x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Turner shortlist keeps the pot boiling

The nominations for the Turner Prize this year do not escape controversy, despite the absence of some of the wilder choices in the past.

The Otolith Group is one of the four shortlisted candidates for the Turner Prize, using archive footage to imagine the future, as in this video installation, A Long Time Between Suns (part I), 2009.
The Otolith Group is one of the four shortlisted candidates for the Turner Prize, using archive footage to imagine the future, as in this video installation, A Long Time Between Suns (part I), 2009.

Another year; another crop of artists to complain about. If the intention of the Turner Prize - Britain's most controversial and coveted contemporary art award - is, as its blurb suggests, "to promote public discussion of new developments in contemporary art", then it has certainly, over the course of its now 25-year existence, succeeded. Barely a year goes by without a barrage of insults over the choice of nominees, their work, the judges, or simply the the fact that there are never enough women (of 25 winners, only three have been female). Mission, you could say, accomplished.

This year's batch has elicited the usual harrumphing. Of the four nominees, says The Guardian's Jonathon Jones (who was on last year's jury), only two deserve their nominations. "But two decent artists out of four is not enough," he grumbles. Will Gompertz is unhappy, according to the BBC, that all of the artists are in their 40s (the cut-off is 49). "It's not that any of the artists are unworthy," he says, "only that they could have been chosen years ago when what they were doing was actually new."

So let's have a look at them. Generating the most headlines at this point is the "supermarket singer", Susan Philipsz, 44, whose sound installations, featuring her singing pop and folk songs, are played in public places such as stairwells, bridges and, yes, over the PA system at a branch of the Tesco supermarket chain. Then there is Dexter Dalwood, 49, an artist whose paintings depict fictional interpretations of places where infamous events have taken place. His subjects have included the spot where the body of David Kelly, the weapons expert involved in the Iraq dossier, was found, and an interpretation of the interior of Sharon Tate's house, Roman Polanski's former wife who was murdered by the Manson family in 1969.

The works of Angela de la Cruz, 45, consist of canvases that have been slashed and contorted before being wedged into doorways and corners. And finally there is The Otolith Group, made up of Anjalika Sagar, 42, and Kodwo Eshun, 44, whose video installations use archive footage to show an imagined future. The winner, to be announced in December, will receive £25,000 (Dh139,000), the runners-up £5,000.

They are, on the face of it, quite a diverse bunch: there are two men and two women. And all four represent different art forms. Why, there is even a painter, a medium that has been increasingly overtaken in contemporary art by new media (in 2004 all four of the nominated works were video installations). Disappointingly, though, there is also no howler - a piece that gets both the critics and the public into a proper tizz. Where are the lights switching on and off (à la Martin Creed in 2001, which took the "what is art?" debate to a whole new level)? Or Tracey Emin's My Bed, which, in 1999, prompted the then secretary of state for culture, Chris Smith, to claim that such behaviour was starting to give the British art scene a bad name abroad. A media storm ensued (again, mission accomplished).

Then last year, something rather strange happened: the 49-year-old muralist Richard Wright won with his elaborate gold fresco, created on the walls of the Tate Britain gallery using the same painstaking technique as his Renaissance predecessors. It was good old-fashioned art, and its transience (his works are painted over once an exhibition finishes) only heightened its appeal. He was a popular choice. Everybody agreed it was brilliant. For the first time, the award had gone to someone who was not in the first flushes of their career; something that will be repeated this year.

When the Turner Prize was first established in 1984, many people were at a loss to know what a prize for contemporary art had to do with the early 19th-century painter JMW Turner. It was in fact because Turner had wanted to establish a prize for young artists. He was also controversial in his youth, but went on to become known as one of the greatest British artists. Whether any of the 2010 nominees succeeds in reaching such heights remains to be seen. As long as the debate rages, though, the Turner Prize will continue to achieve its goal.

The artists shortlisted for the Turner Prize will have their work exhibited at the Tate Britain, London, from October 5 until January 2.