Midlife Crisis For the Turner Prize?

The Physical Impossibilty of Death in the Mind of Someone Living
By Damien Hirst (1991) –
One of the controversial winners of the Turner Prize

It is that time of year again when the enfant terrible of British art awards rears its provocative head. Four artists have been short-listed, their work is being presented at Tate Britain and the announcement of the winner is fast approaching. The Turner Prize is perhaps the most renowned award for British contemporary art in the world and each year the prize rouses lively debates surrounding the artists and their work. Of course, 2010 is no different – this year critics have questioned whether the nominations are controversial enough, or is the 26-year-old Turner Prize becoming less radical with age?

The artists nominated this year are Dexter Dalwood, Susan Philipsz, Angela de La Cruz and the Otolith Group, headed by Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar, all of whom are in their forties. This middle-aged group is hardly new talent, sparking debates questioning the “youthfulness” of the prize, which is only awarded to artists under fifty. But with Dexter Dalwood teetering on the border of the cut off age for entries and the others not far behind, has the Turner Prize itself grown old over it’s 26 years, or is it purely a coincidence that the entire short-list are in their forties? Is the age of the artists even a debate worth following?

It could be argued that older nominees have been chosen because it their last opportunity to win the prize, implying that the award focuses more on age than art. There is fear that the award, which has unveiled some of Britain’s quirkiest and most shocking pieces of art, is verging on the sensible this year, a word rarely associated with the Turner Prize. Critics have deemed the work of this years nominees dull and conservative.

Dexter Dalwood’s nomination is a solo exhibition at the Tate in St Ives. It consists of paintings of famous locations, icons, historical events and fictional spaces, including his adaptation of Michael Jackson’s fabled “Neverland” and his imagined, “Death of David Kelly”. Dalwood claims he wants the viewer to “think of another image altogether” when looking at his work. This in my mind adds an invisible level to his seemingly conservative, inoffensive work, inviting different spectators to form different interpretations of the same piece. To one person his painting “Death of David Kelly” could be hugely controversial, to another, a thoughtful tribute. He paints only what he “feels very strongly about” and his overtly political paintings are clearly not “art for art’s sake”.

Dalwood is the only nominee this year that uses the more conventional 2D medium of painting onto a canvas: Angela de La Cruz turns canvases into sculptures. The Spanish-born artist paints onto a canvas, only to destroy the frame and present the skin of the painting onto a haphazardly put together smaller frame, or wall. Whilst the canvas, displaying a perfectly-painted block of colour, might not seem controversial, this new method of display certainly is: her distressed works seem violent and brutal. With this more aggressive interpretation in mind, de La Cruz describes her work as “more humorous than anything else”, but agrees that her work is open to different understandings. The fact that a spectator can have such an immensely different view of the work to the artist, simply highlights the volatile and controversial nature of her art.

Susan Philipsz has been nominated for her work entitled “Lowlands”. She has recorded herself singing three different versions of an eerie 16th century Scottish lament. These melancholy recordings are played over each other, in “out of the way” parts around the river Clyde, to produce a haunting, almost harrowing echo-like sound. While her work is in no way offensive and has in fact added a certain beauty to the grimy areas she has installed her work in, I think the controversy surrounding the installation is whether it is visual art or not. If her work is simply the sound recording, this in my mind is not visual art; but if the work is viewed as the interaction between the surroundings, the installation and the public’s reaction as they walk through it, the art could be called visual.

The Otolith group have been nominated for their work “A Long Time Between”. It is a moving image installation formed by old documentary footage and feature-film pieced together. The video aims is “to build a new film culture” and incite discussions which question documentary history. The Otolith group themselves have stated that “the world doesn’t need any more films or video art”, so the images they are presenting have been thought through, supposedly in an attempt to mark them out from other video installations. In my opinion this nomination seems the least controversial of the four. What could be seen as controversial is their ambitious claim to “build a new film culture”. This is a big-ask for one small group, who have only been on the art scene since 2002 to achieve, but perhaps winning the Turner Prize could be their catalyst into creating havoc and controversy in our current film culture.

Whilst each of the nominations this year has a conservative angle and are certainly less radical than Tracy Emin’s unmade bed or Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde, they all have subtle controversies, which depend more on the involvement and interpretation of the viewer. The Turner Prize is not awarded to Britain’s most controversial piece of art; rather it celebrates and aims to increase public interest in contemporary art. It is this stereotypical judgement that art must be controversial to be contemporary that produces an aura of pretentiousness around modern art and in a way, maybe it’s a good thing the art this year is more accessible and less radical. The argument that the Turner prize is becoming old-fashioned and conservative as all its nominees are above the age of forty is based on an ageist stereotype, that contemporary art is usually produced by adolescent, vibrant, just-graduated artists. The Turner Prize 2010 has simply short-listed four contemporary artists who should be judged on their art, not on their age or how original the pieces are, and in my mind, this years Turner Prize is as eccentric and unpredictable as ever.

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