Wednesday, 5 December 2007

turner prize liverpool - the greatest show on earth!

mark wallinger predictably but probably deservedly won the turner prize on monday night.

the turner prize is a bit of a hamstrung beast, a victim of its own success and reputation, with detractors on all sides: a circus freakshow of dubious content to outsiders and a spectacle of trumpet blowing hype to many insiders. despised and abused from all sides, the poor thing cant win, but as a snapshot of where art and visual culture are today and within the public domain, it remains invaluable.

as usual the predicable debate about art and its ‘relevance’, as well as the inevitable media circus surrounding this annual contemporary art prize, threatened to overshadow the actual work and merit of the artists and the aims of the exhibition as a whole - to explore, examine and evaluate the world we inhabit through the lens of the contemporary visual artist.

the turner prize is awarded to a british artist, or an artist from another country working in britain, under the age of fifty 'for an outstanding exhibition or other presentation of their work in the previous twelve months. it is intended to promote public discussion of new developments in contemporary british art and is widely recognised as one of the most important and prestigious awards for the visual arts in europe.'

the turner prize was hosted outside london for the first time in its history this year, at tate Liverpool, to mark the countdown to the city's status as european capital of culture for 2008. this in itself made the headlines. how on earth were the great and the good expected to get to a venue outside the capital to view the short listed artists? even worse, i cant help thinking, how were they supposed to enjoy the parties, the wine and the canapés, if they were being held somewhere up north in the middle of nowhere...liverpool, for god's sake!

the controversy about location exhausted, there followed the usual rantings and bleatings about the shortlisted artists, mark wallinger in particular; at 48 the oldest recipient of the prize so far, and only just elegible. previously he was perhaps best known for ecce homo, his resin sculpture of a very human Christ crowned with thorns, a veritable everyman, commissioned for the 4th plinth in trafalgar square - a visit to the following guardian slideshow places his Christ in the context of other 4th plinth artists:,8543,-10204720077,00.html

but it is his most recent work, 'state britain', the work for which he was nominated, that raised the usual gamut of misunderstandings about the nature of contemporary art today, even though due to the specific rules of the turner prize, the piece actually exhibited would be the 2004 'sleeper', better known as 'the dancing bear'. a 2 and a half hour film of the artist wandering around the empty berlin nationalgalerie by night dressed in a bear suit, it is exactly the sort of modern art that exasperates and bewilders the archetypal daily mail reader, egged on by the paper’s ‘sensible man in the street’ style editorials.

a glimpse at a recent daily mail column is typical of their irritatingly simplistic cultural worldview, complaining contradictorily of both its ridiculousness and ordinariness! it also offers a review of sorts of all the short listed artists for 2007, and manages to miss the assorted beauty, poignancy and irony offered by the works of bhimji, nelson and coley, preferring to reduce them to the usual tiresome and predictable clichés. regardless or not of whether a artwork is to one’s personal taste, it is surely not beyond the intellect or imagination to encourage or engage in actual deliberation about the issues surrounding and inspiring visual artists today, rather than endlessly rehash the ‘but is this art’ question?

all this bear talk notwithstanding, it is for 'state britain', shown at tate britain at the start of the year, that wallinger won the turner prize - a 40-metre long representation, complete with banners and tarpaulin shelter, of brian haws mini-peace camp and protest opposite the houses of parliament from june 2001 until it was demolished by the police in may 2006 under new powers banning protests within one kilometre of westminster. the following telegraph article attempts to disguise its little britain attitude with a defence by its own arts critic, richard dormant, but its description of a previous winner, grayson perry, as a ‘cross-dresser who makes pornographic pottery’ says it all!

of course the turner prize is a spectacle that courts controversy – it is the flag bearer of modern art, the top of the pops of the visual art world, the ‘lifetime achievement’ section of the Oscars, i suppose. it is a whistle stop tour of who’s who and what’s what in art today and as such an indication of and glimpse into our collective preoccupations and anxieties. for the first time in its history, the prize, and therefore in many respects contemporary art practice itself, is readily available to everyone who lives outside London. go and see it; support the idea of world class art premiering outside of London. you never know, it might become routine – the provinces could become the centre of culture, rather than the after thought…

the exhibition continues until january 13: the work is funny, annoying, melancholic, haunting, inspiring, and some of it a little predictable – just like life itself. if none of it moves you simply nip round the corner to the marvellous ‘taxi project’ by the café, for a touch of Liverpool wit and wisdom in a real black cab. bizarre but brilliant…

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