PRINT September 2001

World Report

the Turner Prize shortlist

FOR THOSE LOOKING TO HIT IT BIG on this year’s Turner shortlist, bookmakers William Hill have Isaac Julien as the favorite at 7-4, closely followed by Richard Billingham at 2-1, with relative newcomer Mike Nelson trailing Martin Creed at 7-2 and 5-2 respectively. But this isn’t necessarily an accurate indicator of who will win on December 9: The bookies say they get their information from the newspapers, while the papers tend to quote the bookies. And this year the field is even more open than usual.

It’s a serious roster, youthful rather than juvenile, diverse rather than dramatic. With no A-list art celebs to titillate media and public, however, the lineup is unlikely to reverse the trend for declining audiences, abruptly down last year to 70,000 from a peak in 1999, the Year of That Bed, when 133,000 came to ogle the contents of Tracey Emin’s disheveled boudoir. Also unchecked this year is the continued dominance of male artists, not to mention the creeping ascendancy of film, video, photography, and installation over painting, a factor sure to inflame already overheated critics of the “Serota Tendency.” Judges for the £20,000 ($28,645) prize are Art Monthly editor Patricia Bickers, Stuart Evans of Tate’s Patrons of New Art, the Museum of Modern Art’s Robert Storr, and Jonathan Watkins of the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, with Nicholas Serota holding the tiebreaking vote. Will they choose Creed’s frugal sculpture or Julien’s voluptuous cinema, Nelson’s disquieting fictions or Billingham’s disquieting truths?

Mike Nelson makes architectural labyrinths: giant sets with cubicles, doors, and corridors leading off bewilderingly in every direction. These mazes of transitional rooms seem to have just been vacated by a cast of lost souls: the obsessed, the paranoid, the discarded. At Matt’s Gallery last year, The Coral Reef made for slightly macabre, panic-inducing viewing and won him a keen following; The Deliverance and The Patience, animated by the crowds at this year’s Venice Biennale, offered a gentler, Tatiesque form of theater. Nelson is a literary artist who tells spiraling stories in space; his works are flavored with hints of Poe, Kafka, Borges, and Lovecraft.

By contrast, Martin Creed is as terse as they come. His humble sculptures—a kneaded ball of Blu-Tak squashed on the wall, self-adhesive cubes constructed from the slightest thicknesses of masking tape and Elastoplast, a crumpled sheet of A4 paper—conjure something from just about nothing. Creed’s feted rock trio Owada, meanwhile, dispenses lyrics and rhythms as bare as the beat of a metronome, leavened with a wry Scottish wit. Recently a series of neon signs have enlivened facades around London and endeared him to a wider public. The bearer of such shyly encouraging messages as “don’t worry” and “everything is going to be alright,” this self-effacing artist says he makes art because “I want to say hello.”

Richard Billingham has divided the critics with his candid photographs of his family—overweight mother Liz; underweight, alcoholic, periodically violent father Ray; errant brother Jason—and their chaotic life in a squalid council flat. There’s nothing especially noble about life chez Liz and Ray—though there’s laughter and affection amid the dereliction—and Billingham’s photographs offended documentary purists because they were big, colorful, and for sale. Yet even the most censorious cannot deny his pictorial fluency, or the freshness of his libertine approach to the medium. His recent forays into an underpopulated, urban outside and into elliptical video portraiture suggest a young artist working hard to expand his repertoire.

Noted auteur of features Looking for Langston, 1988, and Young Soul Rebels, 1991, Isaac Julien moves increasingly nimbly between black box and white cube, bringing an acute film literacy to bear on his gallery pieces. Julien’s subtly perfumed narratives tease out tales of arrested, often interracial, desire. The Long Road to Mazatlán, 1999, one of his most acclaimed works, is a homoerotic Western that plays out its tensions against a hazy Texan borderland, as a young Venezuelan man yearns for a handsome cowboy. Julien’s distinctive blend of fantasia and politics have assured his place in film history; it could well be his moment to claim British art’s big prize. But judge for yourself: The shortlisted artists show their silks at Tate Britain from November 7 to January 20.

Kate Bush is senior programmer at the Photographers’ Gallery, London.