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Monday, December 06, 2004

Turner Prize Short List, Short on Excitement

Tonight at 8:00 PM local time (3:00 PM in New York), this year’s Turner Prize winner will be announced live on British television.

The Turner Prize has become the primary engine for promoting contemporary British art by artists under 50. Since 1984 when the prize was instituted, the Tate (the sponsoring institution) has learned several lessons about managing the contest: ensure that the nomination and selection process is as transparent as possible, partner with an appropriate funding sponsor, and be prepared to deal with the media’s inevitable hoots and howls on announcement of the short list and the prize winner.

This year, the Tate has wrapped the whole experience in a remarkably proficient blanket of public relations savvy. The process (save for the selection panel’s actual deliberations) is clear and open to public scrutiny. Gordon’s, the distillery sponsoring the prize, produces a sophisticated adult product. To preempt public responses to the media’s expected hectoring, the Tate put together an in-depth educational website to contextualize the prize, the selection process, and the nominees’ work. Additionally, the Tate has created both a virtual space and a physical space in the exhibition of nominees’ work on view in London through December 28 to record the comments of anyone interested in making them.

With the public relations machinations in place around the prize, one would expect the nominated artists to be producing challenging, innovate, difficult works that are prone to generate public controversy. This year, however, controversy is in short supply.

Jeremy Deller, nominated for his video Memory Bucket which documents a trip to Texas, is the odds makers’ favorite to win. Memory Bucket and Deller’s larger project of ceding his authorial voice to others in his artistic process would be notable (but not a strong standout) in the context of any international biennial. It only gains its prominence in the nomination exhibition because of the competition’s weakness.

Kutlug Atman’s nominated work Twelve presents interview footage with six residents of a Turkish Arab community who tell tales of their reincarnation. (Six current lives + six past lives = Twelve. Get it?) The videos feel like documentation of field work conducted for a graduate degree in anthropology. Imagine if Clifford Geertz had published the field notes from his trip to Java instead of taking the time to turn them into The Interpretation of Culture. That’s what Altman gives us. The video technique used and his thesis that identity is socially constructed might have made this work interesting in the mid-1980s. Today it feels sophomoric.

The team of Langlands and Bell has contributed two works to the nominees’ exhibition from their larger show earlier this year at the Imperial War Museum. These pieces are even less compelling than Atman’s work. The two artists visited Afghanistan recently and discovered that there are over 280 non-governmental organizations, each with a name and an acronym, operating there. On their return home, they produced flags and prints illustrating this alphabet soup of NGOs. They also commissioned creation of a video game simulation that allows viewers to use a joystick to navigate around the grounds and through a building where Osama bin Laden used to live. The Tate’s website calls their projects “highly political.” In the sense that the work is largely about the existence of political organizations, the assessment is accurate.

Finally, Yinka Shonibare, nominated for a Dutch museum show earlier this year, shows several works at the Tate that may or may not have actually been included in the original exhibition. I found it more interesting to watch a video at the Victoria and Albert of Shonibare discussing his use of that museum’s collection for his practice than I found it to watch his video on display in the Turner Prize nominating exhibition. This piece is the fourth looped video driven by an ambiguous narrative that I have seen presented in a museum in the last year. When process is more interesting than product (especially when process does not play a part in the final product) something is missing.

And that’s the problem. In general, something is missing from this year’s crop of Turner Prize nominees. Something like excitement, the ability to engage viewers, and challenges to tradition that are strong enough to cause controversy. Once the prize is announced and the stories run in tomorrow’s papers, the Turner Prize will fall off the public radar screen for the next ten months. There’s just not enough kindling in the work of this year’s nominees to keep the fires of media and public interest burning until the next short list is announced.

Let’s hope that next year the Tate’s PR machine will have a more engaging set of nominees to promote—a set of nominees whose work is challenging enough to match the Tate’s ability to diffuse the controversy the prize has proven capable of raising in past years.

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