I’ve wondered for a few years whether the Turner Prize has run its course. Most of its success in the 1990s was based on cunning, calculated and highly successful attempts to goad traditionalists and tabloids with provocative conceptual art; art that was ready made to prick the sensibilities of those who swore in the skill of the craftsman. Let the shouters whip up a storm, sly curators reckoned, and then let the gallery bask in the publicity and subsequent rush of inquisitive visitors. The actual art may have been of variable quality, but there was plenty of legitimate excitement surrounding the event that allowed the flag of contemporary art to be one of the most visible on the cultural landscape.
But this process couldn’t last forever. The clamour and the success of the Turner Prize (and the more general absorption of contemporary art into the cultural mainstream) has abated the fury of the traditionalists, with the result that there is no longer the frisson of excitement surrounding the prize. With less hoo-ha about the “is this art?” question, there is more time for the more pertinent “is this good art?” question. Seen in this light, the Turner Prize’s once-fluttering flag begins to droop more than a little.
The suite of works by Simon Starling, the first nominee, was of no visual interest – a shed, an electric bicycle, a set of five identical prints of a quarry. I later learned from the Tate website that the process behind the creation of his works was supposed to inject them with meaning. The shed, for example, had been dismantled and “turned it into a boat; loaded with the remains of the shed … paddled down the Rhine to a museum in Basel, dismantled and re-made into a shed.” But for the visitor in the Tate, hardly a trace of this process was obvious from the artwork and the whole thing seemed rather pointless. Knowledge of the process that creates a work can be interesting when they enhance the more immediate aspects of an artwork. Yukinori Yanagi’s Pacific, where ants dug into the coloured sand representing a network of flags, is an excellent example of this. But when the process becomes the entire raison d’etre of the work (and also when the process is one of breathtaking mundanity) then I move quickly onwards.
Installation view of Simon Startling’s work at Tate Britain.
Jim Lambie’s set of painted birds was intriguing yet mystifying. The two-foot tall plastic sculptures, coated with household paints, had an immediate visual appeal, as did the shiny diagonal stripes covering the floor. As with Starling (an appropriate name in the context), Lambie raised Duchampian issues relating to the discovery and aesthetic use of banal, everyday objects. But beyond this, I couldn’t quite see what Lambie was getting out of it. There was a mixture of messages at work, as Lambie seemed to revel in high art being swamped by more popular artforms. Jeff Koons tipping paint over Frank Stella perhaps. But how it all tied together I could not quite fathom. Is it really just about the visual potency of the shiny stripes laid on the floor, the black blots on the wall and the pools of seeming coagulated paint? Or is there a larger unifying theme that Lambie wishes to entice us with. From the symbols paraded, I really couldn’t tell.
Installation view of Jim Lambie’s work at Tate Britain.
In deploying four video screens of varying sizes around a darkened room (If I Had You),
Darren Almond perhaps had an effective means of creating a worthwhile piece of art, but the execution was sentimental, almost kitsch. The subject of two of the four screens was pleasingly elliptic. A neon outline of a Moulin Rouge-type windmill was projected onto one, and a suitable scraping noise could be heard as the mill followed its clockwork path. The other screen, placed at foot-level, showed an everyday garden fountain spouting its water in a never-ending loop. It was interesting to see the glamorous symbol of the Parisian nightclub and a cheap item purchased from B+Q united via the notion of circularity.
But the other two screens were pretty cheesy – slow-motions shots of an old woman, perhaps a deceased grandmother, looked like nothing more than a clichéd Hollywood-style rumination on old age and death. And pseudo-grainy shots of the dancing feet of two ballroom dancers was a too simplistic way of evoking times gone past. Ally this to the worst aspect of the room, a cloying sound track of a nostalgic piano tinkling away and the piece really seemed like some kind of excessive multimedia weeping. It may have been an accessible piece of work, but it conjured up a horrifying future where next-door neighbours lovingly parade, instead of tedious photo albums, never-ending multimedia collections.
Gillian Carnegie’s black paintings of trees and foliage, such asBlack Square, were the highlights of the show, indicating an artistic sensibility that should please both traditionalists and moderns. These large monochrome paintings, built up with heavy dollops of impasto and strategic use of the palette knife, illustrated intimate knowledge of painting as a representational tool and as a means of abstraction, a factor that immediately recalls someone like Frank Auerbach. But in concentrating on trees and nature rather than the city, and yet denying the possibility of any other kind of colour, Carnegie showed herself as to operating at a tangent to Auberach’s urban grittiness.
Her other paintings, of backsides, dancing men in lederhosen and other portraits of trees, were not so impressive. The rather simplistic tree paintings looked like lesser versions of the nature paintings done by Mondrian during his journey towards De Stijl. But one could sense a set of ideas emerging that could bear fruit in the future. In short, Carnegie was the most promising of a pretty poor bunch.
I finish with a coda. Downstairs, past the queues for the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition, sat a work from one (or rather two) of the previous year’s Turner Prize nominees, Langlands and Bell. We went to see this just after the current exhibition; its content clearly highlighted the deficiencies of the current crop of Turner contenders. It shows a video of the trial, in Afghanistan, of Zardad’s Dog, a Taliban-sponsored bodyguard who had allegedly bitten his victims before killing them. Immediately gripping, with little stylistic decoration or attempt to inject an artistic sensibility, the video manages to engage viewers by, in contrast to the hermetic worlds conjured up by the Turner Prize nominees, providing a seemingly more obvious path to narrative understanding, yet without ever becoming didactic or lapsing into pure documentary.
The video has no subtitles, and there are only brief explanatory panels shown between episodes of the court case. This does not matter. The familiar props of a trial – a courtroom, the oaths, the witnesses, the questions – provide a meaningful context. Then universal traits such as facial expressions, body language and tone of voices provide a further sense of narrative to the trial. So we see the sullen defiance of the accused; the nervous, darting eyes of the court guard, clutching his outsize rifle; the phalanx of journalists pressing tape recorders into speakers’ faces. A vivid family of characters is presented.
However, it’s important to note that one never manages to grasp a complete understand of what is happening. The lack of subtitles block definitive understanding, and so while the familiar settings and gestures provide a frame of reference, the viewer is left to interpret the artwork and inject her own meaning. This seems an approach that has not only artistic merit but speaks volumes about broader cultural issues. How does the western world understand and interact with the Islam world? Can the western world do anything more than observe Muslim life? Langlands and Bell’s simple video encapsulates a range of issues of immense cultural and political importance. It is given further potency by the fact that later news reports that the trial was not conducted in a fair fashion. Is the observer of the video neutral, or weighted down by prejudices that might also have provoked the judge? Like many good artworks, the narrative seems immediately obvious but it begins to become fuzzy once you get close. There is an easy way in, but not easy way out.
Zardad’s Dog is a short piece, maybe around twelve minutes long. And yet still there is plenty in the piece with which the viewer can engage, at both a poetic and a political level. It was this immediate sense of engagement that was almost entirely lacking in the Turner Prize upstairs.