Speed Limit


Left: Writer Alice Rawsthorn. Right: Artist Wolfgang Tillmans and Tate director Nicholas Serota. (All photos: © Dafydd Jones)

What do you get when you mix a knob of elephant dung with half a cow, a smidge of transvestitism, and a full-scale garden shed? Why, a Turner Prize retrospective, of course. Last Monday night, Tate Britain unveiled an exhibition that is exactly what it says on the tin—a retrospective of works by all the winning artists. Short-listed “losers” were contentiously excluded from the exhibition, warranting only a mention in the show’s “supporting material.” Ouch.

Seen by many as the catalyst in bringing contemporary art to the attention of the British public—a public only too eager to proffer a vociferous opinion however ill informed—the Turner Prize can always be counted on to incite, delight, and infuriate.

On arrival, a cursory glance around indicated the presence of all the right ingredients for the usual effusive art-world hyperbole and madness. An hour in, however, I had the distinct impression that something was amiss. It was as though the guests—artists, their coteries, and gawkers alike—had been struck by collective ennui. There was a wary listlessness in the air even as ice clinked in glasses and conversations hummed. The attending past winners were in a cagey mood and curiously tight-lipped. Not even the cocktails were loosening them up. What was going on? Had the Turner lost its mojo?

Left: Artist Anish Kapoor. Right: The scene at the Tate.

German-born Wolfgang Tillmans, the winner of the 2000 prize, played his height to his advantage as he dodged questions about the prize, its significance, the retrospective, and just about everything else. Laughing nervously, he copped a military-style code of conduct by repeating, “The show is good . . . the Turner Prize is good . . . everything is good.” That stone wall was clearly not about to tumble. While it’s no secret that winning the prize is something of a mixed blessing, it’s generally regarded as an accolade rather than the secret curse of Tutankhamun’s tomb. I began to wonder.

Other past winners appeared unusually discomfited. Anish Kapoor remained fortressed inside a tight knot of rapt hangers-on, while Grenville Davey, back in the public eye after a protracted absence following his win in 1992, appeared, frankly, baffled. Richard Long looked grumpy (possibly owing to his startling bat-wing eyebrows), and only hypersociable Keith Tyson seemed characteristically unfazed.

Self-confessed “media slag to the stars,” cross-dressing potter Grayson Perry, in not-so-little-Bo-Peep regalia, was the only one willing to talk. On the subject of his reticent cowinning colleagues: “Unfortunately, some artists believe that publicity is incompatible with the noble pursuit of contemporary art”; he described its entire realm as “a small, esoteric world up it’s own arse.” At last, a little passion, an opinion. Of the actual exhibition, he admitted, “I quite like its randomness. It’s been . . . decurated.”

Left: Artist Grenville Davey and Victoria Burton-Davey. Right: Artists Richard Long and Keith Tyson.

A little later, a spectacle that might have rejuvenated the night’s flailing spirit failed with an e for effort (even as it inspired paroxysms of delirium in two pogoing girls, front and center). Performance artists Chicks on Speed delivered a cacophonic set worthy of the New York Bowery scene ca. 1983. As the sound ricocheted off the uncompromising marble and plaster surfaces, art historian Dr. Richard Cork’s pained expression said it all. While the Chicks jumped up and down in varying degrees of dress, an accompanying overhead projection showed a film of naked bottoms (theirs, of course) being repeatedly smacked in lieu of a drum beat, and nude women (them, of course) playing air guitar and mimicking the preening conceits of strutting cock-rockers. A political statement, no doubt, and actually kind of compelling, but some of the more sensitive and dignified in the audience took flight and ran toward the bar for cover.

Through perhaps no fault of its own, the evening suffered an odd disjointedness, an atmospheric malaise that could conceivably be chalked up to the weather (wet and windy), the moon, or . . . the Curse of Turner. As the band played on, a weary Perry, in voluminous bloomers, handmade pinafore, and red Mary Janes, greeted his approaching wife and, sighing deeply, complained, “This music is ageist . . . Do take me home, dear.”

Lynne Gentle

Left: Chicks on Speed. Right: Artist Grayson Perry.