How apt that china teacups came to replace unmade beds in the Turner Prize's year of quiet, restrained intelligence.
Turning the tide
Making my way around the Linbury Galleries in London's Tate Britain during an uncommonly quiet late-evening opening, I kept having to remind myself that it was the work of this year's Turner Prize nominees that was displayed around me. Where were the swarms of people sniggering over elephant dung and soiled sheets, or sighing that contemporary art has no substance, no direction? Somewhere over the course of the past few Turners, this lurid circus seems to have disbanded.
And, really, this is how it should be. Invariably, year after year, the same tired stories of winners and losers, and quips asking "how is this art?" overshadowed the work on show, even when the work was not particularly scandalous. This year's line-up - from which a winner will be selected tonight - is exceptional not only in terms of the remarkable quality of the work, but also for the different class of debate being generated.
Carolyn Kerr, one of the exhibition's curators, seems to agree. As someone who has worked with the prize on and off since the early 1990s, she is well placed to explain the nuances of a year of particular distinction. "It is work that is noticeably different to some of the recent shows that were, perhaps, more familiar to people," Kerr told me. "These are artists who are very well established - with careers spanning 10, 15 years - but they are possibly less engaged with self-publicity than some other artists of their generation. It is work that does require time and consideration and thought. I think that makes it more interesting."
More than just interesting, in fact. Kerr's words are so persuasive that five minutes with her would convert even the most hardened sceptic. Though the prize has, in the past, been criticised for lacking both thought and substance, this year's selection seems to refute such claims. It is a less instantly recognisable line-up than usual - Runa Islam, Mark Leckey, Goshka Macuga, Cathy Wilkes - and is all the better for it. Not a banner name between them - though all that will very likely change come tonight's announcement. What is certain, however, is that the installations are less about immediate impact, cheap thrills and cheaper puns, and more about intellectual insight.
In fact, if a group show that pits together four artists in the most arbitrary fashion can have an binding leitmotif, the concept of theatre may well be it. Not theatre in the shock-and-awe sense, but the stage as a place where ideas interact and discourses intersect. "One of the purposes of the Turner Prize is to introduce new art to a wider audience and to engage them in the debate about what it can be: the possibilities of contemporary art," Kerr explains. "It's really refreshing to see names and work that is less familiar and to actually stand back and think, 'All this is going on as well'."
The Turner Prize prides itself on celebrating innovation and novelty, and promotes itself as a provocateur of smart conversation on the present state of the visual arts. In short a platform on which new art theories can be cultivated. The proceedings begin with a modernist conversation by the Polish-born, Goldsmiths-educated Goshka Macuga. Her pieces consistently reference other artists, going so far as to include actual fragments from the Tate archives. Here, in the midst of towering structures derived from sheets of glass and panels of steel, Macuga has assembled a wall of old, faded monochrome photographs that have been cut and pasted together. She is essentially enacting a cultural archaeology exploring the romantic liaisons between Mies van der Rohe and his collaborator Lilly Reich, and the British modernists Paul Nash and Eileen Agar. These two dramatic dialogues are performed against a backdrop of a softly drawn graphite rain on the walls. It is a quiet counter-cultural reading of a major art movement based on the spaces inbetween - and the intimacies that they afford.
In the next room, Cathy Wilkes, though admittedly more playful, also presents a self-interrogative piece with the tableau I Give You All My Money (2008) - a large, bipartite sculpture - positioned centre stage in an otherwise vacant, white room. At first you're not sure how to approach the piece, how close to venture near. But its interactivity soon reveals itself. Buzzers and words of warning have no place here. A scattering of consumer ready-mades such as obsolete televisions, beaten-up pushchairs and undressed shop mannequins are located alongside detritus from daily life. Organic objects and seemingly scattered leftover fragments - hair, lint, half-eaten food - all make up Wilkes' visual lexicon.
"Wilkes' process is similar to Macuga's," says Kerr. "Again she's reworked elements from previous pieces. Every time she makes a work, or reinstalls a work, she'll adapt it, change it, make it fit the context of the space. So it's an ever-evolving piece." The next three rooms play host to the films of Runa Islam. If words were not enough for Wilkes, here it seems that the filmed image is not enough for Islam. The three shorts on show reconfigure the conventional structure of film - specifically concepts of sequencing and camera-motion control.
Most striking of these is Be the First to See What You See as You See It (2004), a collage of sequences played out across a skewed, dreamlike space. In a mint green room, a woman inspects china displayed on plinths and a table laid out for tea. Then, in what Kerr describes as a "drama of deliberation", filmed in slow motion, the woman proceeds to tip the half-full teacup, smashing it on the floor in the process.
The film has the texture of a photograph that you imagine would be used to illustrate a Sylvia Plath article in a 1950s magazine: grainily rendered bathroom-pastel tones recreating an atmosphere of domestic repression. Talking to visitors of the exhibition that evening, I got the impression that Be the First to See What You See as You See It is the closest thing we have to a Turner water-cooler moment this year. How apt that china teacups came to replace unmade beds in Turner's year of quiet, restrained intelligence.
Mark Leckey closes the show with requisite wit and humour, but in the wake of Islam's filmic reimaginings, it all feels like a bit of an afterthought. His collection of film posters, slide projections and video installations is dominated by Cinema-in-the-Round (2006-8), a 40-minute film of a lecture he gave at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. It's a farce at heart, but even in Leckey's room, we are still a very long way from 2001 when Madonna was brought out to drop an expletive live on television, in response to Martin Creed, who had won the prize for his (quite literally) empty installation room - a Turner nadir if ever there was one.
However, the rich pickings since then have more than made up for it. Jeremy Deller, who won the prize in 2004, is the model example of Turner atonement. If a Turner of Turners shortlist were to be devised for its 25th anniversary next year (much like, say, the Man Booker Prize's 40th anniversary celebrations this year), Deller would surely feature on it. He is perhaps best known for his performance piece The Battle of Orgreave (2001), in which he re-enacted one of the more violent episodes from the British miners' strikes of 1984. It is a jolt of a short film, which was later, and to wide acclaim, made into a mixed-media installation for his Turner exhibition.
"It changes how people see you: the public, the press - but not fellow artists," Deller says of the Turner. "If anything, they are less likely to approach you. But the prize is a great thing. I love it." For Wolfgang Tillmans, the first and (to date) only stills photographer to take the prize - and another very plausible candidate for the Turner of Turners shortlist - the achievement is a landmark around which his solo survey shows are now defined. Lighter, Tillmans' most recent retrospective, which took place at the Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof earlier this year, went so far as to include the Turner Prize Room (2000).
"The sort of physicality I show in my photographs, which was always so important to me," he says of his frank portraits exhibited in this room, "hasn't dissolved into harmlessness. It seems to have gone the other way, almost as if somehow it's become more provocative." And therein lies Turner's allure. It has the ability, more than any other arts award I can think of, to define the future practices of its honorees: a career moment upon which entire retrospectives can be pegged.
The winner of the Turner Prize 2008 will be announced tonight. The exhibition will continue at the Tate Britain in London until Jan 18, 2009.