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REPOST: Turner Prize 2002

Liam Gillick: detail from 'Applied Resignation Platform', 1999. (It's not actually the piece 'Coats Of Asbestos Spangled With Mica' that's on display in the Turner exhibition, but it's not like you can tell the sodding difference or anything.) Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 12/12/2002.

Nope, still can't think of anything useful to put in the updates to these art pieces. Sorry.

Modern art's getting a lot of bad press at the moment. Only last week, a woman leapt to her death from the sixth storey window of a Berlin art gallery, and her corpse lay on the ground for several hours before people realised it wasn't a performance art piece. (Luckily she got moved before anyone could label her 'mixed media on concrete, 2002'.) And a few weeks before that, the British Culture Minister Kim Howells was slagging off the entrants for the 2002 Turner Prize, leaving a comment card describing their work as "cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit".

So let's get this straight. A member of Tony Blair's government is accusing other people of having poorly thought-out ideas. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. But seriously: after an outburst like that, I felt it was time to return to the scene of my 1999 crimes, and see the entries for 2002 for myself. Nowadays the Turner Prize exhibition is as heavily pre-hyped as a Bond movie, and it's more or less impossible to go in there without knowing in advance exactly what you're going to see. I tried to put all that out of my head and approach the exhibits in much the same way as I did last time, with virtually no objectives other than a willingness to be surprised. (In case you were wondering, I saw the exhibition at Tate Britain one week before the announcement of the winner, so I'll try to keep some sort of suspense going if you don't know who actually won it.)

We can get Liam Gillick out of the way fairly quickly. After Martin Creed picked up last year's award for a room with a light going on and off, Gillick's submission - a room with a multicoloured perspex ceiling, titled Coats Of Asbestos Covered With Mica - seemed like the sort of thing the judges would go for. In practice, it's one of those works of art that looks significantly better in photos than it does in real life: the end result is a somewhat blandly lit room and not much more. According to his blurb, Gillick wants to look at the way that design can affect our view of our surroundings: judging from the speed at which viewers passed through his room, the answer is 'not very much'. The only other work he has on show is a display case of plans for his design commissions and public art projects. (I wouldn't have minded seeing the design for Coats Of Asbestos to see how his plans differ from the final product, but does that mean I'm missing the point or something?)

During the Channel 4 show leading up to the final announcement of the winning artist, a large number of art insiders seemed to suddenly come out of the woodwork praising Gillick's work to the skies, possibly to counterbalance the news that he was getting the worst odds of the four finalists from the bookies. One particular contribution from art critic Julian Stallybrass was so magnificently up its own arse that it deserves quoting in full: "He carries you close to a place which is highly bureaucratised, administered, timetabled if you like: something which seems very close to the world which we normally inhabit. And he asks quite deep and profound questions about that - about whether that bureaucratisation can carry within it the seeds of utopia, or perhaps something much darker: indeed, I think, even carries you into questions of mass destruction and genocide..."

Just to emphasise the point: Stallybrass is talking about a fucking ceiling here. And even though Matthew Collings may be one of the worst interviewers on British television right now - he's not listening to the people he's interviewing, he's just listening to work out when they've stopped so he can talk again - despite this, Collings was capable of picking up on this point, and asking how you get from the artwork itself to these conclusions. It turns out that you can't: critics admit that none of this stuff is apparent from what's actually on display in the exhibition, but is derived more from interviews and discussions with Gillick himself. And in my book, unless he's prepared to stand at the door of his room and have those discussions with everyone who sees his work, he's failed as an artist. He's just a designer - potentially an interesting one, given commissions like his work on the Whitechapel Gallery's cafe, but no more than that. If we're going to have the whole 'is this art?' debate, then Gillick's the one who's going to come off worst as a result.

Fiona Banner: detail from 'Arsewoman In Wonderland', 2001 Inevitably, there's always one entry that picks up flak from the press for being controversial. And from other artists too: notably a group called the Stuckists, who protest annually about the lack of exposure given to non-conceptual art, the idea of associating conceptual artists with non-conceptual greats like Turner, and - let's be honest - their concern that nobody's giving them twenty grand and the chance to be on telly. If you were to believe the press this year, Fiona Banner has created her own new movement - the Fuckists, perhaps. Visitors in the comments room (of which more later) seem to be absolutely outraged by the use of sexual imagery in her work. Which I don't understand, because you'd have to expend a serious amount of effort with this work before you could fill enough erectile tissue to be that outraged.

