IS THIS THE finest Turner Prize to have ever been staged? A question like that could usually be dismissed as some kind of preamble hyperbole coming before the return of the preeminent contemporary visual arts prize to London (it took up residence at Baltic Gateshead last year).
Yet it is a question whose answer was, to all intents and purposes, answered by the jaunty mood at the launch of this year’s prize at Tate Britain last week. After a couple of fallow years, the Turner Prize, it seemed, was back in more ways than one.
The selection for this year is about as sterling as it comes. If 2009’s edit was particularly slight and slender—with Richard Wright’s brilliant, barely-there, soon-gone remnants of a gold leaf fresco a fitting victor—and 2010’s winning work, Lowlands by Susan Philipsz, invisible—Philipsz was the first sound artist to win the prize—then 2012’s shortlist makes for one of the fullest, maximalist, most labyrinthine, most thrilling and enthralling of Turner Prizes.
Thrilling in the ways it gratifies the viewer on their jaunt through various movements, concepts, and media; enthralling because the selection is itself in thrall to the myriad possibilities of contemporary art to excite, engage—and entertain.
At the launch, I could sense a quite palpable sense of pride in the outcome from Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain and chair of this year’s jury, and the show’s two curators, Lizzie Carey-Thomas and Sofia Karamani. ‘All four artists are intriguing and complex,’ Karamani later acknowledged. ‘They all use an array of references from popular culture, history, literature, politics that would appeal not only to someone interested in art—but to everyone really.’
All this means that it is also one of the longest Turner Prizes to get through. Karamani is correct. This is a wonderful thing. You could get lost for hours in this maze of many media: entire-wall-sized pencil drawings; marble sculptures atop plinths; the smallest of photographs capturing the briefest of encounters (did I just spy the fine figure of Stuart Comer, Tate Modern’s curator of film, in one?); a feature-length film in the adjacent room; then a darkened corridor (where does it lead?); a video installation, this time, whose rousing sounds can be heard long before you reach it; another dark passageway leading to a dark, low-ceilinged room, striped like a humbug all over; across the hall, a giant inflatable slide on which you might see some off-duty performers casually hanging out; finally, a room entirely proofed with paper.
You’ll be led here and made to prostrate yourself before a puppet oracle, in the form of a mandrake root no less, who will offer you a personal reading. When my turn came, I was warned that ‘an expensive purchase will prove incorrect’.
Maybe he had noticed my new-season Dries but, really, he couldn’t have been more spot on than if he knew that I spend my every last penny on unnecessary Prada and Prorsum, only to then have to subsist on Nigella’s thrifty spaghetti with Marmite butter for days, or until the next paycheque comes. So excuse me when I resort to cliché and say that, by the end of it all, every sense will have been stimulated.
I SPEAK TO Karamani over a pot of tea at Tate Britain a few days later, once the opening night pixie dust had settled and the exhibition had opened.
‘The Linbury Galleries present the architectural challenge of trying to divide an irregular space in four equal parts,’ she tells me. ‘Showing loud multimedia installations that require careful spatial planning adds to the complexity of the project. Our job, as curators of the exhibition, is to try and represent, in the best possible way, the reasons the artists were nominated.’
I take the bait. How do the curators, who must remain impartial in the selection and subsequent judging process, go about this? ‘We work very closely with each artist from the word go, in order to select the work and discuss their individual requirements. We then bring it all together, and while the best possible presentation of each artist is at the core of our thinking, we have to carefully consider all other practical aspects of making a show.’
A kind of suturist then, who must magic a show out of no discernible theme, other than the acute contemporaneity of the work, while taming the manic media coverage with the other hand. Carey-Thomas has riffed on this in the past. ‘Building a trusting relationship with the four nominated artists is vital so that the curator can speak in a fluent and succinct way to the press.’ It hadn’t occurred to me until my conversations with Carey-Thomas and Karamani: to précis is a curatorial skill.
I press Spartacus Chetwynd, one of this year’s nominees, about this special relationship. Her nomination came for Odd Man Out (2011), a carnival of sorts first performed at Mayfair’s Sadie Coles HQ, key moments of which she has restaged in her Turner Prize room. I could imagine her work shapeshifting over the course of the show’s three-month run.
Spartacus Chetwynd, Odd Man out 2011, Courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London
Was there a sense of having to rein in a project originally conceived for a private gallery to fit the dimensions of one of London’s most public museum spaces? ‘I enjoy working out what the parameters are—and then making something work. A commercial gallery does allow you more experimental room than an institution. The commercial gallery is a law unto itself. At Sadie Coles we really did shapeshift. It was free and experimental, whereas here it has to be more static than that. I’m not upset by the constraints—but it is the Tate’s constraints. If I were doing my own project, I would be shapeshifting.’
As the first performance artist to be in contention for the Turner Prize, and by the very nature of her practice, Chetwynd could not but address these issues. Does she feel like a pioneer? ‘Thank god I don’t feel any responsibility, ever. What I do feel is a lot of respect for people as amazing and groundbreaking as Brecht and Fassbinder. In the art world too, the Body Politic performance artists of the 70s: I think there’s a great history, on both sides, of live work. If I’m representing it, I take it seriously and, actually, something I’d be proud to do.’
Chetwynd’s words are so heartfelt that ten minutes with her would be enough to convert even the most hardened doubter. It’s a feeling that runs throughout Odd Man Out. It’s an effortless performance. And, yet, despite its outward irreverence and claims of amateurism, it’s also a performance that has emerged from a significant period of research. To absorb the weight of that history, and to make something genuinely exciting from it, that is quite some achievement.
