Friday, 7 November 2014

Turner Prize in your eyes!

There is a lot of carpet flooring in this year’s Turner Prize which could also be something to do with three of the four selected artists being film based [carpet, of course dampening the distracting sound of footsteps]. It took me longer than I’d probably like to admit to arrive at that conclusion spending my first Turner Prize 2014 moments adjusting to the dark, sound proofed interior of the exhibition space at Tate Britain. The 2014 prize marking my third overall Turner Prize viewed, the first artist/work of which I’m confronted by in the year's show was James Richards's film, ‘Rosebud’ displayed on what is possibly the biggest free standing television monitor I’ve ever seen! I sit down next to my fellow Turner Prize goers, a middle-aged woman (or so I assume!) and a young mum and toddler, wondering if they are full of the same heightened sense of expectation and intrigue as me. A minute later and the middle-aged woman begins administering herself eye-drops, much to my bemusement, a darkened art gallery being a fairly impractical place to start dispensing eye-care, surely? But needs must and I speculated if maybe there was something in her eye medicine that made her see everything a little differently or maybe she was preparing or purifying her eyes in anticipation for what she was about to see...? Perhaps I should have asked to borrow some? Should eye-baths be dispensed at the beginning of all art exhibitions? Sadly, though I did not know it at the time, this amusing encounter was to be one of the few lasting images I took away from this year’s prize. 

Now in its 31st year the 2014 Turner Prize features the work of four artists, ‘under the age of fifty, born, living or working in Britain, for an outstanding exhibition or other presentation of their work in the twelve months before April 2014’.  This year’s nominees include; Duncan Campbell, Ciara Phillips, James Richards and Tris Vonna-Michell. On Monday 1st December one of these four artists will be chosen to win the £25,000 prize by a ‘jury’ of art curators from this country and abroad. Locals may note one of them being the Director of Bristol’s ‘Spike Island’, Helen Legg.

Rather depressingly this year’s Turner Prize is dominated by film. And ironically, after an earlier post about my inhibitions to watching film in art galleries generally*, I now found myself in a situation where I have to watch three all at once! Debatably previous Turner Prize’s may have been too accommodating, or trying to be inclusive for short-listing artists across different mediums each year (painting, sculpture, film and in more recent years performance art being represented) but I find it somewhat sad that there isn’t at least one painter, sculptor amongst the group and don’t feel the decision of so many film artists nominated this year is reflective of a decline in the quality or abundance of artists who categorise themselves as painters, sculptors etc. In fact, the Turner Prize felt like something of an anticlimax after having to navigate one’s way through the breathtaking scale of the Phyllida Barlow's installation of ‘stuff’ in the Duveen Galleries. Surely she deserves to be nominated one year?

Still, the Turner Prize has always been renowned for its notoriety, its controversy and its general challenging, at times awkward relationship with both the public, the media and the art world alike. In defence of this year’s chosen four, when you go into the work in more detail, one begins to realise it is perhaps the labelling of ‘film art’ that becomes irrelevant and blurred as each artist uses the medium differently. Stills from Duncan Campbell’s ‘It for Others’, in the form of a choreography of dancers dressed in black, becomes sculptural, James Richards produces accompanying tapestries to his film and Triz Vonna-Michell’s work feels more like a museum/performance poetry than to be labelled just as ‘film’. Most frustratingly of all however, despite their differences, it is still really hard to pick a winner amongst the four. I don’t personally feel one artist stands out much above the rest, making the question surrounding the Turner Prize this year not really a matter of who will win but should we really bothered?

James Richards 'Rosebud' (2013)

Before I was easily distracted by eye-drops, I was watching James Richards’s film ‘Rosebud’, a fragmented collage of personal archive footage or as Richards explains, ‘a restricted set of image sensations’ that flicks between grainy images of roadside shrubbery, pornographic  images from a Japanes art library which have been censored by the scratching/sandpapering away of the genitalia and close-up marco shots of President Hamilton’s eye on a ten dollar bill, its surface looking more like tattooed skin than paper. It moves (or is edited), with what’s been described as a ‘claustrophobic intensity’ whereby the ‘bigger picture’ is never shown; the viewer subjected to incredibly close-up shots, glimpses in a sort-of post-modern peep show. The soundtrack, coming from Richards’s background in experimental sound production is a series of amplifies noises of scratches and high pitched whistles and at this point I stopped trying to make sense of what I was seeing, what it all may mean and/or how it related to one another and instead focused on what it made me feel, which I guess was slightly unnerved. The whole thing was oddly tactile, in parts violent in others sensual; the textures and sounds present making it a ‘felt’ experience’ as to just being something you saw with your eyes. A quote I read from Richards goes some wayto articulating my own experience, ‘the screen is less a window into another world...but rather a surface upon which sensorial information can pass.’

