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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

My struggles with the Turner Prize 2009

Tate Britain, London

Written by Satu Fox

richard wright turner prize poster

I must confess, remedy I came with preconceptions: the Turner Prize’s reputation for “challenging” art that leaves much of the public baffled, there precedes it.

Your intrepid reporters are me, Satu, Art Editor of Amelia’s Magazine, who likes ceramics and the British Museum; and my much more knowledgable advisor Sally, our Fashion Editor, a graduate of Goldsmith’s fine art and art history course. Sally has been to the exhibition many times, while I have never felt much interest, mainly because of the often negative coverage. I like things that are beautifully made rather than conceptually challenging and so there are a few holes in the jumper of my arts understanding.

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According to Sally, the Turner Prize space at Tate Britain has sometimes felt cluttered, more like the dusty archives of each artist’s endeavour than a well-culled selection of their best. This year’s exhibition does away with the volume in favour of carefully chosen pieces, sometimes very few and sometimes more, that work together to reveal each person’s themes and motivations.

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The four artists seem incredibly different. On first entering you find Lucy Skaer’s work revolving around found objects, the skeletons of whales and the material coal dust. Large prints made from a dismantled chair form a sort of language, with punctuation but no recognisable letters. The three-dimensional works include a real whale skeleton, borrowed from a museum, which is rather frustratingly concealed behind white panels. I liked the look of Skaer’s work – it was all black and white, bold shapes – but I didn’t take much away from it. Nothing was especially beautifully made or memorable visually.

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In sharp contrast, the dedication and care put into Richard Wright’s painting could not have been more evident. A large-scale painting done in an almost medieval decorative style, the work will be painted over once the exhibition ends and so feels like it exists purely for its own sake, and for the beauty of making something with human hands for human enjoyment. This is the sort of thing I love! I could imagine the artist up on a scaffold, creating first the cartoon by dusting a paper stencil with black powder, then carefully going over each tiny line with gold paint. This work makes the most of its context, the blank white room.

enrico david turner prize

Enrico David’s sculpture plumbs some darker depths, with malevolent human faces appearing to be trapped on strange over-sized toys, a distinctly adult version of the terrifying toy that comes to life. Noface from Spirited Away, the tall black ghost with the white face, makes a cameo in the uncanny resemblance to him by a surreal cloth model whose extended arms drape over boards and stacks of boxes, making a physical link between portraits of strange characters with impossible bodies: a torso placed on backwards legs for example. There is a strong sense of a murky underworld but again I felt that the poor physical quality of the objects made them feel tacky and reduced the impact of the visual concepts.

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My strong feeling that care should go into works of art faced its strongest challenge in the room demonstrating Roger Hiorns’ work. There were sculptures that appeared to be made of cast plastic, which I learned from the curator were impregnated with cow brain matter. The most eye-catching piece in the room (excluding his stunning “Seizure”, above, a council flat filled with copper sulphate crystals) is the ionised airplane engine, whose powdered remains have been dumped in the middle of the room. That word “dumped” is used advisedly: there was some debate between Sally and I over whether the amount of care taken over the spreading of the ashes was vital or not important.

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The care that goes into the composition of art is very important to me. It’s not clear despite investigation, whether the beautiful landscape created by Hiorn’s ionised metals is intentional or arbitrary. Ionising an aircraft engine is not a quick and easy process: does it really matter whether he carefully laid out each line of powder according to a plan, knowing we would be looking? Arbitrariness is apparently an important part of his work with chemical processes – the outcome is uncertain and intended to derail the confidence we modern folk have in technology and the physical world around us. The work certainly started debate and that’s what we’re after. Maybe I need to get over my need for art to be neat around the edges and allow it to be messy, tacky, cheap and nasty if it needs to be.

I’ll make no predictions for the winner, although I think that Roger Hiorns is streets ahead in terms of thoughtfulness and confidence; his work is original but grounded in the natural world. It would be Richard Wright’s work I would have in my fantasy future house though: beautiful, unique and then gone with a stroke of white paint.

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