Dark Matter: an award winning Coursework project

Last Updated on April 2, 2023

I have seen a lot of amazing A Level artwork over the years (in my role as a teacher, curriculum co-ordinator and, now, writer for the Student Art Guide), but it has been a long time since I have encountered a project as inspirational as this.

dark matter - a level art project
Dark Matter is a mixed-media installation using charcoal, ink and shredded alcohol wipes on paper. Final A Level Art piece: 2.4 x 6.2m.

Completed by Luca L, as part of the Singapore-Cambridge GCE Higher-2 Level (the equivalent of A2 Art & Design) at Nanyang Junior College in 2009, this Coursework project has none of the formulaic development, superficial themes or awkward realism that is prevalent in so many A Level Art submissions. With beautiful integration of media: exploration that morphs seamlessly from painting to photography to sculpture and back again (while still allowing the development of expertise in a chosen field of study), Dark Matter reminds us how an A Level Art project should be.

A level art submission
Luca’s beautiful Coursework project comprised of eight preparatory sheets and a final work. This image illustrates a selection of the preparatory work with the final piece.
a level art work exploring decay
Initial works explore notions of decay of material and spiritual rebirth; the element of synchronous double-ness in a more spiritual way than the wittiness of Optical Illusion Art. Symbols of the wheel, for example, symbolize the cyclical notion of birth-death-rebirth.

Luca’s project began with an investigation into several interconnected themes: birth-death-rebirth; the illusory nature of sense perception and the material world (explored through different mediums: acrylic, water-colours, water-coloured pencils, pastels, charcoal, ink, collage), before finally culminating in a mixed-media installation that explores the ‘inevitable distances between people‘. William Blake’s illustrations and the expressive, melodramatic, romantic paintings of the French Revolution by Eugene Delacroix were referenced.

Luca describes her Coursework project below:

I began my exploration based on the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. At the very beginning my exploration involved Op-Art (Optical Illusion art). The simultaneity of these images felt like a fitting vehicle to address the simultaneity of (re)birth within death. Influenced by Shakespeare’s King Lear, I briefly pursued the notion of material life as fleeting and illusory, rendered through symbolic drawings of carnival figures – clowns and horses. The end of this illusion would give birth to the True nature of things. To reiterate the frailty of the human body, I experimented with paper clay to create contorted, broken figures resembling those of Pompeii.

Although I eventually abandoned this concept (too didactic and religious), through-lines from my exploration emerged in my final concept. These elements were the notion of representational illusiveness and well as motifs of creation and destruction. The attenuated aesthetic of the clay figure also emerged in the truncated and distorted figures in the final drawing. My working style was chaotic, unplanned, but intense. There was a very strong, intuitive undercurrent that guided me.

a level art sculpture
Resembling the boken figures of Pompeii (which were created by injecting plaster into voids left by the bodies of those who perished in a volcanic eruption) this paper-clay sculpture explores the notion of a material remnant; a shell.
A level art 3D studies
3D studies of broken, contorted figures.

I wanted my work to be a gesture towards the delusion of certainty we have towards our most intimate relations while tackling notions of representation, realism and portraiture in art – ideologies geared towards representing some stable ‘Truth’. What I wanted to emphasise is the indeterminacy in interpersonal relations. There is the sense that trying to know someone is like chasing after a ghost, and all I can be acquainted with is their after-image, their shadow, which is in itself amorphous, elusive. Figures merge with others and are at points blown-up, distorted, or thinly decipherable.

photographic exploration - a level art
Continued photographic exploration: after-images and their ghostly aesthetic.

I often find myself thinking of people through pre-acquainted others as reference points. Hence, people are echoes of other people, echoes of my self (what I witness and encounter, never the full being in the space and time), and what I narrate after the event.

My work isn’t wholly solipsistic however – there are moments of illumination. The visual dichotomy of darkness and light are aligned with the dialectic between unknowability and momentary insight.  Pictorially, these are configured within the faces frozen in spotlight. They emerge from an indecipherable tumble of bodies. The moments are what we hold on to, and I wanted that to be felt by the audience looking at the work. Their eyes would shift to ‘make out things’, hold fast to certainties, and in many parts be engulfed and confronted by sheer blackness, unknowingness (in part due to the ‘v’ configuration of the walls the artwork was installed upon). I wanted the audience’s visual interaction or hermeneutic reading of the work to embody that shifting uncertainty, and articulate the moments of security.

making art with alcohol wipes
In this preparatory board, Luca ‘attempts to visualize self in-development, figured as a sort of pupal limbo, a liminal state’. Here she undertakes her first experiment with alcohol wipes, discovering that, when stretched, they have a cob-webby feel and aesthetic).
composition sketches for A Level Art
Beautiful composition sketches depicting truncated bodies in flux allowed Luca to establish which mediums to use in her final work and how to best communicate ideas of creation, dissipation and the spaces in between.

I worked with a mix of reference to photographs and planned layouts, while sometimes rendering as I pleased, with my mind and whims towards a particular figure as the only reference point (a gesture towards surreal automatism). The process of creation was akin to chasing an after-image, the pinning down of images after the thing itself has ‘happened’. In that sense the work encapsulates the struggle of representing others in relation with the self.

dark matter charcoal drawing
Preparatory sketch detail: you get an idea of the immense writhing beauty of the Luca’s work in this photograph. The fine mesh of the alcohol wipes is interwoven with smudges and coarser marks where the charcoal stick has grated across paper surface.
mixed media charcoal drawing
A close up detail of Luca’s beautiful mixed media charcoal drawing project: an installation of charcoal, ink and shredded alcohol wipes.

I named the work ‘Dark Matter’ because of the symbolic currency the term has in encapsulating the unknown that comprises most of the universe. This estrangement of the familiar is exactly what my work is about. Like the dense unknowable substance of dark matter, people are elusive ideas that are constantly evolving and evade concrete definition, rendering full intimacy with another human being virtually impossible. These are the inevitable distances between us.

– Luca L

An intelligent and articulate young woman (with a vocabulary that will leave most students reeling in awe) Luca was a recipient of the Singapore Ministry of Education Art Elective Scholarship for 2008 and 2009. Dark Matter was awarded an ‘A’ grade (the highest result available in Singapore, where percentage marks are not revealed) and went on to place Gold in the 2010 Singapore Youth Festival Arts and Crafts Exhibition at Singapore Art Museum. Her work provides inspiration for teachers and students alike.

charcoal drawing of people
Luca’s beautiful final piece was installed in the corner of a gallery space for assessment. Presenting the work in an exhibition format is common practice for schools who are lucky enough to have examiners travel to them and who have a suitable space available. This has obvious advantages, such as allowing students the freedom to work in any size or format they see fit. NOTE: If you are a CIE teacher or candidate and are wondering how to get the examiners to visit your school, you should encourage an uptake of CIE qualifications in your country, as there is a critical number of candidates in a particular area that must be reached before travel expenses of the examiners can be justified.
charcoal drawing ideas
Coursework project detail: a smudgy mixed media charcoal drawing of people and the spaces between.

The following video showcases Luca’s Coursework project:

If you wish to see more examples of outstanding student artwork, please view our Featured Art Projects.


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