‘Just Banter’: The Turner Prize at Tate Britain

I went to the Turner Prize exhibition at the Tate Britain the day before the winner was announced. The exhibition showcases work from the four shortlisted artists for the prize: video artists James Richards, Tris Vonna-Michell, Duncan Campbell and print-maker Ciara Phillips. I was expecting grand things but, with the exception of discovering the delightful Ciara Phillips, left feeling slightly confused. As one visitor wrote, ‘I am obviously missing something’ (I also think the giant question mark scribbled on one piece of paper would sum up just as nicely).

James Richards’ video installation in the first gallery comprised of a confusing accumulation of pornographic images and footage of the countryside. The close-ups of body parts cued lots of ‘What is that?’ whispers and then embarrassed laughter when it was explained by the person next to them. A slide projection of artificial gore and theatrical make-up was also included. Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times wrote that the show ‘plumbs the depths of portentous banality’ – and in these works, I think I understand why.

The poems and illuminated photos of another video artist, Tris Vonna-Michell, followed without much improvement. His visual projections, photographs and written materials construct a narrative which he describes as ‘about a journey in Berlin, which somehow would relate to some personal trajectories, some fictive perhaps’. His uncertainty certainly comes across in his work: it feels random, less a narrative but instead a fragmented and unrelated series of artefacts. Zoe Pilger summed it up perfectly when she wrote for The Independent: ‘It is a credit to the judges that they have not gone for media-baiting, provocative-for-the-sake-of-it work, and instead chosen the seemingly subtle and difficult. But difficulty must have a point. Too much of this exhibition is underwhelming.’ Indeed.

Print-maker Ciara Phillips’ gallery was a breath of fresh air: bright, colourful screen prints were a welcome contrast to the rather dull galleries of Richards and Vonna-Michell, whose work lacked sufficient power and dimension in comparison. Phillips’ gallery, however, was full of energy: it was scattered with hand-printed patterns on paper, photocopies and blackout poetry (the covering up of sections of text in novels to create poetry from the words remaining). Her central piece, ‘New Things To Discuss’, was particularly fascinating. Notes taken from conversation with collaborators, the alphabetically-listed phrases and ideas were pinned up inside a giant walk-in cylindrical shape, with the audio of voices reading them aloud. The list starts with ‘about money’, ends with a rather Ulysses-esque ‘yes’ and covers everything from ‘turn riot into vote’ and ‘art as a socialised job’ in between. Where Richards and Vonna-Michell feel contrived and underwhelming, Phillips is loud and joyous: the piece creates a stand-out dialogue about contemporary art, its role today and the society in which it exists, one plagued by socio-political tensions.

Duncan Campbell, who was announced the winner of the Turner Prize at the beginning of the month, produced the 54-minute essay film ‘It For Others’, involving different interdisciplinary sections. They included visual discussion of colonialism, economics and politics through African masks, the IRA and perplexing choreography of black figures interacting with shape through movement on a white background. The projection attracted a large, fascinated, but mostly confused crowd. The Tate commented that the jury ‘awarded the prize to Duncan Campbell in recognition of an ambitious and complex film which rewards repeated viewing. The jury admired his exceptional dedication to making a work which speaks about the construction of value and meaning in ways that are topical and compelling.’ But at times, Campbell’s film felt too long to be compelling and too abstract to be topical: it felt like anything that could be interpreted as even vaguely political was crammed into the film under the guise of subtlety and complexity.

The real star of the show was the comments board outside, where visitors were encouraged to scribble their thoughts on paper and pin them up. The best include, ‘Turner must be turning in his grave’, the word ‘yawn’ and four exclamation marks repeated four times – and my personal favourite, ‘its just banter’, with ‘Great analysis – check your punctuation’ in green underneath. In a hilarious and painfully accurate review of the exhibition, Digby Warde-Adlam in The Spectator writes that, ‘To put it bluntly, the Turner Prize’s 2014 selection committee has somehow contrived to put together the worst shortlist in the award’s history.’ Januszczak encouraged readers not to go at all, but do – one of the best things about art is its ability to make people inexplicably angry, moved – or just very confused. And perhaps as long as art makes us feel something, it’s still winning.


The Turner Prize exhibition continues at the Tate Britain until 4th January 2015.

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