The hype had an interesting effect on the way I viewed Banner's work. I started with one of the three notorious porno pictures, each one consisting of an exhaustive written transcription of a dirty movie. I started from the top, quickly got bored, skimmed around trying to get a sense of where it was going, skipped ahead to the dirty bits... and after a minute or so I suddenly realised: I've done this before. I'd seen a similar piece by Banner six years earlier, which did the same thing but with Vietnam war movies: but I didn't recognise her from the Turner press coverage, which concentrated entirely on the sex. It was the experience of looking at the piece that triggered my memory, rather than the piece itself. Which I think is interesting: certainly more so than Banner's pieces themselves.

Like I said, it's difficult to see how these pictures have caused so much disgust. For a start, there are too many words on them to allow you to do anything other than skim, and in the process discover that she has problems spelling words like 'bolloks'. Arsewoman In Wonderland is probably the most readable of the three, while Nude is the most interesting for the way that the tightly formatted text breaks down towards the bottom (plus its interesting position diagonally across one corner of the room). Her other pieces here are variations on her obsessions with text: some dull brass forms that turn out to represent massively blown-up full stops, and a large screenprint that turns out to be another huge text transcription where everything has been blanked out except for the punctuation marks. Mind you, in both those cases I didn't find out the punctuation connection until long after I'd left the gallery: and again, if the work doesn't tell you that's what it's doing, then it doesn't work as, er, work.

Catherine Yass: still from 'Descent', 2002 As with the last time I did this, one of the shortlisted artists is working in film, a medium I still like to think I have some sort of grasp of. Catherine Yass has put together two short films and a sequence of related photos displayed on lightboxes, all based on a theme of falling. Her film Descent is a view of London's Docklands shot from a slowly descending crane: starting at the top of a Canary Wharf skyscraper and taking eight and a half minutes to reach ground level, and shown upside-down for added vertiginous effect. It's accompanied by a series of large lightbox photos with the same title, a more static attempt at conveying the same idea by rapidly panning a still camera downwards to replicate a blurred falling sensation.

The film is a nice idea well-executed, but it loses out from being shown in an installation context, running in a continuous loop while people wander in and out. For most installation films this isn't an issue, but Descent has a very definite beginning, middle and end - walk in halfway through as I did, and you lose the gradual reveal that's part of the film's charm. The film starts well because of the fortuitous fog that the background buildings emerge out of: once you get enough visual information to orient yourself at ground level, the effect is lost. (And even if you watch it again from the start, the impact of that reveal is still buggered, as you find yourself automatically putting the film right way up again in your head.) The other problem is, it's been done before - I couldn't help being reminded of the upside-down Hong Kong sequence in Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together, which gets across the vertigo and the unusual view of a familiar city in a much shorter time. As for the stills, again they're very pretty with a beautiful feel of blurred motion, but you don't get the effect of falling that Yass was aiming for.

The other film of Yass' on display - Flight, a giddy swoop round the London skyline shot from a model helicopter - is much more successful in this environment, because it's designed to run as an infinite loop. (I looked for the join, but couldn't see it.) It genuinely gives you a whole new perspective on London (or at least the bit around Broadcasting House), and has at least one giddy sideways swoop to make your hair stand on end. But the person who's reported to have thrown up in front of it at the press launch is probably the sort of person who'd freak out at those 1900 films of trains pulling into stations, frankly.

Keith Tyson: detail from 'Studio Wall Drawing: A Dissection Of The Agonies!', 2001 One of this year's innovations has been a comments room at the very end of the exhibition, where punters can leave their opinions up on the wall for all to see - this is where Kim Howells made his own bid for personal publicity. This room is where the public gets to have its say: and this year it seems to be pretty much in agreement. Liam Gillick really shouldn't be here at all: Fiona Banner needs a good fucking to sort her out (people are genuinely leaving comments like this): and Catherine Yass is getting some admiration for her work. But as far as Joe Sixpack goes, this year's Turner is a one horse race, and Keith Tyson is that horse. And as you may or may not know, on December 8th the Turner judges announced that they agreed with that verdict, and awarded Tyson the £20,000 prize.

