City of Glasgow College is hosting an unusual exhibition at its Ralph Cowan Gallery in the RIBA-award-winning City Campus. Just visiting the college is a treat in itself, an 'architectural marvel', as it was referred to when it received the award in 2017. It is an ingeniously sited building, rising some 10 metres along the hilly landscape up from Cathedral Street through a series of both internal and external steps (keeping students, staff and visitors fit). It accommodates 40,000 students across a range of six major faculties, and sees itself as 'a threshold for students embarking on their careers'.
'Hand to Hand: the Modern Art Medal' is an exhibition that features work by students from City of Glasgow College department of craft and design, alongside pieces made by students from 14 art colleges around the UK – including Edinburgh School of Art and Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design – and from two universities in Japan, as well as medals by teachers and artists from the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop project.
'But what is this art medium?' I hear you say. Briefly, this two-sided medium – now very much in a modern idiom – looks back to the Renaissance when medals were made perhaps as gifts for visiting dignitaries, or to record a likeness or an event. They are about the size of the palm of a hand, and not to be worn.
Today, they may take any shape, and their two-sidedness enables a story to be told, about a person, for instance, or a concept. Because they are cast in bronze, usually, they are multiples, so a number can be made, to be shared. In this way, they have something in common with etchings and prints: original, yet multiple. More especially, they are wonderfully tactile, a form of sculpture in relief.
The medal by Ulrika Kjeldsen is based on a traditional Ålandic song, whose title translates to: 'Who can sail without wind, who can row without oars, who can part from a friend without shedding tears'. Ulrika studied metal design at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, University of Dundee, and after graduating has been artist in residence for the past two years. Her skills as a medal maker led her to win the New Medallist study-travel bursary awarded by the British Art Medal Society in 2018. Kjeldsen's medal takes the more traditional round format, but it expresses a touching psychological narrative that is both personal and yet all encompassing. Who has not held these thoughts or feelings, though perhaps less poetically? One side sees a figure standing back to on the shore, while on the reverse a small rowboat recedes into the distance. It is a medal expressing separation. Ulrika is also experienced in foundry work, which she learned at college.
In today's modern curriculum, in departments that teach making skills, such as craft and design at City of Glasgow, students learn about modelling, carving in plaster and wax, bronze casting and finishing, all in one annual module: the British Art Medal Society Student Medal Project. This project – now in its 26th year – is introduced in different areas, such as in the school of jewellery at Edinburgh and Birmingham, or in the department of sculpture at Falmouth School of Art. It receives support from the Goldsmiths' Centre in London.
The culmination of the Student Medal Project is an exhibition, which this year is held in Glasgow. Planned and installed by the curriculum head of craft and design, Lisa McGovern, 'Hand to Hand' occupies a spacious gallery, with specially designed cabinets, lit to enable the viewer to examine the details of the student works, which number over 100. While, as is always the situation with medal displays, it is difficult to see both sides, some of them are on small stands which enable the reverses to be seen.
How are medals relevant today? Well, times have moved on from creating medals that satisfied an ego or expressed personal power, and the 20th- and 21st-century modern medal often is made to create a powerful statement about the world in which the artist lives. Lisa McGovern invited her students to make works that were either about plastic pollution or about light pollution – two major issues regarding climate change and life on earth.
One of these medals, 'The Chase' by Katie Hemming, won the Michael Roberts Memorial Prize. The obverse of the medal shows a shark chasing its prey, one small fish, illustrating a healthy food chain. The reverse, however, depicts a shark in pursuit of a plastic bottle which it mistakenly sees as food, and nothing is left of the fish but a skeleton. Even the shark's expression changes from one side to another, from happy, toothy anticipation to despair. Around the edge of the medal are the words, 'how long till it's gone', and to further emphasise her thesis, that the world's oceans are in a desperate state, the shape of the medal itself is a plastic bottle.
Ten prize-winning medals are cleverly displayed along a narrow plinth in the exhibition, and their subjects engage with wide-ranging ideas: international mores, foreign cultures and lives, fear of panic attacks, dyslexia, the threats of a digital world, personal identity, the speed of living, managing depression and concern for the planet and how we manage our environment. What is striking about these modern art medals is how deeply felt the messages are, how engaged the students are with their world and how unafraid they are to express their feelings. These subjects take the medallic form and their function is to engage the viewer in thought and appreciation for the artistic object.
Given the opportunity, art of many different kinds can be drawn upon to bring ideas and people together. Scotland seems to be particularly aware of the possibilities, not only at the colleges, but in the communities. For example, Roddy Mathieson – who does the bronze casting for City of Glasgow College and for Dundee – runs the Mobile Foundry, a travelling foundry workshop. With a team of foundry artists and technicians, he runs workshops all over Scotland, one of which is the Alyth Youth Partnership in Perthshire. Here, with money for the community created by the local windfarm, the foundry is casting pieces that will create an art trail through the town, involving young people and schools.
Another amazing project, created in 2015, is the Artline, which takes in eight heritage buildings on the railway through Fife from Edinburgh to Dundee. It makes use of restored art and heritage buildings, bringing back to life for the community places that could have been lost but are now part of an attractive art experience to be widely shared with visitors and locals.
The City of Glasgow College exhibition has one more trick up its sleeve, and that is the display of holograms by Paul Riddell, lecturer in digital media. While not all medals can be seen complete with their edge, here are seven medals from the craft and design department that appear and disappear magically in a special plinth that creates the illusion of having them floating in space right before your eyes. There is also a continuous video in the gallery which shows some of the process of making and finishing of the medals by the students. The modern art medal occupies rather the Cinderella corner of the modern art world, but, unlike some of the ugly sisters it is truthful, unpretentious and packs a punch.
'Hand to Hand: The Modern Art Medal' is open Monday-Thursday 9-7pm and Friday 9-5pm, Saturday 9:30 – 12:30. The last day of the show is Tuesday 14 May