If the public were given a vote about who should be the winner of the 2012 Turner Prize, then judging from the scribbled notes posted upon it, the comment board would be a strong contender. That and the Pre Raphaelites, whom the Tate, perhaps rather unkindly, from the point of view of this year’s shortlist, had bundled into a double ticket. Of course comment boards can’t win art prizes – why this one is only a few days old and the Pre Raphelites are all dead and if they were alive would be over 150 years old, not under 50 as specified in the rules.
The Pre Raphaelite exhibition brought together works by Millais, Ford Maddox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones and a host of others. Not all of them were to my taste; some pictures such as the death of Chatterton or Ophelia were so familiar, that it was almost impossible to have any reaction other than, “oh yes, there it is”. Some of them to modern eyes were overly sentimental. I did not much care for the religious imagery in the Scapegoat; actually I didn’t like the goat itself. But there were some wonderful works there. In Isabella, the painting inspired by Keats’ poem Millais had captured such extraordinary expressions on the faces of the people round the room. Isabella herself is so sensitively portrayed as she submits to the interrogation and fondles her dog for comfort. The bully aims a kick at it; round the window grow herbs reminding us that her lover will be killed and that she will bury his head in a pot of basil. Millais was 19 when he painted it.
Virtually all of the paintings in the exhibition exhibited such an extraordinary degree of skill. Flesh looked lifelike, colours were vibrant, there was amazing detail; I was particularly impressed about how the quality and texture of cloth could be rendered in paint in paintings such as Burne Jones’ the Golden Stairs. I wondered how many artists today would be capable of producing works of that quality. I was aware that going straight into the Turner Prize exhibition would bring an abrupt and probably uncomfortable jump into the 21st century. And so it proved.
The first work the visitor sees are the huge intricate graphite pencil drawings of Paul Noble. It was interesting to see the progression of his drawing from 1996, when there was still evidence of lines having been rubbed out and redrawn, to the work of the present day which is so meticulous it is hard to believe that it does not involve some degree of printing. The drawings are of the fictional city Nobson Newtown and include hands and abundant turd like objects. Most impressive are the way his drawings can portray transparent buildings. It is astonishing what can be done with just a pencil and an obsessive mind.
In the next room was showing Luke Fowler’s work All Divided Selfs a film about R.D. Laing, which looked interesting but where I was deterred by the 93 minute showing time. The other film work Elizabeth Price’s The Woolworth Choir of 1979 was hard to watch for reasons other than time. I don’t suffer from either epilepsy or migraines but my brain feels distinctly uncomfortable with flashing lights and the way that the narration was delivered by a red subtitles which juddered and went in and out of focus saw me move myself protectively on to the next room.
I had particularly wanted to see Spartacus Chetwynd’s performance. I was lucky that it was just starting. I sat down on a cushion near the front as members of the troupe capered in their elaborate tree like costumes trying not to rip the paper scenery, while music pounded. This was the performance where members of the audience are chosen to consult the oracle. Small children screamed a little if chosen whilst adults giggled. The oracle duly whispered something that even somebody sitting as close to the front as I, couldn’t hear.
In the end, I was not chosen though I was one of the last to be left into the room but was instead ushered into another room where a puppet show was in progress. It was hard to make out what was going on though it was apparently about Jesus and Barabbas. I decided I prefer theatre where you can actually hear the words.
The purpose of the Turner Prize is to encourage debate about developments in contemporary art. Year after year that debate seems to repeat itself and become a debate about what constitutes art. I can’t be alone in thinking that everything that there is to say on the subject has already been said. For my part I am prepared to accept that anything an artist declares to be art is art, provided that the artist makes that assertion is good faith. The far more interesting question is whether it is any good. One way of defining good is whether people will be queuing to see it in 100 years time as they are with the Pre Raphaelite exhibition.
Now I don’t for a minute think that any of the artists involved in this exhibition were not acting in good faith. And actually from what I could see all the work was good; Noble’s drawings were actually as skilled in their way as the pre Raphaelite paintings. But equally skill is not everything and while they had novelty value, and repaid time spent studying them, I still think it would be surprising if his or any other of the work on show will have people queuing to see it in 2112.
The Turner Committee seems to be redefining contemporary art to include anything in the arts. In 2010 Susan Philipsz won for her work with folk songs. This year we see two films and a performance artist on the short list. I don’t have a problem with this. It is interesting when boundaries become blurred. But, and it is big but, where that is the case I also think the works should be judged not in isolation but should be considered along with the works of others who are doing similarly creative work in sound, or music, or theatre but who have not self-identified themselves as contemporary artists. Of all the works there, I enjoyed the work of Spartacus the most (though I was more impressed by Noble’s). The costumes were fantastic; it was lively; I wanted to see what would happen next. But this is true of many, many theatrical works; I am genuinely puzzled why this one should be singled out as a contender for a major art prize. Major prizes should identify excellence. It was not excellent. On the comment board Spartacus and Noble appeared to be dueling for first place. “Spartacus because I like bouncy castles,” wrote one art lover, aged I would guess about 7. “Noble is cool” wrote another. ” I remember when I first learnt to do 3D writing.”But some people dismissed the lot. “I am taking the notepad as restitution ( a pencil and a pin too)” wrote another.
I didn’t want to do that. It was interesting. But if contemporary art now includes everything creative, there must be other people out there perhaps in the West End theatre, or making documentaries for television, that are doing more interesting work, perhaps even work that will still stand up in 150 years time. There might even be some painters or sculptors.
- Turner Prize 2012: It’s back to the drawing board for Paul Noble (standard.co.uk)
- Turner Prize 2012, Tate Britain, review (telegraph.co.uk)
- Spartacus Chetwynd Leads The Turner Prize Nominations (contactmusic.com)