Sleeper Hit


Left: Artist Mark Wallinger and his mother. Right: Actor Dennis Hopper. (All photos: Lynne Gentle)

Neurotically reluctant to stray farther north than north London, I felt mild dread as I boarded a train last Monday for Liverpool, Europe’s 2008 Capital of Culture. Everything is the new something these days, I thought, cynically bracing myself for the novelty of a Turner Prize served up Scouse-style. Ringo Starr meets Andy Capp to discuss Duchamp? Turned out I was wrong.

This year marks the first time the Turner Prize has poked its nose outside London, a decision that, director Nicholas Serota assured me, was not a wonky reading of the Tate compass. Determined to give the city a leg up and bolster support for its new cultural position, Serota explained it that it was “time to make Liverpool the center of attention.” How often do you get up this way, then? Ignoring that, he continued, “The support and enthusiasm here have just been amazing.” So will this exodus from Tate Britain set a new precedent for the Turner? Serota confirmed, somewhat enigmatically, that though it would never be as formulaic as alternating annually between London and other locations, this first shift away from the capital would not be the last.

I confess now that due to inclement weather and a railway system ironically ill designed for rain, I missed the announcement of the winner. The doorman shouted “Mark Wallinger!” at my back as I burst into a party gathering itself into a full-tilt boogie. All but Dennis Hopper, that is. Flown in especially to award the prize and looking decidedly world-wearier than he did when last seen in these parts, he seemed all boogied out and spent most of the evening sitting with friends, clutching a flat cap and reading glasses.

Left: Artist Mike Nelson. Right: Artist Douglas Gordon and a friend.

Inexplicably partial to the Scouse accent, I strained to hear its distinctive dulcet gargle and realized that, while the Prize may have been in Liverpool, there was little evidence of Liverpool at the Prize—it was as though London had excised itself and plopped down by the Mersey for the evening. “Of course everyone here is from London,” said Grayson Perry, admitting that while moving the event gave the Turner “a bit of texture,” London would always be its true epicenter. While I was struggling to get a clear snapshot of what could best be described as an azure-blue, sequined faux phallus protruding from between the panels of Perry’s frock, Artangel director Michael Morris sidled up and, pointing to my Nikon, said, “That might be Grayson’s, but this one is yours.” Hmm. Morris was vociferous in his opinion that artists should be nominated only once. Mike Nelson, 2007 short-lister, lost to Martin Creed in 2001, while Wallinger lost in 1995 to Damien Hirst. “It’s hard on the artists, who have to go through the whole process again, and on the judges, who have to get past the fact that a nominee has already lost once.”

Spying nominee Nathan Coley in a huddle with artist Martin Boyce, I asked how he felt about missing out. “State Britain is truly a great work of art, and Mark deserved to win.” Peering into his eyes for evidence of disingenuousness, I found none, only a refreshing generosity of spirit that seemed to be the evening’s signature. The city was welcoming, the mood relaxed and warm; it was as though the change of scenery had given everyone permission to let their hair down.

And finally, the jubilant Wallinger was the nucleus of an impenetrable thicket of merry friends and family—notably his elderly mother, who held court from her folding chair while wine and plaudits flowed overhead. Asking Wallinger how he planned to celebrate his victory, he replied with a raised glass, “By getting pissed as a rat, in true British fashion!” Mom beamed. How does it feel having a Turner Prize–winning son? “I’m very proud,” she nodded. And what about contemporary art in general? “Some I like,” she explained, “and some I don’t.” Amen, sister.

Lynne Gentle

Left: Gavin Coley, artist Nathan Coley, and artist Martin Boyce. Right: Artist Grayson Perry.