Turner Prize 2014: Headscratchingly Challenging And Not Very Public Friendly

Turner Prize 2014

The Turner prize, created thirty years ago to promote public discussion about new developments in contemporary British Art, couldn’t be less public-friendly this year, and will be hard pressed to lure the masses. Aside from elements like the exuberant colour in Ciara Phillips’ installation and the musicality of Tris Vonna-Michell’s voice, some works can be headscratchingly challenging at times, and unnecessarily so, but yet there is some debate to be had should one persist with some patience. The consensus amongst the four shortlisted artists is a clin d’oeil to outmoded forms of expression, like the handmade, or analogue technology. However hermetic some of the content, there is something to be said about poking around the past, whether symbolically, nostalgically or literally, especially since much contemporary work that is highly produced and slick.

Duncan Campbell, one of the four shortlisted, postulates that form is the main element and not just a channel through which to deliver his ideas. Borrowing from Samuel Beckett, he says that he searches for “a form that accommodates the mess”. This is an appealing objective particularly in light of recent accentuation of concept over form. And whether or not the perfection of form is or is not achieved here, it’s refreshing to have this be an aim for a change. It makes me think that somehow all four artists have an unintended subconscious meeting of minds in this regard.

The show opens with James Richards’ albeit digital video piece, “Rosebud”. References to Citizen Kane aside, the film flashes up stills from a book found in a Japanese library containing source imagery of sexually explicit material from various artists, like Man Ray, and most notably Robert Mapplethorpe – I walked in right at the famous bull whip in the anus shot. The offending genitalia have been furiously scratched out, like a puritanical censor, a reference to the past perhaps? The shots are interspersed with video footage of a wistful yet contrived nature: someone stroking a budgie’s head, a walk in a watery land mass, and a stem of baby’s breath gently stroking a pair of lips, the foreskin of a flaccid penis and an anal sphincter that suddenly constricts like a forget-me-not upon contact with the tickle of the botanical specimen. It seemed a bit laboured and artificial. The adjoining room displays a collection of flag-sized commercially woven tapestries, of Keith Haring’s lovers and art dealers, with Haring only fractionally in the picture. It coexists in the same room with a slide carousel noisily clunking out colored slides of cuts and grazes from a Dutch theatrical makeup manual.  Had I not known the source of the latter images, I would have had my stomach turn slightly. The two seem to address corporeal fragility.

On a less hermetic note, the quest for identity through history is a core theme in Tris Vonna-Michell’s works, and the slide carousel makes an appearance in Postscript IV, an account of a trip to Berlin to discover his mother’s postwar childhood, an exercise in futility and frustration, and a vocal perambulation through time and place, real or imagined, connected by objects, images, words and disconnected sentences. The darkness is imbued by visually compelling imagery whilst his narrative accompanies the rhythmic whirring and clunking of the machine, light beams illuminating the dust particles floating in the somber atmosphere. Finding Chopin: Dans L’Essex, is yet another quest, this time, to find the French sound poet Henri Chopin, who for a short time lived in Vonna-Michell’s Essex childhood home. Here, he steps up the pace and his delivery is frenetic, rain-man-sequential sentences and utterances in a stream of consciousness and associations, until “I tell him a story of nothing, the egg timer has run out”. Performance albeit mediated by technology, in the form of storytelling, one of the oldest art forms and modes of transmission.

Duncan Campbell presents a more ambitious, challenging, and lengthy film, at over 50 minutes in length.”It for Others”, is a complex analysis about the commodification of objects, with a portion of the film sequences devoted to art. “Prices for art become an object in themselves”, and “the value of an artwork is not the work in itself”, a deadpan female narrator informs us. Replete with Marxist notions of value, sectarian politics, art historical references, and art theory terminology generating enough name dropping cachet for “informed” audiences with references to Adam smith, David Ricardo, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, along with a diverse selection of compelling imagery.  He also pops in a visually entertaining choreography by Michael Clark company about the theory of value. For all its density it takes patience but is engaging, and I found it interesting to watch despite its length when there were three other artists to see. By contrast, his other film is quite delightful and funny, about eccentric painter Sigmar Polke. It features Polke’s drawings in stop motion animation, with an utterly hilarious soundtrack emitting outbursts of a mad man yelling, “ne!”,”nein nein”, “nicht” and harrumphing whilst the squishy squidgy sounds of paint are being applied by an invisible studio assistant.

Finally, in sharp, stark contrast, Ciara Phillips’ room installation is an assault of colourful screen printing, literally everywhere. She cheerfully plays around with letters, for as she says, letters generate better discussion than words (whatever that means). “OK” or “ON” are screen printed on posters, made into sculptures like a gigantic “K” as a sort of display cabinet for imagery. A curvilinear structure resembling an “O” if it is seen from above, where the sectioned fragment is an entryway into the structure, also wallpapered with her screen prints, and proposes topics of “things to discuss” like money, or fractals or rubbish. The rest of the room is covered from floor to ceiling with colorful screenprints whose forms are developed from abstract marks, ink splodges, and geometric shapes, emphasizing play, chance, repetition and even mistakes. In a word, she goes mental with her medium and like a kid on a sugar high, she churns out a multitude of possibilities. It’s joyful and physical and a bit of a breath of fresh air because it reminds us of what artists used to do in their studios.

In summary, this year’s Turner prize not a crowd pleaser, and and certain pieces are sheer hard work. And although we can generate discussion about contemporary art developments it seems to stay within the confines of set structure of power, in this case the insiders of the art world. But then exclusivity is what helps to maintain those structures firmly in place.
The Turner Prize 2014 exhibition runs until 4 January 2015 at Tate Britain. The winner will be announced at an awards ceremony, broadcast live on Channel 4 on Monday 1 December 2014.


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