Visual art review: Turner Prize 2012 | Ian Hamilton Finlay

Luke Fowler's film, All Divided Selves
Luke Fowler's film, All Divided Selves
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As usual, there is little inspiration on the Turner Prize shortlist, with the best work more fit for cinema than a gallery, but upstairs is a treat for those who prefer art made by someone with talent


User Group Disco, 2009

User Group Disco, 2009

Star rating: * *


Star rating: * * * *

Tate Britain, London

WHEN, long ago, I first visited the United States, I was amazed how awful the beer was. How could a great nation be persuaded to drink such stuff? Like Victory Gin in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, it was as though the country were not a democracy at all, but a dictatorship where the populace had no choice but drink what they were given. It couldn’t happen here, I thought, smugly, for the big brewers, trying to impose equally noxious fizzy liquids on British beer drinkers, had just been routed by them. How wrong I was. Now our supermarket shelves are laden with mass-produced American beer. The lesson? The market rules; taste is impotent. Which brings me to the Turner Prize, also a triumph of the market over taste and common sense. It has penetrated the public consciousness, willy-nilly, because it has been allied with television from the start. It’s the Strictly Come Dancing of art, but not nearly so entertaining.

This year there is once again not much in the Turner Prize you would cross the road to see, yet people pay to see it, and it is always busy. The four chosen artists, in the order that you see them, are Paul Noble, Luke Fowler, Elizabeth Price and Spartacus Chetwynd.

Paul Noble is an example of an increasingly common phenomenon in contemporary art, an artist for whom pencil drawing is a vehicle for obsessive behaviour. He covers sheets of paper with minute repetitive marks. Sometimes the results are abstract, delicate forms that look vaguely anthropomorphic and he also makes these shapes into sculptures, stone tangles of breasts and penises. Other drawings include houses described in neurotic detail. Like Charles Avery, also an obsessive, Noble claims his drawings represent an imaginary world. He calls it Nobson Newtown. It seems, however, not to have any inhabitants, but only to be manifest in its buildings. The shapes of the houses form short, personal names like Trev or Joe that provide titles to the pictures. The houses are tightly drawn, but seem strangely unreal because he uses isometric perspective. It looks superficially like ordinary perspective, but has no vanishing point: a neat metaphor for the pointlessness of his art.

Luke Fowler presents All Divided Selves. A documentary film, it is the one thing in the show you might cross the road to see, but only, I think, if you were already interested in his subject, RD Laing, the maverick Glasgow psychiatrist. It must be pretty impenetrable otherwise. Running for 90 minutes, it was shown earlier this year at Inverleith House. It is put together from clips in a running collage. The effect is an impressionistic account of Laing, his life and his times. You feel his charisma. You hear a little of what he had to say, though it is always fragmentary. You see, too, the psychiatric establishment in action against which he rebelled and by whom he was rejected. His central idea was that if the mind is disordered, then it follows that with the right approach it could also be reordered. In its Greek root schizophrenia means literally a “broken soul”, or, as he put it, a broken heart. The cure, he said, is to try to mend it and so proposed that talking and self-expression should take the place of the mind-numbing chemicals, the chemical cosh, usually favoured by conventional psychiatrists. We see him putting his ideas into practice with sometimes startling and disconcerting results. The film also sets his unconventional thinking in the context of 1960s alternative lifestyles and so implicitly suggests the utopian idealism that shaped it. By cutting and strange juxtapositions, the film itself also suggests a confused state of mind, not Laing’s own perhaps, but rather a metaphor for what he tried to cure. Overall you learn something of his fiery personality, his remarkable insights, the difficulties he faced and the stuffiness of those who opposed him.

Nevertheless, what is a feature-length film doing here? Its presence reflects a specious exceptionalism around artist’s films, a product of the slack bagginess of this whole enterprise. Is it really impossible to have any criteria about what should, or should not qualify for the Turner Prize, apart of course from the unspoken exclusion of anything resembling straightforward painting or sculpture? Fowler certainly makes his own films. The credits read Director Luke Fowler, Producer Luke Fowler, Editor Luke Fowler etc. etc. He is very good at it too, and has made an original worthwhile documentary, although it is very specialised and does assume your interest in Laing. Nevertheless, surely a feature-length film belongs in a cinema, not in an art gallery?

Luke Fowler is a professional filmmaker. To put him up against Paul Noble, for instance, cannot conceivably be to compare like with like. They are utterly different forms and derive from very different traditions. There is too much fuzzy thinking in this whole enterprise. Artist’s film is here to stay, I have no doubt, but it should be a separate category in this competition. That would mean rethinking the competition itself entirely, but it would be no bad thing if that happened. It might even begin to seem marginally less absurd.

Elizabeth Price also makes films and so the same argument holds for her, but even here the comparison with Luke Fowler is hardly like with like. He has made a feature length documentary. Her short film, The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979, is more like a pop video. Quick-moving, its inspiration is a disastrous fire in a Woolworth’s store, when a number of people lost their lives. The fire started in a room where furniture was stored. There are shots of solid traditional furniture. It might not have gone up in flames as disastrously as its flammable modern equivalent, but it might equally be a setting for an audience. Then a choir comes in, off-screen. Like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, it narrates the event as it unfolds with shots of fire engines and the actual fire. The effect is dramatic, but I am not at all sure that it really does what it says on the label, or even what the label means: (The) “swing between analysis and sensory pleasure acknowledges the complexity of our relationship to the world of systems and ideologies and to cycles of desire and consumption.” Really?

The fourth contender, Spartacus Chetwynd, is a throwback to the early days of performance art. Her work is pretty formless. The live performance I saw was based on the tale of Jesus and Barabbas. She and an assistant were dressed in motley, like carnival clowns. They waved puppets around in a vague sort of way. “Dissolving the boundary between spectator and participant”, I was dragged in to wave a puppet myself. The background is a wall-to-wall collage of texts and pictures. Improbably, according to the catalogue, the artist lives and works in a nudist colony in south London. Perhaps she should win the prize for that fact? It would be no dafter a choice than the usual outcome of the woolly thinking that shapes this whole business.

Finally, to restore your faith in things artistic, upstairs – in a remarkable gesture – the whole of the Duveen Galleries, the huge classical atrium at the centre of the old Tate Gallery, has been given over to Ian Hamilton Finlay. What is on view is only the gallery’s own collection, so it lacks balance. Nevertheless, with dramatic lighting it makes an austere and beautiful display. Thus Finlay, sworn enemy of woolly thinking, offers a majestic riposte to the Turner Prize downstairs. The display, we were told by Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain, also heralds a future homage by the gallery to this remarkable and uncompromising artist.

•  Turner Prize 2012 until 6 January; Ian Hamilton Finlay until 17 February