Letter From London
The Turner Prize 2008
Tate Britain, London
September 30, 2008 – January 18, 2009
So blockbuster season is truly upon us!
Summer’s over, but Rothko (Tate Modern), Bacon (Tate Britain), Warhol’s television and films (The Hayward), and new Gerhard Richters (Serpentine Gallery) have all arrived in London. Robert Irwin is having his first–ever exhibition here at White Cube (well, for me that’s a blockbuster). The biggest shark though, Frieze Art Fair, opens in a few days of this writing (more next issue). With daily economic forecasts that spell doom writ large, we anticipate the event with some excitement and foreboding…
Although Frieze week has eclipsed most other events on the fall calendar, a quieter media event rumbles on through this half of the year. With nominations arriving during the summer and an exhibition by the contenders at Tate Britain in the fall, speculation continues to build until the winner of the Turner Prize is announced in December. Created in 1984, the Prize is awarded annually to “a British artist under fifty for an outstanding exhibition or other presentation of their work in the twelve months preceding.” That is, they are both nominated for and judged upon a specific exhibition within a twelve-month period, not for the one they present at the Tate. To qualify, one has to be a resident of the UK or born there. The winner of the first Turner Prize was Malcolm Morley, in competition with Gilbert & George, Richard Deacon, and Richard Long. The second was won by Howard Hodgkin, and last year by Mark Wallinger, at second asking, beating Mike Nelson among others.
This year, the 24th edition, has brought together Mark Leckey, Runa Islam, Cathy Wilkes, and Goshka Machuga. While previous nominees have included relatively well-known artists, the past decade has seen more pockets of respected “insiders.” If the by-words in art fashion have been “relational aesthetics” for the past few years, best espoused by Francesco Bonami’s sprawling 2000 Venice Biennale, then “the politics of display” or “the anthropology of display” could be loosely used to describe this hot but largely non-crowd-pleasing group. It is unusual for the nominees to be so interrelated by one aspect of their work (though I’m pushing this point with Wilkes). The notion I have in mind is most clearly illustrated by the work of artists like Steven Claydon or Carol Bove, whose sculptures and assemblages integrate display shelves and stands, calling into question the context in which we view art while interrogating the history of the objects themselves. If one were to consider the relationship between art object and support, then Brancusi’s plinths would be a good early example.
All the artists have created installations or environments of sorts; even Islam, a filmmaker, has tailored her viewing rooms to suit each of her works. Polish artist Goshka Macuga is known for taking inspiration from archives and art history, resulting in eccentric sculptures with a layered sense of history. In the past, she has worked with the archive of the institution in which she is exhibiting, and this is certainly the case here. Nominated for her contribution to the Berlin Biennale, she has created new surreal and romantic black-and-white photo-collages, with a touch of foreboding, around two sets of historical couples: Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, and the modernist painters Paul Nash and Eileen Agar. The latter were involved in a long affair, and each are represented by work in the Tate’s collection. Juxtaposed against these quietly “emotive” pieces are Macuga’s barrier-like sculptures, inspired by Mies, that she created for Berlin. Faintly drawn patterns on the wall suggesting rainfall add a pleasant melancholy to Macuga’s space.
In her September White Cube exhibition, Runa Islam worked with Tobias Putrih to create an environment to view her work—screens made from strips of film that divided and surrounded the space. At the Tate, the installation feels like more than simply a series of black cubes; there is a sense that Islam has thought a great deal about how to best put across these highly aestheticized films that are the intended centre of attention. Islam’s work is known to draw upon cinematic history, and her newest film, CINEMATOGRAPHY, seems at one level a reference to Structuralist film. Inspired by Robert Bresson’s writings, it was shot in the studio of the New Zealand-based stop-motion master Harry Harrison, with the slow movement of the camera spelling out the title. Slow motion is also featured in Be The First To See As You See It, in which displays of 50s-style crockery is knocked off a table and floats downward until it shatters on the floor.
Mark Leckey also uses a forty-minute film as his centrepiece, but the medium is put to the purpose of documenting his performance-lecture on culture conducted at Tate Modern and the Guggenheim. In Cinema-in-the-Round (2006), Leckey interconnects his interests and ideas, moving from Guston and Baselitz to The Simpsons, Jeff Koons, Felix the Cat, and back again. With a presentation consisting of objects/sculptures/maquettes, films, and a large-screen projection area for his Cinema, Leckey has created the more complex installation. A product of ’80s English rave culture, he has been described by some as a consummate flâneur. We could indeed look at Leckey’s enterprise as one of cultural surfing—a lover of dance and music culture, one way to describe his activity is that of a fan collaging elements of his favourite things into a grand schema. In Made in Heaven (2004), a 16mm film of his home/studio, Leckey’s camera/eye roves around a Jeff Koons silver rabbit, which acts as the centre of gravity in this otherwise empty space. Despite the predominately female set of nominees, Leckey is the bookies’ favourite to win it.
For me it is the Northern Irish Wilkes’s installation that stands out. Known for making feminist and existentialist installations drawn from her own life, there seems to be a constant, forlorn sense of catastrophe in her work, an almost Beckettian sense of alienation. I give you all my money is no different. This time two mannequins—one with a birdcage on her head, the other sitting on a toilet—and two supermarket checkout counters set the scene, which is strewn with debris, dishes, and empty jam jars. Stacks of bricks have crosses drawn into their joins, alongside Wilkes’s trademark empty bowls in a fish tank. Wilkes comes from the Kienholz school of fine art-making. Okay, it is obvious on one level, but I believe it is the most directly emotionally engaged piece in the competition.
Ranging from black-and-white romance to cold intellectualism, a gregarious fan and intense feminism, this exhibition of Turner short-listers is a show that celebrates the sophistication that the British art world has achieved since the YBA’s exploded on the scene. One broadsheet critic, The Telegraph’s Richard Dorment, has described it as “Euro-art,” a term he has sourly made up to describe “a certain kind of technically competent, bland, and ultimately empty art made specifically for international biennales. The Euro-artist builds up a successful career by making art intended to appeal not to the general public but to curators, and to be bought not by private collectors but by museums and private foundations. Often it is art about art or the making of art, and is based on the artist’s extensive research into an esoteric subject of interest only to him or her.” Like the Booker prize for literature, the idea of the Turner is to foster interest in contemporary art by the general public. Despite my reservations about the selection, it is still nice to see a group that asks something more of the public, and doesn’t settle simply to entertain them. If you want a snippet of the London scene, here it is.
Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.