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Monday, January 02, 2006

Turner Prize Finalists, 2005

I have been meaning to post something on the Turner Prize finalist show at the Tate for a few weeks, but until now I haven't found the time to turn the notes I took into something coherent. Maybe it's better, though, that I don't say too much about the exhibition.

Like last year, what impressed me most about the show was the pedagogical and PR packaging with which the Tate has wrapped up the finalists' work. While I liked some of this year's work better than what I saw in 2004, the show as a whole underwhelmed me.

Maybe that shouldn't be too much of a surprise. The Turner Prize is awarded each year to a British artist under 50. The numbers work out this way. You start with the island that has a population of 60M people. You can assume that only one in 10,000 people is a professional visual artist. You figure 1/4 of those artists are over 50, so you exclude them. Then you figure that of the remaining group, only one in 100 is doing work that's of international caliber. That leaves you with a pool of 45 British artists with an international reputation who might be candidates for the award.

The prize has been given 21 times now, and it's never a good thing to nominate an artist a second or third time for the prize if she didn't win it when she was up the first time. So, basically, the Tate has to pull new nominees out of a barrel that holds fewer and fewer potential recipients for the prize each year. I hesitate to say it, but if you stick with my metaphor here you find that before too long you're scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Installation view, Simon Starling, Turner Prize, 2005Work by this year's prize recipient, Simon Starling (an installation view of his contribution to the finalists' show is at right), left me feeling cold. Starling identifies and exploits systems of transformation to produce various objects that illustrate the systems used for their own generation--five platinum prints of a platinum mine from which one ton of earth was removed to generate enough metal to make the prints, a shed he disassembled to turn into a boat to float down a river to turn back into a shed in a museum, a homemade hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered moped used to cross a Spanish desert and a watercolor painting of a cactus seen on the trip that was created with the water generated as a waste product by the moped's engine.

I found if interesting, though, that this year's panel went the same direction in their pick as last year's. They didn't give the nod to the video installation or the sculptural environment. Instead, like last year's pick of Jeremy Deller, they went with the artist whose work creates and then explores the nature of systems. I'm wondering if this says something about the nature of contemporary British art as opposed to contemporary American art. Over there, the work getting all the praise and attention is that which is neat, orderly, and systematic. Over here it's the work that's dirty, messy, and unabashedly DIY.

Gillian Carnegie, Section, 2004I much preferred the work on display by Darren Almond (a video installation that contains the sweet whiff of nostalgia but that needs interpretative material to fully open up for appreciation) and the young painter Gillian Carnegie. Her painterly undercutting of the illusion of representation (one example, at left) reminds me of what Gerhard Richter was doing in the 1960s. But far from being derivative, Carnegie's work feels fresh and challenging. It's a shame the panel didn't feel as strongly about her work as I did. She would have been a good pick for this year's award. (Installation artist Jim Lambie rounded out this year's short list.)

I hesitate to damn the show with such faint praise because the prize is actually awarded to an artist for a show held elsewhere during the year. This exhibition is intended simply to present select pieces by each finalist. That said, the prize would be more relevant and generate more excitement if the number of potential recipients weren't shrinking so dramatically each year. It might be time, now that the prize is established and the PR machinations are so well refined, to broaden the potential pool of recipients.

Britain used to be good at conquering the world. Why not attempt to own the art world today by turning the Turner into the world's preeminent international art prize--the Nobel of the visual arts? It could work. And it would produce a much more interesting finalists' exhibition, I'm sure.

The Turner Prize Finalist show is on view at Tate Britain through January 22, 2006.

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