Published  15/01/2013

Turner Prize 2012 Exhibition

Turner Prize 2012 Exhibition

Tate Britain, London
2 October 2012–6 January 2013


Love it or hate it, the Turner Prize is upon us once again, and, after a year’s sojourn at the BALTIC, it has returned home to Tate Britain. This year’s nominees are film artists Luke Fowler (born 1978) and Elizabeth Price (born 1966), performance artist Spartacus Chetwynd (born 1973), and the architectural draughtsman Paul Noble (born 1963), for his intricate and disturbed designs for the dystopian metropolis, Nobson Newtown.

Fowler’s work is, for me, the most like Marmite (and no, I’m not a fan). At 93 minutes long, All Divided Selves (2011) crosses the line between what can reasonably be labelled art, and what is, quite simply, a documentary. Presenting a collage of archival footage relating to the life and ideas of the radical Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing (1927-1989), who was convinced that mental illness was a societal construct, not a chemical imbalance, and accordingly set up a community in which “patients” could live untreated by medical doctors, the film includes, amongst other things, clips from therapy sessions, a painful rendering of Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two), and a discussion of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, whereby ultimately no man can be free until all men are – something which clearly resonates with Laing’s own theories.

Price’s film, at just 20 minutes long, is, in contrast, spellbinding. Drawing its material from three very different archival sources, The Woolworths Choir of 1979 (2012) is both didactic and entertaining, upsetting and uplifting. Using sound – in this case, carefully edited hand claps and finger clicks – as a structural component in its own right, the narrative element of the film is delivered via onscreen text, and with the splicing in of footage from the following segment, so brief as to be almost subliminal, the three seemingly unrelated subjects flow seamlessly one to the next. The first 10 minutes provides an unexpectedly animated lesson in the architectural make-up of a Gothic church, beginning with the choir and progressing through the nave and the rood screen to the misericord. Just as we reach the point of information overload, the tone changes completely, as the Shangri-Las burst on to the screen, blasting out their 1960s hit, Out on the Street – a choir of a very different kind. The closing section comprises an examination of the 1979 Woolworths fire in Manchester in which 10 people died. Diagrams show where it broke out, how it spread, and why customers were unable to escape; news flashes show the chaos and distress out on the street. Overall, the piece leaves you feeling educated, but not preached at, and, despite my scepticism, convinced of the artistic merit of implementing such modern media to create a fully immersive work.

Turning to more traditional methods, Noble’s monumental architectural drawings, in a variety of graphite pencils, used skillfully to replicate, through their degrees of softness, a sense of colour in black and white, are nothing if not technically competent. His 16-year-long project, Nobson Newtown, is intricate and disturbed, obsessive and mindboggling. Each of his large-scale drawings (the largest comprising 20 sheets of A1 paper) begins with a word at its centre, which is then raised to become a building. Trev (1997), Small Trev (1996-2006), and (Large) TREV (2012), for example, were created in memoriam of a deceased friend and grew outwards from the four letters in his name. The first incorporates a rainbow and clouds, which, by the second, have deteriorated into streaming cuboids of rain above an eroding graveyard of rocks, and, by the last, even the plants in the hothouse are withered and sad. In Volume 1-6 (2006-7), Noble catalogues the works of Henry Moore, condensed into 2D form, overlaid, confused and compressed. Perhaps it is these which expand again in his own sculptures, entwined amorphous forms, part-phallic, part-anal, equally off-putting.

The final contender, Chetwynd, offers up a smaller scale version of her 2011 show at Sadie Coles, Odd Man Out. Only performing on Saturdays, the rest of the time the stage sets are empty and disappointing, but if you should happen to get caught up in one of the carnivalesque performances, it is something you will never forget. Addressing ideas of democracy and the consequences of decision making, Chetwynd peppers her work with literary, historical, and sociopolitical references. In one room, marionettes reenact the Biblical story of Jesus and Barrabas, whilst, in the other, foliage-clad oracles dance and invite members of the public first of all to lie prostrate in veneration, and then to rise, one by one, and be fed words of insightful wisdom. Chetwynd tries hard to preserve a sense of improvisation and spontaneity and readily recognises that, as a “cheap” and “attention seeking” art form, live performance is very much the “new form of expression which people want.” Whether or not she is alone in that view will be discovered when the winner of this year’s Turner Prize is revealed at the award ceremony on 3 December.

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