If there were no controversy in any given art medium there would be banality, which would be sacrilegious to its very existence. Proper art, from the deep subconscious recesses of the soul, from heartbreak and political and social and existential discourse, is not meant to be dull, or, indeed, if it is actually intended to be vacuous, then there’s a deliberate provocation behind this outcome, the insipidness of it all a statement against everything we think we know.
Life is monotonous, not art.
Nothing is more divisive in the British art world than the Turner Prize, an event which has such hype and controversy entrenched in its being that it is able to spill out from the insulated highbrow world of contemporary art and filter into the everyday conversation between Tom, Dick and Harry, who, in general, don’t give a shit about art, but are, against all odds, forced to opine on what they see as the mediocrity of some of the artworks up for the award.
“Fucking messy bed? Come round mind on a Sunday morning and I’ll give you a messy bed,” says Tom.
“What’s this about a piece of work winning last year that doesn’t even exist. Mental mate,” adds Dick.
“I like those Chapman Brothers, but what I don’t get is why they made blow up dolls out of bronze?” concludes Harry, somewhat inconclusively.
TDC are not the only people to get riled. In 2002, the Turner Prize irked the then Culture Minister Kim Howells so much that he said: “If this is the best British artists can produce then British art is lost. It is cold mechanical, conceptual bullshit.”
Had he made the remark in 1998, his second sentence – the first doesn’t exactly hide his true feelings about the prize – would probably have come across as a glowing appraisal of Chris Ofili’s mixed media work, which literally used elephant dung. People don’t get it and maybe they’re not meant to. Conclude by saying it is a pile of shit and depending on your audience, that sentence has two diametrical meanings. Either way, you get a clap.
And so here we are, in 2011, in the midst of the usual conversation as is befitting such a discordant prize. From October, this year’s exhibition will be held at Baltic in Gateshead, which is something of a beautiful thing for region. As someone who has come from the northeast, who loves art in all its forms – and was once a raucous critic against conceptual artwork – I am proud that my literal place of origin is host to such a contentious thing. It’s seminal for two reasons: it is the first time that it has been held outside a Tate gallery and its the second time it has been held outside of London. C’est bon as the French would say positively, merde if they thought otherwise.
This year’s artistic provocateurs are Karla Black for her solo show at the Galerie Capitain Petzel, Berlin, Martin Boyce for his solo exhibition at the Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich, Hilary Lloyd for her solo show at Raven Row, London, and George Shaw for his solo exhibition at the Baltic, Gateshead.
You could dub Black and Shaw as the most orthodox of artists in that they embrace primarily the medium of paint, the former tending to go for a sort of woman scorned mix of materials that have included Vaseline, lipstick, eye shadow and crushed chalk to explore how the mind reacts to order and mess, whilst the latter’s photogenic landscape prints embrace the boyish Humbrol enamel paint –traditionally used by model makers – to cast quiet and unnerving landscape portraits of his childhood, his palate of colours limited by what is available.
Boyce meanwhile pays homage to, or at least references, modernist philosophy, his installations characteristic of the designs of the early 20th century. His sculptural installations are complex, through which he weaves a narrative about what they say about themselves in the moment, the future and the world in which they will never be realized. Consequently, the objects can only meditate on the ‘what if?’
Lastly, we have Lloyd, an artist whose preferred medium is moving image but not conventionally so. The source of the image – e.g. DVD player, video projectors – is awkwardly juxtaposed in a certain way so as to draw attention to them, becoming a distraction in some ways from the pictures that emanate from their jaws. Her subject is the silent mechanism of life and the silent motions of industry. In the same way that we “don’t see” the construction of a building, we “don’t see” waiters zipping around like a bluebottle.
In his forward to World Art: The Essential Illustrated History, Dr Mike Mahony commented on how in “our image saturated epoch, the eye, it seems, is rarely afforded the opportunity to linger”. We aren’t spoiled with images but blinded with their bland documentary of a generation who had too much. We “don’t see” these pictures, which we’re grateful for, because they’re shit, but, whatever you may think about artwork that is most associated with the Turner Prize, they at least possess the power to stop, however shit they may be.
And you can take that whatever way you want.
The Turner Prize 2o11 is at the Baltic from 21st October 2011 until 8th January 2012