Turner Prize: Controversial artworks on this year’s shortlist reward and require sustained attention
BEARDED ladies, madness and lots of poo: I wouldn’t blame you if you simply sighed and scrolled on or turned the page. I’d urge you otherwise, or at least I’d urge you to get to Tate Britain.
It’s not that there’s not an element of truth in the headline news about this year’s Turner Prize. It’s just that there’s so much more and it’s so much harder to talk about. This is a year in which sustained attention is rewarded and required. Two of the projects on show are the result of a decade or more’s work. And emotionally it is a rollercoaster, from medieval mayhem to the tragedy of mental illness, and a terrible investigation into the Manchester Woolworths Fire of 1979.
The bearded lady is Spartacus Chetwynd. The beard is of the stick-on variety and you might also have guessed that her forename is recently adopted rather than given. Chetwynd is a one-time student of social anthropology who turned her interest in ritual and celebration, and her fondness for parties, into art.
Chetwynd has become a reliably bonkers figure in British art: always there for some papier maché and medieval mumming or a Star Wars reference to counteract the slick professionalism that can have a chokehold on the art world. From performing ancient morality tales to wealthy art collectors and creating a giant “catbus” that made the frigid Frieze art fair fun, she orchestrates performances with ragged aesthetics and agitational subject matter.
At the Turner, some striped paper becomes a tent, where the artist and friends perform a puppet show on the theme of Jesus and Barabbas. I couldn’t understand much of what went on, but the puppets were cutely misshapen and the costumes delightfully homemade. Then there’s an oracle you might consult, aided by some green-clad tree people.
Chetwynd’s art can be a messy delight, but I wonder if we’re in danger in misusing her as a handy get-out clause. It’s also somewhat astounding that she’s one of the few live performance artists ever to be nominated. The problems for exhibition visitors is that, like the upended inflatable slide in her gallery space, her art deflates when she’s not around.
The prize, though, is not awarded for the annual beauty pageant at Tate Britain, but the original work that the artists were nominated for. In the case of Glasgow’s Luke Fowler, it was his film All Divided Selves, on show last year at Edinburgh’s Inverleith House. On a practical note, I remember that as 90 minutes of wriggling in a hard seat. This time he has created a mini cinema, with padded seats and hanging textiles for sound-proofing.
The film is the third in his trilogy on the maverick psychiatrist RD Laing, reclaimed as part of Glasgow’s intellectual heritage and re-examined as a wider counter-cultural figure. Fowler is a connoisseur of intellectual or emotional outsiders and the price they or others may pay for these positions.
Laing comes across as brilliant, mercurial and flawed – as does the film at times. But it is also astonishingly beautiful and retells the tale from an intensely personal perspective. Laing talked often about the violence and hierarchy of family and society and how it fractured the soul. Fowler makes a case for understanding and tolerance in both art and our emotional lives.
This year’s favourite is Paul Noble, whose ongoing Nobson Newtown drawing project does include some finely rendered poo. Noble has been trapped in his studio for some 16 years, creating page after page of obsessively realised pencil drawings.
Nobson Newton is a place of Paul Noble’s own invention. It looks like a bleak monument valley peopled by fading modernist bachelor pads and decaying Henry Moore sculptures. It can be a ribald, mysterious or a melancholy place. In a series of works in memory of Noble’s late friend Trev, rain falls in silent spears or heavy concrete blocks. Plants blossom and wither and die. This is a hermetic world but not free from the rewards and burdens of the real one.
If Noble is the favourite, and should be fairly acknowledged as a key figure, I can’t help wishing that the prize go to Elizabeth Price. Her art is like hearing the opening riff of your favourite song and receiving an unwelcome electric shock in the same confusing instant. Her video installation, The Woolworths Choir Of 1979, is a re-edited version of a work seen in London, Edinburgh and Newcastle and an ever-evolving examination of the word choir, as understood in everything from medieval church architecture to pop music to Greek theatre.
As the film progresses it becomes a terrifying, incantatory act of mourning where the soundtrack of girl-group handclaps resound like thunderclaps. The hinge is a gesture of supplication observed on a medieval tomb, which becomes a dancer’s gesture and then the helpless waving of a trapped victim of the fire. The notion that technology and access to the archive can change the way we see and write history is nothing new, but Price is unique in her authoritative command of these ideas.
Choir is a full-scale Greek tragedy for our age. It helps us forge a new way of thinking about space and time, and in a strangely eloquent mix of precision and chilly intellectualism, it does tell a story as a modern Greek chorus might. At the end of 20 minutes the screen fills with smoke and you find yourself both gasping at her audacity and simply gasping for breath.
This year’s show is uniquely complex, ribald yet brainy, torn between silliness, melancholy and joy. In the shape of Luke Fowler’s film, it also contains a strong plea for redemption. The 2012 Turner Prize Exhibition comes in the wake of the death of one of this year’s judges, Michael Stanley, director of Modern Art Oxford, who died in September at the age of 37. Stanley, who was one of the art world’s brightest and most affable figures, is a great loss. «
The Turner Prize 2012 Exhibition is at Tate Britain, London, until 6 January. The winner will be announced on 3 December. www.tate.org.uk
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