Letter from London

Letter from London: Turner Round, Bright Eyes!

Roger Hiorns, "Seizure" (2008)

Roger Hiorns, "Seizure" (2008)

I don’t know: maybe there will be a time when the announcement of the Turner Prize nominees won’t be greeted with a tiresome trotting-out of hoary old journalistic cliches (yes, I know, that’s a cliche too), but not this year. The Times goes with a sarcastic assessment of this year’s line-up—Roger Hiorns, Lucy Skaer, Richard Wright and Enrico David—as “a shock to rank with any in the 25-year history of the Turner Prize,” announcing that “this year’s nominees all paint, draw, or make objects that are recognizably works of art.” ‘Recognizable to whom?’ might be the sensible riposte considering that, for the billions of visitors to Tate Modern every year, the work of the previous year’s winner, Mark Leckey, would most certainly be recognizable as art. It’s befuddling to see the press lean, year after year, on tired ideas of the artist as wacky japester. The Times claims that “publicity-grabbing stunts are refreshingly absent,” but when were publicity-grabbing stunts particularly present? Ok, maybe Tracey Emin’s drunken interview on TV (which wasn’t one of her works), or Madonna’s ostentatious swearing (she wasn’t one of the artists) or Martin Creed’s lights going on and off (which is kind of the opposite of publicity-grabbing) may be what’s being alluded to, but it’s hard to see that the current nominees are any more or less avant-garde or shocking or experimental or whatever than in any previous years. Another Times columnist comments that the shortlist “puts craftsman-like skills over conceptual waffle,” thereby knocking back 600 or so years of artists trying to do more or less the exact opposite in one fell swoop.

It’s a relief to see the Times message board featuring the evergreen adage, “Turner must be turning in his grave” (as though Turner were the epitome of good-taste, MOR painting back in the early nineteenth century, etc, etc) and the deathless Emperor’s New Clothes quip (“When will the emperor and his missing clothes be found out?” As though the labor-intensive, thoughtful, and often beautiful work of artists like Hiorns and Skaer was somehow a con-trick played on the public). It’s also a bit of a downer to see the Tate publicity department play to the gallery by describing Wright as “the thinking person’s graffiti artist,” as though “thinking people” couldn’t possibly like graffiti. But you know, they’ve got to be punchy and they were probably wrapping up the press conference and they got asked the same question over and over again, and the press person went for what popped into his/her mind, like in The West Wing, so let’s not get upset about that.

Ok. But what of the shortlist? It’s quite rare these days to have a complete line-up of good or very good artists (usually half or fewer aren’t that great; last year’s was very patchy, I thought; the year before (when Wallinger won) was mainly good; the years before were hit and miss) but I think this might be the best year in a very long time. It seems to be generally agreed (in the press and among people I’ve spoken to about it) that Roger Hiorns looks likely to win for an installation that’s since been demolished. That was always part of the plan, but it’s made Hiorns’ work a kind of 2000’s version of Rachel Whiteread’s demolished and never-bettered House, for which she won the Turner in 1994. Hiorns’ Seizure from last year has already taken on a kind of legendary quality, like Dylan’s first electric gig or the invention of fire: you had to be there, man. It also means that the work has taken on the lustre of great lost works of the past, not only paintings stolen (like this one) or destroyed (like this one) but paintings that survived only in textual descriptions, recreated by later artists in a process called ekphrasis (like this one).

For Seizure, Hiorns filled a moribund council property and filled it, through an arduous and probably dangerous chemical process that I’m not even going to begin to pretend to understand (suffice to say there are photos of the artist and assistants wearing face masks and rubber gloves with steaming pipes and canisters around them, like in Weird Science), the result of which was that the flat—three smallish rooms on the ground floor of a 60’s concrete block—was filled, on every surface, with hard ultramarine crystals that glittered and crunched underfoot. Visitors had to wear thick rubber boots and gloves which made you stagger and wobble about in a way that felt appropriate in the space itself, since the blue surface had something of the quality of the deep sea. Your movements slowed. The sound was crunching and crackling and squeaking rubber (watch a shaky video of the experience here). Hiorns had made a styleless 60’s building into something like the wreck of the Lusitania through a simple (I mean, if you know how) automatic chemical process. I want Enrico David to win, really (here is Chicken Man Gong; any questions?), but it’s pretty likely that Hiorns will walk it, which is not only not a bad thing but might signal an improvement: not in the art itself, but in the rehabilitation of contemporary art in the mainstream press. It’ll be great!!

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