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Provoked and Provocative: The 2021 MullenLowe NOVA Award Show's Winners Make Us Think About Tough Ideas. Phew.

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This year's student competition winners deftly wield beauty to teach us urgent lessons about power and politics, writes Hannah Hayes-Westall, strategy director at MullenLowe London
Beauty is a fraught concept in art and rightly so. It comes freighted with the politics of control, of capitalism, of colonialism. It’s thought about harder, or at least more frequently, in the art world than in many areas of human endeavour precisely because artists are so accustomed to using beauty as a weapon to force us to think about unpleasant ideas. And with the 2021 MullenLowe NOVA Awards show, that’s just as well. 

There is an argument (that we have explored in this column in the past) for the utility value of art in society that suggests that we ask artists to come up with solutions that we as a society cannot envisage. In this exchange we give artists the socially mandated freedom to live creatively unfettered lives in return for exploring difficult ideas on society’s behalf. Yet the value exchange is only effective when these unfettered artists can exchange their ideas for the means to live, and as they discovered centuries ago, this was only possible when the presentation of their ideas about difficult subjects was delivered in a way that was palatable to mainstream audiences. This is where the language, politics and power of beauty comes in. 

In the 2021 MullenLowe NOVA Awards we see that topics ranging from period poverty in refugee camps to our own reprehensible behaviour online to a deep and abiding need to connect with nature even as our extractive economies destroy it, are all presented using the conceptual tools and tricks of desire creation. In doing so, their creators bypass the rational minds of the viewers and go straight to the emotional brain that enables us to engage in topics we might otherwise find too difficult to contemplate. And looking around us, it’s no surprise that this year’s MullenLowe NOVA Award winners are leaning into this approach.

Nikoleta Chrysikou

The generation of students nominated for the Awards this year are immersed in a world of subjects that feel too difficult to think about; too complex, too big, too unpleasant. The allure of simplification at governmental level has been shown to be fool’s gold as one note policy makers have been overwhelmed by complex challenges and these students seem ready to take on that complexity themselves, and cognizant of the power of aesthetics to help them do so. In a perfect example, the 2021 MullenLowe NOVA Award Winner Nikoleta Chrysikou has created a series of highly covetable ceramic homewares, deploying biotechnology and ceramic waste to develop objects that self-fire, with no need for the extractive traditional processes of materials sourcing and kiln firing. In and of itself a compelling idea, the work addresses an unglamorous area of our consumption through the creation of desirable objects, and the other winners and runners up address different challenging issues no less attractively.

Alice Turner

Undoubtedly there are shared experiences that inform the direction of a generation of artistic response. Diverse students like Runners Up Alice Turner, whose work responds to the ethical conundrum of the potential to grow organic meat from cellular level, and its impact on the rural economy, and Francesca Daloiso whose work highlights the destruction of Europe’s ancient olive groves by pestilence, and the need to manage the complex outcomes in a way that will not cause further damage to the environment, and Lydia Hardcastle, whose fashion designs made of living moss challenge us to question our destruction of the natural world through our extractive consumption behaviours even as we covet the newness of the products she shows, all share some characteristics. This is a generation that has grown up immersed in a digital landscape dominated by the aesthetics of desire and whose members were accomplished at wielding the impact of beauty on an unknown, yet ever present audience from an early age, and who are only now coming to terms with the power it holds over them.  

Francesca Daloiso

Lydia Hardcastle

In 'Liǎn', the winner of the publicly voted YourNOVA Award Jann Choy, places our responses to social media stimulus within the physical realm in an artistic interpretation of the masks that we wear online, inspired by the traditions of Chinese opera. In doing so Choy makes concrete the impact of our positive and negative behaviours online through a tool that is both beautiful and dystopian in equal part; drawing us in with its beauty and compelling us to consider the incentives we have created for negative sentiment to be expressed online.

Jann Choy

Yet this is also a generation of students facing some of the most challenging physical, social, economic and technological environments of modern history, and a generation that has, arguably, been provoked into addressing issues resulting from the actions and inactions of people only a little older than themselves. The winner of the Unilever #Unstereotype Award, Cheuk Laam Wong, uses the aesthetics of product design and branding to create the desire to achieve an actionable solution for a problem experienced by millions worldwide. Cheuk Laam’s work both explores and creates a solution for the issue of period poverty in refugee camps. Developing products that can be sustainably made, repackaged, repaired, rewashed and reused at extraordinarily low costs. This is a piece of work that provides not just provocation but a real-world solution; ‘Looop Can’ is a solution for sanitary towel creation and reuse that, it must be hoped, will be deployed by NGOs in the nearest possible future.

Cheuk Laam Wong

Artists and the art world rightly challenge the role of beauty and its power to convince us of the perspectives of shadowy actors with unknown motivations, but it is hard not to be pleased on some level that there is a generation of creatively trained students conscious enough of the power that they wield through the judicious deployment of aesthetics to generate real change in the world. 

Work from MullenLowe
Princesses on Periods
Princesses on Periods