Jim Cowan weighs in on the Turner Prize, with enthusiastic scepticism. What do you think?
Having left Tate Britain, last year for the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, the Turner Prize competition disappeared from the mindset of the average Tate Gallery visitor. Notorious for disregarding anything that happens north of Potters Bar, when the winner was announced, it came as a surprise to many that the event was still going strong and it had been won once again by someone quite unknown. George Shaw, who had a nice line in painting housing estates and whose conceptual trick was to use Humbrol enamel paint, was the public’s favourite but alas the judges disagreed.
To refresh your memory, over the past four years this major art prize has been won by Martin Boyce, Susan Philips, Richard Wright and Mark Leckey in that order. Not exactly household names, you might think, and you would be forgiven for not remembering what their work looked like. Martin Boyce, who won last year, studied on the Sculpture and Environmental Art Programme at Glasgow School of Art and is the third prize-winner in a row to be associated with that course. Douglas Gordon who won the prize in 1996 was also on that course as has been a host of runners up. They delight in referring to themselves as the ‘Scotia Nostra’ a sort of Scottish Mafia in charge of ‘New Art’. It would seem painters don’t get a look in these days.
Controversy is the Turner Prizes’ middle name. It helps generate publicity for what has become a very esoteric display of fringe art activity, moving it firmly centre stage. A jury of four ‘art professionals’ chose the 2012 finalists from what seems like a very small gene pool. All artists seem to have exhibited together previously at the British Art show or the Tate Triennial. However after extensive deliberations, the choice came down to two independent film-makers, a performance artist and someone who does drawings. Paul Noble displays large HB pencil drawings of an imaginary town called Nobson Newton, all done in a tightly rendered adolescent drawing style. The name of the town is indicative of the intellectual level of the content. Secondary school art teachers must quake at the sight of these obsessive drawings, immature in their humour and art historic references. The old joke of sculpture looking like a “turd in the piazza” is trotted out with reference to Henry Moore reclining figures and these ever-present turds even make it onto plinths in the form of stone carvings. Jokes in art are often not funny and seldom pass the test of time.
Luke Fowler is a member of the ‘Scotia Nostra’ so he is expected to win. Fowler displays a number of photographs of divided and contrasting images in one room that are tasteful and atmospheric. His main contribution however is a film called the ‘Divided Self’ about the anti-psychiatrist and sixties media personality R D Laing and the then treatment of schizophrenia.
Using the now standard method of collaged film clips, this at times harrowing and disturbing film reveals the attitudes and personalities of the time as they try to understand and come to terms with the causes and cures for this serious mental illness. It takes the form of a documentary film and at 90 minutes long, benches have been provided for the viewers who would be better served with some proper cinema seats and an usherette to prevent them stumbling about in the darkness. In the film, my favourite moment is when Laing seated at a piano sings in a rich baritone voice the popular song “Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do… I’m half crazy all for the love of you…” Insanity, he declared, was “a perfectly rational response to an insane world”
Elizabeth Price and her trilogy ‘The Woolworth Choir 1979’ (2012) compiles, collages and expertly stitches together film clips to create an emotive retelling of a fire in a Woolworths department store in Manchester in 1979. It starts with a section on Church architecture, furniture and carvings, playing with the words choir and chorus and then it manipulates your feelings through a juxtaposition of images and sound, edited with split second precision. It takes you from the lulling effects of a discourse on church furniture to the sudden up tempo sound of the 60’s girl pop group, the Shangri-Las, singing ‘Out on the Town’. With finger snapping, toe tapping precision, this leads onto the distressing events of the Woolworth department store fire and its tragic consequence. An impressive film that moves between genres, using digital technology, montage editing and cinematic devices to deliver its impact. Video Art of late has become much more like film and is better for it. The practitioners are now more skilled and not afraid to use the medium to its full potential.
Spartacus Chetwynd is the poster girl who will bring in the crowds. Chetwynd has all the credentials: she has named herself after the famous Gladiator, lives in a nudist commune in South London, wears a beard and performs with her troop of theatrical performers. Chetwynd references Bruegel, Beuys,anarchy and spontaneous performance with homemade props and audience participation. In one enclosure, tree people worship a mandrake root which predictions the future while in another there is a puppet show that might have been performed by the Bloomsbury Group to entertain their children. It’s all harmless stuff and won’t frighten the horses. As latter day hippies, their natural terrain should be at a pop festival entertaining the crowds or on the village green. At the Tate Gallery it seems, Mummery has been reinvented for the 21st century.
My money is on Elizabeth Price. Her film has form, structure, creativity and resolution. It is not self-indulgent, adolescent or merely workmanlike but rather it presents the subject matter with a skilful array of popular song, sound, dance and tragedy. It’s a film that approaches the condition of art and is worth watching with or without a cinema seat.