Friday, 21 December 2012

Turner Prize shortlist 2012

Tate Britain, 2 October 20126 January 2013
A still from the film All Divided Selves by Luke Fowler, 2011.
Taken from here.
A fractured documentary on psychiatry is the highlight of a fairly uninspired exhibition.

We are not so very different from the ancient Greeks. Their games were occasions for prizes to both athletes and artists, and despite some ambivalence on our part with regards the latter, we still have things like this prize for visual art.

The fours artists, Spartacus Chetwynd, Luke Fowler, Paul Noble and Elizabeth Price, are all good, but none of their works are exceptional.

Tate Britain’s director claims the prize is neither a survey nor a barometer of contemporary British art, but I don’t believe this Its aim is “to promote discussion of new developments in British art”, but I wasn't sure what was supposed to be new here.

In terms of medium, the mix is unsurprising, indicative of what galleries are displaying and donors supporting. Fowler and Price provide video or film based exhibits (perhaps better expanded cinema), while Chetwynd’s is performance-based. This leaves Noble as the representative of plastic art, in a series of drawings and sculpture.  

Content-wise, Noble is also the most intentionally old-fashioned, with surreal drawings and globular erotic sculptures. I longed for some colour amongst these pseudo-architectural drawings, or perhaps some three-dimensional models of the proposed structures.

Chetwynd is the most political, coordinating an ensemble of amateur actors in anarchic events structured around the act of voting, in this case. That the voting process is peculiar and readily manipulated is not the most interesting thing about it, but that, along with some wacky humour, was what I took away from this exhibit.  

I’d seen Price’s video trilogy before, by chance, when it was exhibited at the BALTIC in Gateshead earlier this year. It seemed much more mysterious there; at Tate Britain I felt I could interpret it better, which may say something about the ‘hanging’ of video art. The suggestive narrative, linking architectural features in gothic churches with a fire in a department store, made me rethink gothic churches as representations of hellish afterlife, but nothing more. The handclaps in the soundtrack are effective though. 

Fowler’s 90-minute film meditation on RD Laing’s views on madness and psychiatry was the standout in the exhibition, for having a fairly clear meaning and one that is not trivial, unlike Chetwynd’s. A kind of biography of Laing, this focussed specifically on his still-controversial observation of the importance of social factors on mental health, something that by now ought to be acknowledged wisdom, but clearly isn’t. Laing is the hero of the film, and fascinates as much for his powerful personality as for his theories.

I’d give the prize to Fowler, if only because he addresses himself to a serious subject and treats it seriously. That said, Chetwynd’s irreverent approach to serious topics is interesting and I’d want to see more of it, though this particular piece left me cold.

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