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Turner Prize 2008: Shock & Yawn

Shock & Yawn

Turner Prize 08 The Turner Prize, awarded each year to a British artist under 50, often engenders debates in the U.K. about such things as dead animals, excrement and sex — not to mention aesthetics. This year’s exhibit of the four nominees’ works, however, has provoked a collective shrug of indifference. The most exciting thing about it is the fact that Nick Cave, musical chronicler of all things lurid and grotesque, is set to announce the recipient of the Pounds 40,000 ($76,000) cheque tonight at London’s Tate Britain. The art itself, on the whole, is rather blah.

It wasn’t always thus: In the prize’s heyday during the 1990s and early 2000s, it captured the imagination of the public in Britain and beyond with works by the Young British Artist enfants terribles (Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Jake and Dinos Chapman, etc.) and other characterful mavericks who pushed against the boundaries not only of good taste, but what we understand to be "art." Protests abounded: Two performance artists staged a pillow fight on the bed that Emin displayed; another threw eggs at the wall of a room devoted to Martin Creed’s prize-winning work; a book illustrator dumped dung on the steps of the Tate Britain to protest Chris Ofili’s use of the substance on his paintings, and street artist Banksy later stencilled "MIND THE CRAP" on those same steps.

But last year, even the resolutely anti-conceptual artists calling themselves The Stuckists called off their annual Tate protest, describing the art as having "degraded into increasing blandness." Over the past few years, organizers have been trumpeting a move from the "sensational" to the "serious" — recently, jury chair Stephen Deuchar admitted to Newsweek, "The prize is not there to award the most competent artist at work today, but to draw attention to what the jury considers new developments."

Alas, the "new" developments on offer in this year’s exhibit are compelling only if you’re a curator or art historian, and only then from a professional point of view. For instance, the art of Polish-born Goshka Macuga, we are told by the display copy in the first room, "examines the conventions of archiving, exhibition-making and museum display." As enticing as this description may be, her examination yields flat results. Recreations of interwar glass-and-metal installations for the promotion of German industry by designer Lily Reich strip them of historical context and leave us contemplating what appear to be dividing walls from an airport security area. Collages of ephemera from the archives of British Surrealists Paul Nash and Eileen Agar are less startling than the work of either artist; in the age of Photoshop, they seem quaint.

London-based artist Mark Leckey is just as apt to comment on other people’s art in his own work, which includes films and homemade devices featuring Jeff Koons’s iconic silver rabbit, Felix the Cat and a machine from the movie Blade Runner. We’re invited to watch a film of an enthusiastic, fitfully funny 40-minute lecture he delivers on the ability of two-dimensional images to take on a 3-D "sculptural quality," from Philip Guston’s paintings to Homer Simpson rendered in CGI. Leckey’s work supplies the historical dimension that Macuga sidesteps, but despite the audio-visual guide’s insistence that his "images have the power to subvert and transform," his work comes across as glorified show-and-tell.

The installation I Give You All My Money, by Northern Ireland’s Cathy Wilkes, might have raised a few eyebrows in the days of second-wave feminism: It features two supermarket checkout counters, two naked female mannequins with absurdist headdresses (a bird cage for one, wire with dangling horseshoes and a deflated balloon for the other), a toilet, a pram and various scattered objects suggesting the detritus of domestic life, including Bonne Maman jam jars with batteries stuck inside them. Clearly there’s a critique of gender stereotyping at work here, but if the art, as the display assures us, pushes further into "an uncompromising questioning of the self, and a constant desire to move beyond what is known," it isn’t clear what questions are being raised, let alone what solutions are being offered.

The only artist whose work transcends the effects the display tells us it is supposed to produce is that of Bangladeshi-born filmmaker Runa Islam. While one of her three exhibited works (CINEMATOGRAPHY, where the camera movements spell out the title) is so conceptual, it’s redundant to actually watch it after it’s been explained to you, the others are transformative. Be the First to See What You See depicts an expressionless woman drinking from crockery and then mischievously dashing it, in slow motion, to the ground. First Day of Spring focuses on Bangladeshi rickshaw drivers who lounge on their colourful vehicles, some looking with indifferent confidence at the camera, others gazing off into the distance as if at another world. The subject matter is quotidian, but in practice both works seem to stretch time, breaking moments into their component parts and making us aware of how close observation of ostensibly mundane objects and events can make of them something elusive and fascinating.

Where Nick Cave once sang, "I just want to move the world," Runa Islam at least succeeds in giving it a little nudge. Maybe not enough to provoke a protest, but perhaps enough to deserve a Turner Prize.

— Originally published in The National Post, Dec. 1, 2008

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