The Turner Prize: a retrospective
The nation’s, if not the world’s, most celebrated prize for contemporary art has taken the opportunity of a hole in its annual exhibition schedule to host a retrospective. The Leisure Review paid its respects
Rachel Whiteread's Untitled (floor) and images of House
Richard Deacon: For Those Who Have Ears #3
Launching the Turner Prize retrospective
Jeremy Deller: Memory Bucket
The Turner Prize has become an established part of the British art scene and has arguably become part of the British art establishment. However, it has lost none of its ability to engage the public – the general public that comprises the wider populace who have rarely, if at all, been to a contemporary art exhibition, never mind a Hoxton private view – in a debate about art. In its twenty-three-year history the Turner Prize has engaged and enraged in equal measure, showcasing the contemporary flow of British art in one the highest-profile annual art exhibitions in the world.
This year the Turner left London for the first time but its essence has survived the transfer. The move of exhibition and presentation to Liverpool was recognition of the city’s hosting of the European Capital of Culture but the essence of the Turner Prize survived its transfer. Mark Wallinger was awarded the 2007 Turner Prize for his State Britain at Tate Britain earlier in the year, a solo exhibition that recreated within the gallery Brian Haw’s anti-war banners which have been on permanent display outside Parliament for the past few years, but it was his submission for the short list exhibition, Sleeper, a two-and-a-half-hour film of the artist shambling about a Berlin art gallery while dressed in a bear costume, that secured the headlines that are a hallmark of the Turner Prize.
It remains to be seen what Liverpool makes of its relationship with the Turner Prize but it seems that the Tate was pleased to defer to the European Capital of Culture on this occasion. Tate Britain has taken the opportunity to use the space in its gallery programme for a Turner Prize retrospective featuring work from all previous winners. Speaking at the launch of Turner Prize: A Retrospective, Stephen Deuchar, director of Tate Britain, spoke warmly of the opportunity that the transfer of the prize had presented while making sure to emphasise that the situation was only temporary.
“We are happy to let it happen just this year because it gives us the opportunity to do this show looking back at the Turner Prize,” he said. “This is an exhibition with no particular agenda. I think the most important thing about this exhibition is that it presents these twenty-two artists to the public. The focus should be on their work and not a process of navel-gazing about the prize. There used to be a fear about contemporary art but I think that time has gone… We’re very proud of the role that the Turner Prize seems to have played in the process.”
The concept of a retrospective of contemporary art may well be a paradox but the retrospective brings the winners of the prize together for the first time and the juxtaposition of the artists and the works makes for an exciting exhibition. Deuchar’s hope that the viewers’ interest will be in the artists and their work rather than the prize is not unrealistic given that many of the names and pieces are now famous beyond the art world – Hirst and his bisected animals, Whiteread and her concrete house, Ofili and his elephant dung, to pick just the most obvious – but the exhibition’s title and chronological presentation does invite the visitor to ponder the prize, measuring its progress in the manner of a time line of artistic evolution. For all the pieces on display, it is hard not to keep one’s eyes on the prize: what is it trying to do; what has it done for art and artists; why have all these works resulted in such outcry; is the art or is it the Turner?
While contention could well have been the Turner’s middle name, it was named after JMW Turner, who had wanted to establish a prize for young artists. The Turner Prize was first presented in 1984 and, with an anonymous sponsor and a first winner, Malcolm Morley, who had lived in the USA since 1958, the prize found controversy from the outset. It rarely looked back. In the early years the short lists included both artists and administrators, in fact anyone working in the arts (Nicholas Serota was nominated in 1986), and much of the discussion revolved around the nature of competition for artistic achievement: could anyone be said to have ‘won’ from a short list of artistic expression? Organisers wrestled with the issue. In 1988 there was no short list, only a winner. In 1989 it was a winner and no short list (there was a ‘highly commended’ list). In 1990 there was no prize at all.
This break in the sequence allowed the Tate to reassess the prize and in 1991 it was back, along with the short list and a new sponsor. The involvement of Channel 4 brought television coverage and heralded a period of notoriety, not only for the prize but for the artists involved and British contemporary art in general. The list of nominations and prize winners of the 1990s included artists that would become synonymous with modern British art: Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread, Antony Gormley, Mark Wallinger, Gillian Wearing and Tacita Dean. Along the way Turner Prize nominee Tracey Emin and Turner winner Damien Hirst became household names.
A sustained series of challenging works also brought profile for the Turner Prize itself. The trail of unmade beds, butchered animals, excrement animal and human made the Turner Prize the symbol of cutting edge art and middle England outrage. As its reputation grew, so too did scrutiny and criticism. By the end of the 1990s the Turner short list could guarantee indignant headlines but artistic outrage proved good for business: it always sells papers and in 1999 over 140,000 people visited the Turner Prize exhibition, a record for the Turner and a huge number for a contemporary art show.
If we heed Mr Deuchar’s request and turn from the prize to the artists, we find at Turner Prize: A Retrospective a new context for many of the works. Gilbert and George’s Drunk with God, Chris Ofili’s No Woman No Cry and Gillian Wearing’s 60 Minute Silence seem to have lost some of their strangeness; perhaps it is the result of a combination of familiarity and the gravitas lent by a formal retrospective exhibition. Richard Deacon’s sculptures in wood and steel (For Those Who Have Ears #3 and For Those Who Have Eyes), photographic representations of Rachel Whiteread’s House and Anish Kapoor’s untitled deep blue hemispheres seem perfectly at home in a conventional gallery setting. Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided, one of the defining images of British contemporary art of recent years, even seems strangely muted, its impact less apparent than the pun of its title.
The Turner Prize presents the outstanding British artists and this retrospective presents the best of the best, or rather, if we are mindful of the competitive issues, those that stand out among the outstanding. The retrospective exhibition by definition removes the requirement for novelty and visitors are able to judge what was once contemporary against a different set of criteria. If Hirst is somewhat denuded in this context, his impact lessened, perhaps it is a function of progression: less enfant terrible now than artworld celebrity. Perhaps the story that he takes a careful interest in the maintenance and servicing of his exhibits adds a curatorial element; perhaps Hirst as travelling artwork repair man detracts from the fearsome reputation as maverick shark slicer. The 2007 winner, Mark Wallinger, has taken up Hirst’s punning tendency and makes it his own with his winning exhibition StateBritain at Tate Britain. Pay too close attention to the title and what starts as a facsimile of a homemade public protest seems less like a political statement than a juvenile snigger. Martin Creed’s Work No. 227 Lights going on and off may well be an essay on the nature of art but it can so easily be seen as the point at which one begins to put the emperor and his tailor’s latest offering under closer scrutiny.
This, of course, is the fun of the Turner. Turner Prize: A Retrospective enables each visitor to make this decision for themselves in the novel context of a historical perspective of contemporary art. The Turner Prize may well have taken the fear out of contemporary art but it remains to be seen whether the gallery-going public is able to separate the great from the good and the good from the arch if they have the confidence to judge that, while it may well be art, it is just not very good art. This retrospective offers the ammunition for all points of view and it will be interesting to see whether the footfall for the exhibition matches that of the annual show. Stephen Deuchar will be pleased to see the Turner Prize back in London; Liverpool might be too.
Turner Prize: A Retrospective is at Tate Britain until 6 January 2008. Turner Prize 2007 is at Tate Liverpool until 13 January 2008. For details of both exhibitions and background to the Turner Prize visit www.tate.org.uk
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