It helps that Tyson has the opening room in the Turner exhibition, which allows him to wow people right at the start (as one visitor said on their comments form, it's a standard trick used by art students everywhere to make their degree portfolio look good). The first thing that hits you as you enter the exhibition is his collection of wall paintings - a huge selection of sketched daily thoughts, arranged chronologically with dates across one entire wall. As you make your way along the wall, you're battered by a whole selection of gloriously crazed ideas - and if conceptual art, in the end, lives or dies by its ideas, then the prize should really go to the only artist of the four who appears to be able to work with more than one idea at a time. A huge flowchart of word associations stemming from the single word 'iron', trying to map the way the brain works. A design for a full-size model of a T-Rex made of neon and cast lights, and other impossible art projects. An exhaustive list of imaginary movie titles - Introducing Mozart to Drum 'n' Bass, An Unhurried Meal Of Veal And Mushrooms Before A Duel, So It Became Necessary For A New Whole Number To Be Introduced Between Three And Four. A blank sheet headed Keith Tyson Collected Works 1900 - 1969... and on, and on.

The other main painted work of Tyson's on display is Bubble Chambers: 2 Discrete Molecules Of Simultaneity, which is loosely based on scientific concepts like most of his work. Two huge paintings depict identical collections of dozens of coloured molecules, each of which is connected to a text description of a brief moment in time. These descriptions are the only things that differ between the two paintings, like we're looking at the scripts for two parallel universes: so while the left one contains a bubble reading 'October 3rd 1995, The reflections of the television on the surface of Louis Farrakhan's glasses', the equivalent bubble in the right painting reads 'October 3rd 1995, A man on a treadmill in an LA gym watches the OJ Simpson verdict being given'. You could spend days wandering between the two pictures, trying to piece together imaginary narratives and possible futures. By comparison, Tyson's sculptures are interesting, but no more (though I love the idea of Rodin's The Thinker being recast for the 21st century as a big black supercomputer).

There's visibly a mind at work in Tyson's collection: admittedly it's the mind of one of those guys who talks to himself at 300 wpm on the top deck of buses, but it's still a recognisibly human presence. There are ideas, skill and wit here in abundance, a combination that's sadly lacking in the other three entrants. This year, as far as I'm concerned, the Turner judges got it right. If you want to decide for yourself, then you can catch the exhibition from now until January 5th 2003 at Tate Britain, Millbank, London. After all, if you can't trust the government to pull off a simple corrupt property transaction without ballsing it up, why should you trust their judgement on art? I certainly don't. Being a monkey, and all.

Links

Tate Britain is where the Turner Prize nominees have their work exhibited, so naturally there's a Turner Prize official site as well. You get information about the artists and judges, a discussion forum [dead link], and some frequently asked questions about the competition. (Note to The Belated Birthday Girl: the FAQs include the one you were asking the other day about why it's named after Turner in the first place.)

Channel 4 have been sponsoring the Turner Prize for the last few years now, and have a microsite to back up their coverage of the award presentation. Similar to the official site, you'll find stuff about the artists, a discussion forum [dead link], and an online vote (the latter somewhat skewed by a poor selection of works on display).

Stuckism International is the site for all those who mourn the death of figurative art and the Turner's exclusive focus on conceptualism. For a group which complains so much about the lack of aesthetic beauty in contemporary art, they've got an ugly-looking bastard of a site, haven't they?

Google Image Search, the pauper's art gallery, can be used to search for images associated with Fiona Banner, Liam Gillick, Keith Tyson and Catherine Yass.

the-artists.org is a rather cool database of information on contemporary artists, including Banner, Gillick, Tyson and Yass.

Martian FM have actually managed to get Tracey Emin to host their coverage of the Turner Prize 2002. Apparently.

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