Turner Prize: Not my cup of tea

It seems to me that there are two reasons the Turner Prize has remained a notable institution for so long. One is that pointing out that the work isn’t very good makes for boring copy. It smacks of the tabloid oversimplification that recherché readers of the respected papers are bound to hate.

A much deeper problem is that it’s hard to genuinely slate a piece of art without opening a can of worms. Are you really going to claim that you have the objective standard by which art can be judged? You can say you don’t like it, or that there are better examples, but would you really be prepared to say that any given piece was totally fucking meaningless? Well, my visit to the Turner Prize Exhibition left me inclined to give it a go… . Ok not really, but criticism seems to be in order.

Going to the Tate Britain at the weekend blessed me with the opportunity to observe plenty of visitors (screaming children expressed an understandable viewpoint), and as a result I was privy to much conversation. Not once did I hear anyone articulate anything that approached understanding, delight, emotional displacement or pleasure.

A notice board at the end of the exhibition which solicited the punters views confirmed a failure to engage with the works. People were mainly moved to draw cocks with the drawing pins or relate bawdy versions of nursery rhymes. You might think of that as creative reaction to the psychological whirlwind of the previous hour, but I think it’s more likely to be indicative of people bored out of their minds, with nothing about the exhibition to say.

If the works of the Turner Prize had emotion to impart, pearls of wisdom to espouse, or polemic to orate then they roundly failed to deliver their payload to the three-wheeled pram-pushing masses. But what of the experts, who are judge, jury and short-lister of the Turner Prize? Perhaps they are able to fathom some deep and complex meaning in these works, which eludes us mere mortals.

Certainly Goshka Macuga’s piece might lead us to believe we needed a higher expertise in art. Her work is about the relationship of the wives of artists Paul Nash and architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, famous in their field perhaps, but not names that come up around the dinner table. Not in my house anyway. Fortunately the blurb tells you what the installation is about, because if it didn’t it’s pretty clear we’d need a large team of forensic art experts to find it out. I didn’t hear anyone saying “Oh look, isn’t that Paul Nash’s wife? Do you know, I’ve always pondered her relationship with Ludwig Mies van der Roche’s other half.”

Anyway, it’s my strong suspicion is that whatever degree of prior knowledge you had her sculptures constructed form the steel and glass fittings normally used as banisters in public spaces never quite aspired to the sublime, or even the awful. They might perhaps teeter on the insipid.

Cathy Wilkes’ arrangement of female mannequins, supermarket checkouts and dirty bowls of baby food do come together to indicate some kind of meaning. I don’t think I deserve a prize for guessing that her thrust (although she probably doesn’t approve of the inherently male gesture of thrusting) may have something to do with feminity. For this reason this work stands out as the winner for me – not because it’s great, just because it has some kind of meaning that I was able to discern. And for that reason I’d like to exclude it from the criticism that follows.

All of the works, excepting the mannequins, fail a test that I thought up during the extreme boredom of being subjected to Mark Leckey’s video. The idea of this test came to me by way of the post-modernist essay generator. It’s a website that automatically generates essays by stringing together randomly ordered catch phrases and buzz words from post-modernist thought. The results are convincing in the sense that they are very hard to tell apart from some genuine academic papers. I think it’s fair to say that if an essay cannot be told apart from a randomly generated one it can only be of any value by coincidence, and a very unlikely coincidence at that.

So, the Turner Prize equivalent: as a thought experiment imagine having a computer spit out a random plot for video art – or a random selection of ‘found objects’ randomly arranged for a sculpture, and see if you can tell the difference between what you imagined work and the work you are evaluating. What I’m trying to get at is the idea that you might expect a piece of art to convey some more meaning than any random arrangement of matter.

I think it’s fair to say that it would be hard to pick out a video of tuk-tuk drivers doing nothing (Runa Islam’s submission) from “coal miners learning French” or “oranges rolling down the stairs” (my random inventions). The tuk-tuk drivers may have significance and meaning, but even when I try really hard, I can’t see very much. Actually this piece may have been slightly less than random – think back to the 1997 Turner Prize winner “Frozen Policemen”. An hour long video of, you guessed it, policemen doing nothing.

Take another piece of Islam’s – a single continuous shot (I think) of some kind of workshop space. Whatever, frankly.

Perhaps a soporific and interminable video of man making inscrutable points about cartoon cats (Mark Leckey)? What about a black and white epic about the growth cycle of sorghum in China, with subtitles in binary (plot randomly generated by me)? Whatever.

What about a video of someone smashing porcelain cups? What about someone chasing a fictional greased weasel round a fetid bathroom? Can you guess which one is a real submission?

So I don’t quite want to say that these (putative) works are totally fucking meaningless. I want to say that they are about as meaningful as any other randomly chosen arrangement of matter.

Who cares? – well, it’s not the holocaust obviously – but I can’t imagine that art history will give the Turner Prize the prominence it currently enjoys.

Jimmy Tidey (Follow me on Twitter)

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