LIKE CHETWYND, LUKE Fowler and Elizabeth Price too have chosen to display the work for which they were nominated back in May. Only Paul Noble’s room contains new work: five pencil drawings and the recently finished marble sculptures. That may be an unusually high ratio of previously seen work to original responses—and, for me, one of the supreme pleasures of the prize is seeing how the artists answer to the call of the Turner and the constraints of the Tate—but when the work is of this calibre there really is scant reason for complaint.
Paul Noble, Villa Joe (Front View) 2005-6 , Private Collection, courtesy the Gagosian Gallery
Noble’s work is the first you’ll see when you enter the Linbury Galleries. His room is the summation of an elaborate, decade-spanning, pencil-drawing project, Nobson Newtown, began almost accidentally in 1996 with the design of a particularly architectural typeface—Nobson—and last displayed at the London outpost of the Gagosian Gallery last autumn.
These are deadpan depictions of manmade cityscapes on an epic scale. They tower over you because of Noble’s heightened sense of technique: a high viewpoint, no background, no foreground. Everything is equally close or far away. You’ll not be able to see the wood for the buildings.
Noble has since announced that he is done with Nobson and with pencilwork in general. The more recent and more minor carved marble sculptures that are dotted around the room, exquisitely worked as they are in their own right and nicely reminiscent of Louise Bourgeois and Henry Moore, seem like an afterthought in the shadow of those mighty illustrations.
All Divided Selves (2011), Fowler’s film of the psychiatrist R. D. Laing, occupies the following room—but before it, he has chosen to display a series of gorgeously-lensed photographic diptychs, themselves almost like slides of film.
Luke Fowler, All Divided Selves, 2011. Photo: Alan Dimmick
This is someone fully consumed with the full syntax and physical features of the cinema. ‘The otherwise unnoticed environment—light, air pressure, the screen, and the soundtrack—are brought to life,’ Carey-Thomas explains.
The film takes archive footage—fragments, voices, impressions—and intersperses it with a filmic diary of Fowler’s own experiences. The edit is drum-tight. It had me questioning my own sanity. At ninety minutes long, All Divided Selves requires your patience. In return, it rewards you with a renewed worldview.
Price also works with archival material, albeit in video, for The Woolworths Choir of 1979 (2012). If Fowler’s photographs were like little diptychs, then Price’s installation here takes on the form of a large triptych: its three distinct parts—images of ecclesiastical architecture from the National Monuments Record; clips of girl bands taken from the internet; news footage from 1979 of a notorious fire in a Manchester branch of Woolworths—fold into each other sinuously over the course of its twenty-minute running time.
High-definition video becomes an elastic material in Price’s hands. Carey-Thomas describes her as ‘a master of sensory pleasure’. I wholeheartedly agree.
Having attracted over 90% of the early money—and fast on his way to becoming the shortest priced favourite in the history of the prize—the bookmakers’ pick is Noble. He would make a very dignified winner indeed. As would Chetwynd. She is as fun as she is fundamental to her medium. Price too, who has such impressive command of her material.
But I found Fowler’s film most moving all, and one of the most moving to have yet been presented at the Turner Prize. It is as rich as such past winning films as Douglas Gordon’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1995), Gillian Wearing’s 60 Minute Silence (1996), and Steve McQueen’s Deadpan (1997)—and as deserving of the win.
THAT RATHER GRAND lineage got me thinking. In the final room, where visitors are encouraged to leave comments on cards and pin them to a giant board of a wall, I couldn’t help but notice, in the corner of the space and in a modest shade of grey, a chronological list of the Turner Prize winners. All twenty-seven of them. I was struck by how much of a slam-dunk so many of the picks now seem.
More so than the other prolific arts prizes—the Man Booker Prize for Fiction; the Mercury Music Prize; the Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize—these choices were the right ones, the selections have held up over the years. The thirtieth anniversary of the prize is in 2014, the next time it is due to be shown again in London.
Perhaps the Tate could be persuaded to celebrate this illustrious list with a Turner of Turners-type show, with a shortlist comprised of the greatest winners who could respond with new installations for the occasion, or even reexhibit their winning work?
For Carolyn Kerr, a former curator of Turner Prize exhibitions, such a list would include Gordon and McQueen, triumphant in 1996 and 1999 respectively, ‘and Tomma Abts, of course,’ who won in 2006 for her densely wrought, painted canvases. I would also make a strong case for Anish Kapoor, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Mark Wallinger, though, as ever, there can only be four. ‘It’s really refreshing to see names and work that is less familiar and to stand back and think—all this is going on as well,’ says Kerr.
I think Kerr sums up the Turner Prize most precisely. We had become so familiar with its process and circus that there was a sense of it having become just another part of our background visual lexicon.
Its unruly adolescent phase in the late 1990s— Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde; Chris Ofili’s paintings daubed with elephant dung; Tracey Emin’s unmade bed—had faded from view.
Then, with the onset of early adulthood midway through the last decade and the responsibility that comes with it, came the more sober shortlists. It looked as if the Turner was losing its spark, in short, its raison d’être.
I felt this more keenly than most. The once-contentious spectacle had grown up and I had grown up with it: the Turner and I are the same age. It was becoming increasingly difficult to look at the new work each year as something astonishing. One solution would be juxtaposition: to create new foils for the work. The other, which the Turner Prize has captured quite beautifully with this edition, is to just let it be. The very best stuff eventually rises to the top.
The Turner Prize 2012 continues at Tate Britain until 6 January 2013. The winner of the prize will be announced during a live broadcast on the evening of 3 December
Read more by Amir Feshareki