Thursday, October 21, 2010

LETTER FROM LONDON: THE TURNER PRIZE

In addition to gorging on the performing arts in London last week, we also partook of the visual kind.  Here's how we spent one afternoon, at the Turner Prize exhibition:
Turner Prize 2010
Since 1984, the Turner Prize has been Britain's most prestigious arts competition.  The prize is awarded to an artist under 50, born, living or working in Britain, for an outstanding exhibition in the year through April.  Beginning in October, the finalists, as picked by a jury, have their work exhibited at Tate Britain. (That's the Tate with neither the smokestack nor the 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds.) Then, in December -- drumroll -- a winner will be picked.



It's a big deal in Britain. Like the Whitney Biennial, the reviewers usually have a field day with their criticism. But also like the Biennial, the Turner Prize gets press coverage and is fiercely argued about in art circles.  Even Ladbrokes and William Hill, the British betting shops, post odds on the Turner Prize contestants.


In earlier years, some of the prizewinners have gone on to fame, fortune, and, in some cases, notoriety, including Howard Hodgkin (1985), Gilbert & George (1986), Anish Kapoor  (1991), Rachel Whiteread (1993), Antony Gormley  (1994), and Damien Hirst (1995).


Four artists were short-listed this year and have their work on display now at Tate Britain.  That is, three rooms have art on display; one room is totally empty. There is absolutely nothing to see in this room, because it's exhibiting an aural piece of art.  Yes, you can actually look at this artwork with your eyes closed. Or you can stare at the bare walls and listen to recordings of the "artist," Susan Philipsz, singing folk songs over loudspeakers.  The program describes these songs as "aural interventions."  Well, as Samuel Goldwyn said, include me out. Susan is on my really really short list. Yet, weirdly enough, The Guardian lists Philipsz in second place in the betting. Go figure.

Dexter Dalwood: Burroughs in Tangiers
Dexter Dalwood: Death of David Kelly
Leading the betting is the painter Dexter Dalwood, former member of a punk rock band. Well, maybe not an oil-on-canvas painter, but a painter-collagist.  In any event, and this is radical among Turner Prize finalists, there are images in frames that can be hung on a wall. How radical!  Not only that, but I actually liked some of them.


More evocative of my perception of a leading-edge art contestant is The Otolith Group. Their entries are long, pretentious videos that are explained in the catalog, but both the videos and the explanations left me struggling.  It was here that I started to appreciate aural interventions. Otolith is in last place among the oddsmakers.
Angela de la Cruz: Clutter I


Finally, there is Angela de la Cruz.  What she is doing is worth discussing. Her point of departure, according to the program notes, is that she 


"breaks the stretchers of her canvases...she becomes occupied with liberating painting from the sacred boundaries of its support, allowing it to expand from the flat picture plane into a third dimension."


Angela de la Cruz: Deflated IV
As is so frequent in the arts today, what seems innovative has often been done before.  In literature, in its most blatant form, this is called plagiarism. (Tom Lehrer: Let no one else's work evade your eyes, plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize.)


In the visual arts, it's considered less as copying and more as flattering:  building, if you will, on the shoulders on giants. Appropriation, it's called.  And what Angela de la Cruz has done is to build on, to emulate, to pay tribute to, or to appropriate what American artist Sam Gilliam did more than a generation earlier. In the 1960s, Gilliam became the first painter to introduce the idea of an unsupported canvas. From his WikiPedia entry:
Sam Gilliam: Double Fashion


He works on stretched, draped, and wrapped canvas, and adds sculptural 3D elements. He is recognized as the first artist to introduce the idea of a painted canvas hanging without stretcher bars ...Around 1965 Gilliam became the first painter to introduce the idea of the unsupported canvas. He was inspired to do this by observing laundry hanging outside his Washington studio. This was the first of its kind and was of huge influence throughout the art world. His drape paintings were suspended from ceilings, arranged on walls or floors, and they represent a sculptural, third dimension in painting.
Sam Gilliam


The two italicized passages are remarkably similar. In both: removing the canvas from the stretcher and adding a third dimension.


Angela is doing something imaginative, and does it OK.  But Sam imagined it first, and does it brilliantly.


There you have it.  In December we'll know who wins -- the aural artist, the painter-collagist, the videographer, or the emulator.  Here's the betting from Oct. 7 poll in The Guardian:




And you thought the Super Bowl was big.



67 comments:

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  2. PS. A 20 min interview just last week by the Lunar X Prize-focused blogger is available at http://evadot.com/2010/10/19/evadot-podcast-44-a-pragmatic-approach-to-a-new-uk-based-google-lunar-xprize-team/, detailing the reasons for joining the prize and how we plan on being different to the other teams. Hope this proves useful/shows that we're serious.

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