Turner Prize nominees

This afternoon I went to the Tate Britain gallery in London to see the nominees for this year’s Turner Prize. The Turner Prize is supposedly the UK’s most prestigious art award, awarded annually to an artist under fifty years of age, and it has acquired a reputation for being awarded to art which, in most people’s opinions, isn’t really art. Last year a politician called last year’s entries “cold, mechanical conceptual bullshit”, and I only went this year because I had heard that there was more political art and less of the usual rubbish. I was actually quite disappointed. The art was less weird, but in many ways less interesting. The first room consisted of a video, a hand-drawn diagram and some photographs by a British artist called Jeremy Deller. On your right as you enter his room is a video about Texas called Memory Bucket, which consists of four parts. The first is about the Waco disaster and features an interview with a survivor of the siege; the second is about George Bush’s home town of Crawford, with an interview with someone who works in a café there where the Prez popped in for a burger on a trip home. The third is coverage of an anti-Bush rally in San Antonio when Bush came to town, and the fourth shows the migration of some sort of winged creature, and I was never sure what sort of creatures they were. They looked big enough to be birds, but their flight patterns looked more like those of insects. I found the video to be rather unstructured, although interestingly when the video rolls back to the beginning, you see various insects crawling over things in Waco. The diagram was about links between different types of music (“brass bands” and “acid house” were featured prominently) and things happening in society, and the photos were of memorials of different types, including to a battle during the 1984 Miners’ Strike, to a cyclist killed on a London street by a drunken driver, and to the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein.

The second installation was by Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell, and consisted of an interactive video show of “The House of Osama Bin Laden”. It wasn’t a bad house, actually - it had a rather lovely lakeside setting, but the landscapes had too many straight lines to be convincing. There was Qur’an recitation in the background, which is what drew me straight into it - there was a certain air of tranquility about it which was only broken by the khaki army truck outside the house. There was supposed to be a video about Afghanistan also, but this was not being shown because it could prejudice a trial currently going on (there are laws about this here).

The third was by one Kutlug Ataman, and was a video presentation about reincarnation - I think there is some misunderstanding here, because everyone knows Muslims don’t believe in this; it’s a purely Eastern (Hindu and Buddhist) belief. It consisted of videos of people from an Arab community in Turkey, near the Syrian border, “trying to make sense of horrific loss”. I don’t believe for a moment that any of those in the video believed that you are reincarnated after actually dying - I think that the very religious-looking old man in the picture was talking about a near-death experience after an accident of some sort.

The fourth, which didn’t detain me for long, was by a Nigerian artist called Yinka Shonibare. They had a wall presentation called Maxa, in which

Shonibare substitutes the canvas for small regimented circles of ‘African’ fabric that are decorated on the front and sides like icing on a cake. These perfect circular forms create visual chaos and offer a political challenge to ideas about taste. The problematic history of the fabric undercuts the visual pleasure of the patterns as the work becomes a metaphor for excess and exploitation.

And he also had a film, which I didn’t have time to stop and watch.

I have to say, some of this was interesting stuff, but I don’t see why any of it was even nominated for a major arts prize. And what was it doing at the Tate Britain anyway, which is actually mostly dominated by traditional paintings? There were none at the Turner Prize exhibition. I suspect Shonibare will win because there was more actual art in his contribution, but you can never tell with these events. I’m not saying any of these are not valid art forms, but the art just isn’t there in most of these presentations.

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