Turner: New Leaf?


The announcement of the shortlist for this year’s Turner Prize has coincided neatly with a short-lived heatwave in the UK that sent Londoners leaping out of their winter clothes to bask grimly on any available patches of unshaded ground. Notwithstanding the capricious British weather, these two incidents tend to run together; the Turner Prize has long entered the national consciousness as a summer season space-filler, dependably absurd and apparently easy to describe in a breezy article next to some breasts. The fact that the YBAs made (some still do) art of a graphic bluntness that made their work translatable in the punchy prose of the tabloids (Shark in a Tank! Unmade Bed! Cow in a Tank! Lights Going On And Off! etc) is of a piece with the now sometimes embarrassing ballsy nationalism of the late 1990s, which reached its nadir, in a classic example of her inverse Midas touch, with Madonna stepping in and swearing live on TV, British art’s very own ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment.

The media exposure, though, did at least mean that contemporary art was, for perhaps the first time, a regular staple on letters pages, editorials and gossip pages, a position which has arguably had an effect on artistic practice itself (see the gradual domination of Banksy). The latest Turner Prize line-up, though, is largely in line with current vogues in contemporary art: cautious, careful arrangements of found objects with a fairly disturbing suggestiveness; quiet, contemplative, somewhat minimalist video; tongue-in-cheek allusions to modernist art history and popular culture; post-Hans Haacke blurring of curatorial and artistic boundaries. None of which has resulted in much of a fuss. Even the usually dependable Daily Mirror has struggled to find much to get upset about, not generally being known as Haacke purists.

Is this a sign of the growing acceptance of contemporary art by the broader public? Or are artists retreating from engaging with the language of popular taste?

  1. JC says:

    The real issue is that Britain is running out of artists to honor. This list is all newbies, second-stringers, palookaville punters. Finding four nominees a year will soon have them raiding the ranks of those still studying for A-levels. They should consider honoring the two Chapman brothers separately.

  2. Tom Juneau says:

    It’s worth noting that this year is only the second time that Tate’s megatron, Sir Nicholas Serota, has not chaired the jury – which would backup your notion that the Turner Prize has been taken off the Tate’s tool-belt for the time being. And this year’s press coverage of the prize was overwhelmed by the unveiling of ‘Angel of the South’ competition which appropriately headlined Turner Prize winners Whiteread and Wallinger.

    The new, quieter, agenda of the Tate with regard to the Turner Prize already seems less obsessively intent on working up an appetite for public art whilst simultaneously rearing a brood of public art makers to satisfy this – and more interested in intimacy and an idea of the personal (as opposed to the ‘personality’ drive of the YBAs who adopted the tabloids’ approach to privacy, re-presenting it as egocentric display (Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas etc).

    Maybe the ultimate long-term success of the Turner Prize (with its accompanying PR) has been to enable Tate Britain to punch above its weight: to remain an international destination, and a venue for dynamic uncertainties in spite of the creation of Tate Modern. In fact, in my experience, Tate Britain’s ‘Art Now’ programme and its Duveen commissions, along with the Turner Prize and the triennial, has made it a more exciting place for contemporary work than Tate Modern. I still can’t come round to Tate Modern’s turbine hall – isolated from the galleries and so big it can only ever be a hallucinatory wonderland or gloomy void. A salivating Gormley lurks in the wings – yawn.

  3. Ben Street says:

    Just to follow up on that comment (thank you both), the ‘Angel of the South’ to which this writer refers is a competition to create a huge piece of public sculpture near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel in Ebbsfleet. The title of the competition, which is funded in part by Eurostar, the company operating the London to Paris rail link, is an explicit reference to Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North. Mark Wallinger looks like the favourite so far.

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