Review: Turner Prize

It’s difficult to talk about the Turner Prize without discussing the seemingly inevitable swath of controversy that comes along with it. While some years have undoubtedly seen more drama and public gnashing of teeth than others, the Turner Prize seldom seems to be awarded without a healthy measure of public disagreement, either due to those chosen as finalists, the selection of judges or the institutionalised nature of the prize itself.

The debate usually centres on those who at least attempt to engage with the work, only to find it sadly lacking and those who dismiss the prize outright as a symbol of bourgeois arts orthodoxy. What makes both these criticisms somewhat amusing to an outside observer is the predictability of them. The earnestness with which almost all of the major British newspapers’ arts critics write their reviews is genuinely hilarious, though also bizarrely overwrought.

Ultimately one can’t help but think that it’s this pantomime that happens every year between the art establishment behind the award, the critics who come out in force to add their voices to the mix and the endless anonymous readers’ comments that try to one up each other on how little of a published review that have read (before basically dismissing the entire concept of the visual arts out of hand as politically and commercially compromised) that makes the whole thing so boring and annoying to anyone else.

With that being said, this year as previously four artists have been selected as finalists, and their work is now on display at Tate Britain until January 4 next year. The prize celebrates its 30th Anniversary this year, and featuring finalists who are “under 50, born, living or working in Britain, for an outstanding exhibition or other presentation of their work in the 12 months before 17 April, 2014.” By and large the drama has been lacking this year, the majority of the press leading up the exhibition focussing on the fact that three of the four works were audio visual and that three of the four artists studied at Glasgow School of Art. Two the finalists were also selected based on works shown at the 55th Venice Biennale, which at least in New Zealand seems to be another often dramatic reminder that secretly everyone is actually an incredibly knowledgeable art critic.

Entering the exhibition, you are greeted by James Richards work Rosebud. The video installation features a series of images found in books within Tokyo’s Public Library that had been scratched out by censors. Playing off of these, other scenes, such as a small head of elderflowers being playfully moved across lips, skin and genitals as well as a budgerigar trying to escape a hand, with a small chain clearly visible create a sense of tension and fraught intimacy. This is heightened by the soundtrack of largely mechanical and incidental noises, which feels unpredictable and equally weighty.

In The Screens, images from an instructional manual on the application of theatrical make up continues the sense of intimacy, but without the tension, this giving way to a more cold and technical mode, while still focussing on details of the body. Finally, Untitled Merchandise (Lovers and Dealers) features edited images of Keith Haring’s boyfriends and art dealers woven into a series of blankets, pushing the artist (both Richards and Haring) to the side in a move to focus on the fringe of the event.

In the next room, Tris Vonne-Michell’s frenetic installation involves a monologue delivered at pace while scenes play out with equal disconnection. The voice remains tense and occasionally seems to try and overtake itself. The work, entitled Finding Chopin: Dans l’Essex, is a result of the artist’s question to his father, ‘why was I born in this place?’ His father’s response to ask the French sound poet Henri Chopin (1922-2008), gave rise to a developing storyline about Vonna-Michell’s quest to find him.  The monologue was actually recorded at a previous live performance, and is there in many ways to enhance the artist’s belief in different and multi-layered rhythms that define his approach to these two mediums.

The density of his work is aided by three other works:  Addendum I (Finding Chopin: Dans l’Esssex in one corner, and then the separate but still connected Postscript IV (Berlin) and Addendum I (Berlin). These works are actually part of the exhibition Postscript II (Berlin) which was held in Brussel, and for which the artist was nominated for the Turner Prize. These fragmented narratives, which blend fact and fiction and are represented here by scattered ephemera and images are in many ways a reflection of the kind of fast paced, information overload of the modern era.

Ciara Phillips’s work comes as a burst of light and colour after Richards and Vonna-Michell. Entitled Things Shared and consisting of reconfigured and re-presented elements from a series of previous projects and exhibitions, handmade prints cover the massive walls of the space with bright, abstracted colour. Beginning in many cases from accidental ink blotches, the works speak to the issue of mechanical reproduction, while also containing a strong political undercurrent. Phillips has previous worked with Justice for Domestic Workers, an organisation which seeks to protect and defend the rights of migrant domestic workers, frequently exploited by poor regulation in Britain. Together they produced a banner proclaiming ‘NO TO SLAVERY’ which is still used by the group.

Other works include references to works which feature letters of the alphabet, a drive to avoid the limits of meaning in words and the more general possibilities of letters to communicate and carry messages. Some of these works also feature 3D elements, moving beyond the confines of traditional printmaking. The screenprint work and also audio work, both titled new Things to Discuss includes a collaborative element as voices read out a series of words on a poster, held within a tall wooden construction.  All of Phillips’s work to some extent speaks to her feelings towards community and social activism, but the political message is often buried deep within the layers of her deceptively simple imagery.

In the last space are two films from Duncan Campbell, widely considered to be the front runner (even amongst the poor, frazzled broadsheet critics). His two works here, Sigmar and the almost hour long It For Others, are different in both tone and construction. In the first, named for the famed German artist about whom Campbell candidly admits he knows very little about personally, a voice-over mumbles and shouts various German negations, ‘Nein,’ ‘Nie’ und so weiter while an abstract animation based on Polke’s work plays across the screen, fusing both digital and stop-motion techniques with a guitar soundtrack playing in the background. There is a strange tension here between the suggestion of an encounter between the two and the reality of the distance between them, as well as the blending of mediums.

It For Others in contrast brims with biting political criticism, which takes the Chris Marker and Alain Resnais film collaboration Statues Also Die from 1953 as its starting point. Through a series of different scenes and settings, Campbell touches on Marxist theory, commoditisation and the power of an image to be reconfigured through market systems. Going from a series of African masks (in a nod to Marker and Resnais) to a segment about market exchange and value, through to a beautiful choreography by Michael Clark Company that illustrates the evolution of money as laid out in Capital Volume I, the film is equal parts measured and propulsive. The sense of complexity and depth has been pointed out in several reviews, clearly the reason for its status as favourite to win.

Ultimately, whatever the result, much of the response is going to centre on the wider relevance of the prize itself to the majority of people. Increasingly the Turner Prize is seen as a sort of self-congratulatory exercise by people within the art establishment, though interestingly when looking at the list of previous winners included with the small booklet accompanying the exhibition, only a small group of names stand out as particularly controversial (Damien Hirst and Martin Creed among them). Whatever the perceived value of the award might be within the British Press, this year’s winner looks set to join an impressive line of artists when the result is announced on December 1.

Will Gresson


1) Turner Prize installation shot – Ciara Phillips Things Shared 2014 .Copyright the artist. Courtesy Tate Photography

2) Turner Prize installation shot – Duncan Campbell, It for Others 2013. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Tate Photography

3) Turner Prize installation shot – James Richards, The Screens 2013. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Tate Photography

4) Rosebud 2013. Courtesy the artist, Cabinet, London and Rodeo, Istanbul

5) Source material 2014.  Courtesy the artist

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