PRINT January 1996


the Turner Prize

THE TURNER PRIZE—Britain’s high-end talent contest for the country’s hottest young art stars—is fast becoming a national institution. Each November the shortlisted candidates are plucked from the international art circuit and called home to display their wares. As each contestant mounts a show at London’s Tate Gallery, the media kicks into gear to sort out their relative merits, and for a month Britain (of all places) is gripped by feverish debates on the making and meaning of contemporary art.

First awarded in 1984 to Malcolm Morley, the now £20,000 Turner Prize is granted each year to a British artist under 50 for an outstanding show, either at home or abroad. Throughout the ’80s the prize went to the obvious suspects—internationally recognized masters such as Gilbert & George, Howard Hodgkin, and Richard Deacon. Suspended for a year in 1990, the Turner bounced back just in time to cash in on the success of the new Goldsmiths generation with a shortlist dedicated to the young and hip. Commercial sponsorship secured a network-TV spot to announce the winner, preceded by 40 minutes of airtime during which the four finalists—this year Damien Hirst, Callum Innes, Mona Hatoum, and Mark Wallinger—discussed the hows and whys of their work. Primed by a month-long media blitz leading up to the awards ceremonies on November 28, the British public tuned into the artists’ televised (and extremely heartfelt) pleas as contemporary art was brought out of the salons of the recently rich and into the nation’s living rooms.

This year, crowds flocked to the Tate to get a look at works that only a short while ago would have met with nothing but puzzled frowns and disgruntled mumbling. Housed in a circular “Beam me up, Scottie” stall, Hatoum’s installation relied rather too heavily on high-tech effect—indeed, her squelchy cinematic journey through her intestines owed its drama more to where the camera had gone than to what it discovered. Wallinger celebrated the provincialism of British leisure with a photograph of a crowd en route to a football match and two-paneled paintings of the mismatched upper and lower halves of racehorses. An attempt to meld the heretical impulses of Conceptualism and Pop, this work ironically did little more than fetishize the “look” of art. Finally, Innes’ large but somewhat fainthearted abstract canvases revisited questions of painting exhausted by others before he even hit art school.

Given this lineup, it was hardly surprising that Hirst stole the show—not to mention the hearts of every mother in the land when (hands on the prize money) he announced that his nine-month-old baby was the best thing he had ever made. At the Tate, Hirst’s two giant “Spot” paintings, and a cow and calf, each sliced in half, showcased his talent for upping the ante on familiar contemporary art strategies. Serving up the cow innards with unapologetic theatricality, Hirst left Hatoum’s all-too-mediated “visceral” exploration in the dust, while the utter banality of the “Spot” paintings showed up Innes’ angst-tinged oils as the Romantic throwbacks they are. Finally, where Wallinger’s jockeying with tradition feels self-conscious, Hirst injects the vitality of the yob into what, as Wallinger seems eager to point out, are ultimately trophies of nouveau-riche achievement. Circumnavigating the primary pitfall of much British art—its guilt-ridden distrust of the visual—with superbly finessed esthetic objects, Hirst KO’d the competition without even putting up a fight.

Martin Maloney is an artist, curator, and writer who lives in London.