental and non-political – the absolute opposite of Maidstone College of Art, where I did my degree. At Maidstone everything had a Marxist slant. The women from Greenham Common came in, the striking miners came in, and a member of Sinn Féin. Real life was brought to us.

I made a few friends at the RCA – Rachel, who ran the shop and gave me tubes of paint, Susan the secretary, and lovely Stan the head porter. My best friend was David Dawson, who went on to great things, and was Lucian Freud’s assistant for 20 years.

I showed five large-scale oil paintings. They were a cross between Edvard Munch and early Byzantine frescos. I had never used so much oil paint, or stretched a canvas before, and I learned so much, including what kind of artist I didn’t want to be: I didn’t want to be a Sunday painter, I wanted to make a difference in the world. I wanted to do good things through my art.

At the RCA, it was incredibly competitive what space you showed in. I was put in the basement, under a mezzanine. I knew I was at the bottom of the pile, so I didn’t bother fighting. Some of my paintings were 7ft by 8ft, and there was a 3cm gap between them and the floor and ceiling, but at least I didn’t have to sleep with any of the tutors.

My bank manager Mr Day came all the way from Kent for the show with his wife. He had more or less financed my way through my MA. Without him and the hardship fund, I doubt I would have made it to the end.

I was terribly scared about my future. I sold some paintings, and made about £2,500, but nowhere near enough to pay back the bank. After I left, I was homeless, became pregnant and had a total breakdown. Eventually, I got a job working for Southwark council as a youth tutor and did a part-time philosophy course. I got my brain back into shape, paid back all my debts and started making art again.

Gavin Turk
Royal College of Art MA, 1989-91

I get misrepresented as an excuse for art students to do nothing during their degrees, then turn up and think everyone owes them something. I was actually pretty busy at the Royal College. I wanted to make work about memory and site, heraldry, tradition, customs, culture and death. I was in South Kensington, surrounded by all these English Heritage blue plaques, and I thought it was the perfect cipher for my message.

Unfortunately, Jocelyn Stevens, rector of the RCA, had just been offered a job as the head of English Heritage, and I think he thought I was making a comment about him. I failed my degree, and it became news – that you could make art, and it could be judged as not good enough.

I felt terrible at the time. I just wanted to be like everybody else. I didn’t want to be singled out. I had plans of going travelling round the world, and consoled myself by cancelling all my trips.

But in hindsight, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. It seemed more interesting to talk about the fact that there was an edge of acceptability. That there was art that could go wrong. It became more positive than if I’d been waved out with a clap, clap, clap. I’ve since made three versions of the work. I sold one to Charles Saatchi, one to Jay Jopling and one to the Tate.

Read more at the Guardian here.