Ciara Phillips 'Things Shared' (2014)
 Another collagist of sorts and who is the only artist not to use film is also this year’s only female artist; Ciara Phillips, creates silkscreen prints from imagery started from accidental ink splotches which have then been enlarged, cropped and repeated into a bigger ‘collage’ come installation. In the Turner Prize show ‘Things shared’ these prints have been pasted directly onto the gallery walls, the letters, K, N and O singled out and presented in the work in seemingly random intervals, of which Phillips implies, ‘I prefer letters to words –words can be a limit on meaning, but letters give their voice to other languages present in the work.’ In another aspect to this space a sound piece in a booth plays conversations recorded with the practitioners she collaborated with to make the prints as they share their experiences of process/making.  I think the work presented by Phillips in the Turner Prize highlights the danger of seeing just one body of work from these artists, usually out of context from the larger body of work within which it sits. I struggled to get much from this work seeing it alone, but having read more on the artist since, I think some of her concepts on printmaking as a process to ‘im-press’ and the double meaning surrounding the word are actually quite interesting. It is a shame I didn’t get it from the piece exhibited at the Tate.
Tris Vonna-Michell 'Postscript II (Berlin)' (2013)

Tris Vonna-Michell may at first appear to be as I so rudely put it, ‘another film maker’ however he is also a historian of memory and uses his own personal life history and relics from his past to self-destruct, interpret, copy and create new stories/identities. Using slides, photocopies, found images and historical references Vonna-Michell creates new narratives and storylines based on the opposing images projected. In addition to the images Vonna-Michell records or performs a live monologue influenced by the sound poetry of Henri Chopin (whom he sites in a specific piece of work, ‘Finding Chopin: Dans l’Essex’) scrambling through his memories, repeating words and phrases. Dotted between these works are the paraphernalia of his source material, photographs, slide projector boxes, shredded paper, designer chairs becoming an archive in addition to the story. The viewer unwittingly also becomes part of unravelling the mystery and trying to make sense of it all, so much so you are left wondering how much is real and how much has been fabricated, how much is a copy. This layering and uncertainty, borrowing and altering, though fabricated is, I found, a more accurate representation of ‘a life’, ‘an identity’ than that of trying to tell or document it accurately. What Vonna-Michell’s work shows is that identity and personal narrative is made from multiple encounters, sources; meetings with other people and their life stories, fragments from the self we project and show to others and the self we perhaps are in private –the whole thing is very layered and is not a linear form of storytelling. Out of all this year’s nominated artists I personally found his work the most engaging in the sense it was made from lots of different components which forced you to participate and think about your own narrative/storytelling.
Duncan Campbell 'It for Others' (2013)

The last artist in this year’s prize is Duncan Campbell, already tipped by critics as the favourite to win, he presents two films ‘Stills from Sigmar’ a digital/stop-motion animation hybrid and ‘It for Others’, another hybrid that blurs the lines between documentary film-making, re-enactment and disjointed fictional/non-fictional narratives. ‘It for Others’ is a response to Chris Marker and Alain Resnais's 1953 film ‘Statues Also Die’ a film that explored the commercialisation of African Art. It argues that African Art out of context loses its original function and ‘degenerates to commercialised decoration’. A point that becomes increasingly awkward and provocative when in relation to African art in museums and art galleries (the piece narrated over images of African masks and objects). In another part of the same film a dancers appear to trace words/symbols from Karl Marx’s ‘Capital Volume I’. Sadly, I don't think these ideas being communicated through choreography are any more accessible than they are being read. Through several different visual displays Campbell weaves together a thought-provoking comment on commercialisation although arguably it represents rather than contributes much, if anything new to the debate that hasn't already been done. And by this point, as the last artist in my Turner Prize journey, unfortunately for Campbell, I was beginning to lose energy. Campbell is probably the most accomplished 'film maker' of the three, his editing, storytelling and shots being the most cinematic but I am unconvinced that that is enough to win.
This year’s Turner Prize was difficult! The work demanded a lot of time in order to be understood and out of context from the artists other work I felt there was much I was missing or failing to grasp. Was it worth the effort? I don’t honestly feel it was. There have been many, many more artists who’ve been interesting this year outside the realms of the Turner Prize, Phyllida Barlow, Tania Kovats, David Batchelor to name a few. If I had to pick a winner, Tris Vonna-Michell would be my bet simply because his work best emulated the thing I found most interesting in this year’s Prize, which wasn’t the work, but the lady putting in her eyedrops.  The mundane honesty of, ‘So what if I’m in an art gallery, my eyes are killing me. Time for some eye drops!’ was more amusing, more lasting and more realistic than anything much I saw in the Prize itself. Whether Vonna-Michell’s narratives are ‘real’ or not I guess it felt the most human of all the work presented this year and for that relatable quality his work provides where the others tend to alienate, he deserves to win.
  You decide? -The Turner Prize 2014 can be seen at Tate Britain until 4th January 2015

 Winner announced on Channel Four, Monday 1st December, time TBC.

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