PRINT September 2004

World Report

the Turner Prize

“EVERYBODY GETS A TURN. THAT’S WHY IT’S called the Turner Prize,” quipped Dinos Chapman to Time Out (London) last year, when he and his brother Jake were nominated for the UK’s most prestigious art award. There may be no love lost between the Chapmans and the Turner jury’s chairman, Tate director Nicholas Serota (it’s been widely bruited that the brothers’ public Tate baiting cost them the prize), but here’s one thing they can agree on: Everybody does get a turn. OK, not everybody—no doubt veteran protesters the Stuckists will once again camp out on Tate Britain’s steps during the show’s run, wailing that there are no proper figurative painters amid the short list of Kutlug Ataman, Jeremy Deller, Langlands & Bell, and Yinka Shonibare—but this year in particular the jurors (including curators Catherine David and David Thorp and British art critic Adrian Searle) appear mostly concerned with offering palliative nods of recognition to known quantities who have previously, and in some cases inexplicably, been overlooked.

Which is, you know, nice. And the booty has doubled, rising to £40,000 (about $73,000) under the terms of a three-year sponsorship deal with Gordon’s gin. Given that none of the contenders are spring chickens—at forty-eight, Ben Langlands is almost twice the age of some previous nominees—perhaps that’s only fitting. As may be the fact that, in the year that many commentators pronounced the death of Young British Art over the smoldering ashes of the Momart warehouse fire that torched several key YBA works in May, the short list predominantly privileges tenacity over velocity. You can almost hear Simon & Garfunkel harmonizing over the televised award ceremony’s opening credits: “Slow down, you move too fast . . .”

Forget about feelin’ groovy, though, for insofar as the Turner Prize takes the temperature of contemporary British art, this year’s edition finds a serious fixation with capitalized essences: History, Power, Identity. Shonibare’s work, with its programmatic deployment of bright, African-style printed fabrics (tailored into neo-Regency formal wear and wrapped around mannequins, stretched as the support for thickly impastoed pattern-based paintings, or adorning the artist’s own body in his 1998 photographic series “Diary of a Victorian Dandy”), is only superficially a sunburst. The textiles he uses—industrially produced by the Dutch from Indonesian designs and bought from market stalls in Brixton, South London, where their filtered ethnicity appeals to the area’s migrated West African community—are freighted with postcolonial concerns, and the playful energies his art releases rely on its background context of colonial restraint.

If Shonibare has contentedly consolidated his approach for several years, Langlands & Bell arguably deserve their nomination for ringing some changes on a practice that had long seemed inflexible. The pair forged their deconstructive methodology back in the theory-loving ’80s, creating pristine monochrome models that variously display and poeticize the codification of authority and social control in architecture. They’ve been recognized by this jury, however, for The House of Osama bin Laden, 2003, a rare concession to the current inclination toward art as reportage. An interactive digital model of one of bin Laden’s former homes is the centerpiece of this multimedia project based on the artists’ trip to Afghanistan in 2002. The ostensible focus is on the nonneutrality of architecture, but that’s surely not what caught audiences’ attention when the work was first shown at London’s Imperial War Museum last year.

The documentary impulse might appear to resurface in Ataman’s work, although the Turkish-born, London- and Istanbul-based artist and filmmaker would disagree. He has described his lengthy video portraits—featuring such voluble characters as a ninety-four-year-old former opera singer, an amaryllis collector, and a flamboyant transsexual—as foggy expressions of his own segmented identity, and chunks of their dialogue are actually recitations of previously filmed improvisations. Ataman distinguishes himself by being an argumentative interrogator of the presumptive illusions of vérité at a time when many artists seem to feel that all one needs to make serious art is a long-distance plane ticket and a Handicam.

But the prize should go to Jeremy Deller. Writing in these pages two years ago, Alex Farquharson expressed amazement that Deller—whose luminously engagé projects characteristically highlight the intricacy of grassroots cultures and the persistent impact of past events on present conditions—wasn’t nominated for the 2002 Turner Prize after The Battle of Orgreave, 2001, his landmark reconstruction (filmed by Mike Figgis) of a violent clash between police and British coal miners during the latter’s 1984–85 strike. He’s now been short-listed for his prodding portrait of Texas, Memory Bucket, 2003, a polysemic parade of video, photographs, and paraphernalia wherein the testimonies of Branch Davidians jostle with footage of Dubya’s favorite burger bar and of three million bats blackening the big sky. If the judges can reverse the recent Turner tendency to reward practices that, however laudable, facilitate media-friendly personification—in the last three years we’ve had as winners a con artist who switched off the gallery lights (Martin Creed), a mad scientist (Keith Tyson), and a transvestite potter (Grayson Perry)—then December 6 should be Deller’s night.

Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.