When he was a photography student at Glasgow School of Art, Tris Vonna-Michell staged his own disappearance.
The Turner Prize 2014 Exhibition
Tate Britain, London
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The Essex-born artist, who is half German, went to Leipzig in the former East Germany for a few weeks, documented his collection of family photographs and shredded the originals. The material formed part of his degree show in 2005.
Since then Vonna-Michell, one of three Glasgow-trained artists on the four-person shortlist, has been weaving new material from those shreds: presenting and representing, unpicking and reconstructing his family stories as images, slide shows and now as a film in an exploration of origins both personal and artistic.
At Tate Britain the Turner Prize exhibition explores the past and the present, the re-use of material from the archive and the boundaries between fact and fiction. This year’s prize feels more than most years like a show that describes a consistent moment in visual arts, the dominance of film, the slipperiness of the past and the importance of making.
The labour is most obvious in the work of Ciara Phillips, the Glasgow artist who works predominantly in print-making. In the short contextual film that the Tate makes about each nominee, the camera lingers lovingly on Phillips at work in her studio as though rejoicing about an artist who actually makes things. But make no mistake – although Vonna-Michell, James Richards and Glasgow-based Irishman Duncan Campbell all work in film or photo-based works, and seem to draw on images or stories that are already out there, this is art that is laboriously constructed, crafted from the archive, grafted from the real world.
James Richards, who was born in Wales, studied in London and now lives in Berlin, has been nominated for his film Rosebud (2013), a lusciously sensual film that features furtive shrubbery, underwater footage and the documentation of Tokyo library books whereby explicit elements of images by artists such as Man Ray or Robert Mapplethorpe have been brutally sand-papered from the pages. Apparently the library is forbidden from showing images that might excite the viewer, so Richards tries instead with bubbling underwater imagery, the image of a sprig of the white bloom gypsophila dragging against skin.
Can the camera really stimulate, excite or horrify? Richards’s work Screens is a series of slide carousels showing sequences of images culled from an instructional tome. It shows bullet wounds and cuts, a battered fingernail hanging loose. All are constructed with theatrical make-up. When we know that, do the images still have the power to unsettle or disgust? Richards’s work is lovely even when it looks horrible, but it is lacking in urgency and borrows a little too heavily from the charisma of his sources in 20th-century surrealism and elsewhere.
Tris Vonna-Michell presents two works at dramatically different paces. Finding Chopin: Dans L’Essex, (2014) is a film that features a live recording of the artist in performance, part of a body of work he has developed since 2003. In a narrative that is fast-paced, looping and repetitious, he tells a story about trying to find the avant-garde French poet Henri Chopin, and therein to trace his own intellectual origins.
Is it true? Or is it a shaggy dog story, a means of both acknowledging intellectual inheritance and diverting our attention?
Vonna-Michell owes something to a number of more senior artists, including the filmmaker Tacita Dean, whose work focuses on time and loss, and Simon Starling, the Glasgow-trained artist who teaches in Frankfurt, where Vonna-Michell pursued his postgraduate studies. They are both masters of the shaggy dog story and the search for the past in the present.
Ciara Phillips acknowledges her antecedents. “Salute Your Sources” screams one of the prints she has presented in a room that positively shouts as the only daylit space in a near-twilight exhibition. More than 400 prints on newsprint, every one unique, paper the walls. In the centre of the room two sculptural shapes, similarly pasted with imagery, turn out to be the word “OK” written in the gallery. Phillips is open in her debt to the American artist and activist Sister Corita Kent who taught art in Los Angeles in the Sixties, an influence on designers such as Saul Bass and utopians like Buckminster Fuller.
If James Richards’ lyricism is deeply seductive, Phillips’ work is about work itself and joy and Vonna-Michell is evocative about the unresolved nature of family relationships. It is in Duncan Campbell’s work, tough at times, and often unresolved, that we sense real purchase.
Campbell’s films on Bernadette Devlin, Bernadette (2008) and John De Lorean, Make it New John (2009), took figures who were near obscured by the contested nature of their stories and the image-making that had surrounded their actions and made us see them afresh, without ever suggesting that Campbell’s version was the only version of, or indeed, the truth. At the Turner Prize Exhibition Campbell is showing Sigmar (2008), an enigmatic short about German painter Sigmar Polke. and It for Others, commissioned by Glasgow’s Common Guild for the Scotland + Venice project last year and currently on display at the Glasgow gallery, which I reviewed last week.
The latter is a lengthy, complex and demanding film, which asks questions about how we visualise our complex relationship with objects and commodities from African artefacts to Christmas stockings that celebrated the IRA.
Seeing his meditation on African art at Tate, an institution built on sugar and slavery, watching a sequence in which the Michael Clark Company use choreography to expound on Karl Marx’s Das Kapital so close to the City, or seeing the image of IRA volunteer Joseph McCann so close to the beating heart of the British establishment emphasises the real traction of history.
The criticism of the Turner Prize this year might be that it appears retro or vintage, but Campbell’s work has a real reason to look to the past. He quotes Beckett, saying he is looking for “a form that accommodates the mess”.
• Until 4 January 2015 Tate Britain, London. The winner is announced live on Channel 4 on 1 December