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PRINT September 1999

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Turner Points

The Turner Prize turns fifteen this year. Instigated by the Tate Gallery’s Patrons of New Art as a way to honor midcareer achievement among British artists—Howard Hodgkin, Gilbert and George, and Richard Long were early recipients—the award has of late reflected the youthful surge in UK art (recent winners include Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst, Gillian Wearing, and, last year, Chris Ofili). This year’s short list—twins Jane and Louise Wilson, Steven Pippin, Steve McQueen, and Tracey Emin—is no different in this respect, with Pippin, at age thirty-eight, the grand old man of the group.

The list is highly representative of the concerns and personnel of much current British art. Emin, an impulsive, self-obsessed artist of immense ambition whose work veers between terrific and crass, will no doubt garner the most controversy. This installation artist is most famous for her intimate tent, its interior embroidered with the names of everyone she could remember ever having slept with. This, alas, was misinterpreted to mean “screwed with,” and she gained a charming little reputation for incest. Pippin is a serious person who takes photographs in unnecessarily complicated ways, converting a fridge, for example, into a camera in order to shoot the food inside. He has his supporters. McQueen is another serious sort, working in film to record Minimalist actions to often plangent effect. The Wilsons are the subject of a well-timed show of videos at the Serpentine. About the only trend missing in the work of this year’s finalists is the ludic domesticity of “Neurotic Realism,” rampant since the award of last year’s prize.

The Turner Prize carries with it a check to the winning artist for £20,000 ($32,000), but no less valuable is the resulting heap of publicity, which is doled out in two installments. The first comes on short-list day, when assembled art journalists, many of whom have never before heard of the nominees, try to grapple with contemporary art. The next morning brings the usual newspaper columns of disbelief, contempt, or simple puzzlement. The second blast comes with the televised award ceremony—a hurried, faintly glitzy dinner at the Tate with drunken claques for the artists, nervous dealers, and supercilious critics among the kiss-kiss crowd.

Perhaps the least satisfactory aspect of the proceedings is the accompanying exhibition of the short-listed artists’ work at the Tate (this year’s installment goes on view October 30). Busy young artists hardly have the time to prepare a striking show in the few months between June (when the short list is announced) and October. Short-listers beware: Only slightly more in the dark than the average art journalist, the public tends to judge the finalists entirely on the merits of this show.

Richard Shone