Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The Turner Prize: "Discuss"

This year we are being treated to (in order): collages of other artists' materials; stream-of-consciousness sculpture with found objects; portentous china-smashing on film; and, well, sort of an amalgam of all of these.

Viewing he work of artists shortlisted for the award is not the same as viewing anything else in the building (or so I told myself anyway as I found myself traipsing around in the shadow of Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak). The Turner Prize is not awarded to those with a particular gift for rendering an idea in an aesthetically satisfactory way. Rather, it rewards the artist trying to investigate or communicate new avenues of thought in the clearest manner.

I am not a Turner Prize contender. That much is evident by the less than clear previous paragraph. What is 'aesthetic satisfaction' if not 'clarity of communication'?! I'll try again: what struck me as I walked around this year's exhibition was that the ideas that are being communicated are not visual but literary. The ideas and their representation are distinct entities - they're not intrinsic (as they are in abstract or figurative sculpture or painting).

Consequently one of the most important parts of the exhibition is the final room in which the artists get to talk about their working basis - manifesto, subject, even motivation.

Armed with a bit of knowledge I could go back to Cathy Wilkes' ostensibly ridiculous mess of found paraphernalia (nurses uniforms, mannequins, bricks, jam jars, horse shoes). This work isn't about the objects. It's an attempt to bridge the gap between the precise nature of her experience and our experience of her explanation of the same. I like this idea. I think talking about our mutual alienation by virtue of our natural existential autonomy is an interesting, even slightly romantic subject.

However it can't make for good art. The whole point of modernism in art is about creating a new aesthetic vocabulary and syntax to approach old matters afresh and give adequate voice to the new. A piece like Claire Wilkes' readymade installation does not provide new language. Instead it is a valid invitation to engage in discussion of the topic, irrespective of whether the piece has any intrinsic attachment to that topic. It is entirely possible to confront and engage with Cathy Wilkes' Turner Prize entry without going into the exhibition as it is a philosophical, or literary piece.

I've picked up on Cathy Wilkes' entry as her interest is one that I share, philosophically. Yet this meta-art issue extends throughout the rest of the shortlisted works. Goshka Macuga's write-up on the Tate micro-site tells us that she
merges the roles of collector, curator and artist
This is the same role adopted by the curator-analyst Mark Leckey whose art is to pore over the work of others.

Runa Islam is the artist whose work has (comparably) its own merit. Yet again her focus is on the editing process in film itself - not in producing a film which can mystify, enthrall and elate by virtue of artful editing.

The Turner Prize is entirely valid, taken on the basis that it offers an opportunity to discuss ideas. Is it a good year? Yes, I think it might be. Is it a good show? Well, this issue revolves around whether the art on show has any intrinsic merit - it hasn't really (Goshka Macuga's does but that's not her point). As ever, an exhibition for the artful rather than the art-lover.

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