We welcome back Owen Polley of the award-winning Three Thousand Versts: he’s wondering what the Turner Prize is really for…
The British public loves to hate the Turner Prize.
For evidence, you can visit the current exhibition, at the Tate Britain in London, and read the comment wall at the end. “They should all be committed to a lunatic asylum”, “Complete rubbish from start to finish” and, even more succinctly, “Pile of wank”, are among the reviews scrawled on post-it notes and fastened to the display.
One response reads, “This wall is the best thing in the exhibition”.
The truth is, on this occasion, the punters are right. Like some of Samuel Beckett’s plays, or Will Gompertz, the Turner Prize seems to tempt out the inner Philistine even in those of us who value the arts highly.
I visited the Tate Britain ready and eager to have my preconceptions swept aside by some of the UK’s brightest and most talented artists. Unfortunately, afterwards, the best I could say of the six contenders for Britain’s premier modern art prize is that one of them can draw very well.
And that assessment isn’t supposed to be particularly withering. Paul Noble sketches densely detailed pictures of an imaginary city called Nobson Newtown. They’re quite impressive, as these things go.
Indeed, had Noble been doodling on the back of his homework jotter, an encouraging teacher may have steered him toward a career in architecture, or urged him to take an A Level in ‘tech drawing’. There’s an active imagination at work in his pictures, which are rather like something a talented sci-fi geek might produce – if it weren’t for all the poo.
The artist has a bit of a scatological preoccupation and … erm …. litters his fictional world with poo boats and poo people. Oh, and if you look closely, because this is the Turner Prize, some of the inhabitants of Nobson Newtown are masturbating. Edgy.
And that covers the most interesting artist in this year’s shortlist. The rest are pretty dull.
There’s a Glaswegian chap who takes grainy photos on an old camera, which appear in pairs, because his exhibit is called Divided Self. He’s also shot a long film about the ‘anti-psychiatrist’ R.D. Laing, which is probably worth a watch if it ever appears on BBC 4.
Another movie, by Elizabeth Price, uses some mildly interesting visuals to tell the tale of a fire that burned down a Woolworths in Manchester. She’s playing around with storytelling techniques, so if you were writing a piece about her work in a scholarly journal you’d be expected to trot out words like ‘narrative’ and ‘postmodernism’.
I couldn’t help feeling that there have been pop videos which do the same thing more impressively. And the MTV feel was exacerbated when The Woolworths Choir of 1979 bursts into a song by the Shangri Las.
The last piece was by the type of artist who makes people genuinely angry about modern art.
Spartacus Chetwynd, whom Wikipedia confirms was not christened ‘Spartacus’, has dressed a few chaps in sheets and smeared them with camouflage (top). They lie about pretending to sleep, or get up and gyrate a bit. The blurb says that the performance is ‘carnivalesque’, although I thought it was more like an ‘Occupy’ protest for people who find the outdoors too cold.
Still, I suppose that’s the point. A cynic, who’d completed their ‘post-it’ review of the exhibition, suggested Chetwynd’s selection was a publicity stunt, dropped in by the judges to generate column inches for the short-list.
They’re probably not far off the mark.
Next year the Turner Prize becomes a travelling freak show, as the ceremony moves to Northern Ireland and forms the centre-piece of Londonderry’s stint as the first UK City of Culture.
And that’s just how the British public likes it. The Turner Prize is a chance to point and laugh at some pretentious people desperately trying to prove they have talent. Or it’s an opportunity to rage and fume at how the modern world is going to hell, because left-field artists like to outdo each other in outrageousness.
Either way, the art may not wow people, but they keep reading about the shortlist and they flock to the exhibition, even if it’s only to pour out their derision on a post-it note.