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Turner Prize 2006 - Tate Britain

Feature by James Haddrell

IN THE introduction to the guide accompanying this year’s Turner Prize exhibition, Tate director Nicholas Serota insists that the shortlisted artists represent “a reflection of the passions and the enthusiasms of the jury rather than a polite nod in every direction”.

However, one problem with this year’s shortlist – and it’s not the only problem – is that it seems to be just that, a broad, democratic, soulless nod. The shortlist features two men and two women, one a sculptor, one a painter, one an installation artist flirting with sculpture and one a video artist flirting with installation. And unfortunately, in a better year, none of them would come close to deserving the Turner Prize.

Of course, it would be naïve not to realise that the statements of scorn which annually surface from press and public alike fuel just as much interest in the prize as the elegiac reactions from opposing critics and fans.

For every exhibition-goer interested in the latest movements in contemporary art there’s another one who simply enjoys being outraged by the work selected by a clearly insane judging panel.

The problem this year is that neither group is likely to be satisfied. None of the work is outrageously bad and none of the works will cause a scandal through their content, but equally none of the works are likely to inspire much excitement.

So who are the contenders?

There’s the painter – Tomma Abts. Writing in this column about the Turner Prize last year, I described the work by that year’s painter, Gillian Carnegie, as “a moment of unfettered relief in the journey through the exhibition” – and incidentally, Carnegie was blatantly robbed of the prize last year.

This year, you could walk through Abts’ room without really noticing that you’d missed it. Working religiously on small canvases 48cm high, her works claim to be built up in layers without any forward planning or any preconceptions about what the work will resemble when finished, a kind of decorative artist’s answer to the ‘automatic writing’ practiced by the pioneers of surrealism.

Abts’ technique often involves the absence of paint, leaving paint off the canvas and allowing the previous layer to show through, thereby attempting to offer a reverse engagement with time, allowing the viewer to trace the journey back through the work’s various stages.

This may be the case, but will ultimately be too intellectualised for most art lovers. Regardless of the temporal games used to create the works, the canvases themselves are almost all bland and entirely forgettable.

Then there’s the sculptor – Rebecca Warren. Warren’s figurative clay sculptures take key figures from the history of sculpture and re-imagine them as twisted, organic, half formed suggestions of the human body.

Somehow fusing the calm, organic figures of Henry Moore with the tortured forms of Francis Bacon (but rejecting the psychological essence so essential to Bacon’s work) Warren’s figures present a playful distortion of female physicality. These are among the finest individual works in this year’s selection, and displayed alone would make her one of the leading candidates for the prize, but the quasi-vitrines with which she accompanies her figures are worse than irrelevant, seriously undermining the impact of her room.

This year’s video artist, Phil Collins, has delved into the murky depths of reality television. Having tracked down eight people who have appeared on Springer-esque chat shows and believe that the experience ruined their lives, Collins brought them together with the director of a Turkish reality TV show.

The resulting interviews, each an hour long, are shown back to back on two large screens, one displaying the interviewee and one the interviewer, facing off against each other across a darkened room. This allows the viewer to take over from the editor, the figure so often blamed for showing reality TV participants in a bad light.

Both the interviewer and interviewee are constantly on view, and it is up to us to edit the experience as we choose by looking from one screen to the other. Beyond this, Collins has a second room, this time turning reality TV into reality art.

Divided from us by a wall of windows, the fully functioning office of shady lane productions is home to Collins’ latest research project, exploring the effects of reality entertainment on lived experience.

However, shady lane productions tries too hard to be clever in too many ways. A gallery based, live action response to reality TV once again leaves the act of editing in the hands of the viewer, but to allow the participants a full awareness of when and for how long they are under scrutiny, and to try and layer or invert the experience by setting the participants the task of researching reality TV confuses rather than enhances the work.

Mark Titchner, given the first room in the exhibition, explores notions of belief and the way ideas can infuse and alter our psychology.

Using found-texts from song lyrics to religious tracts, large scale computer generated posters carrying ad-campaign slogans on belief are displayed alongside rotating, hand-carved versions of Duchamp’s optical illusions of the 1920s and television screens bombarding the viewer with Rorschach blots interspersed with key dates from the Human Rights’ Legislation Audit.

The hard-carved works recall the Chapman brothers’ ethnographic displays, haunted by the ghost of Ronald McDonald, but the wittiness of those earlier works is absent. Titchner’s work is most in keeping with that of last year’s winner, Simon Starling – making a statement about our engagement with the world in a very earnest way – but I suspect that narrow similarity will be enough to ensure he loses out this year.

One of Titchner’s found texts, applied directly to the wall in the position where a caption or narrative about the artist would usually be found, asks: “If something exists is there really any need to believe in it? Perhaps you only have to believe in something if it isn’t true, because if it were true belief becomes redundant.”

It’s a pedantic probing of our belief systems, the stuff of student philosophy, but for all that it’s as relevant to art and to the Turner Prize as it is to religion. If the judges believe that these are the four most important young artists working in Britain today, that they have made the greatest contribution to British art this year, then maybe that very belief is what proves them wrong.

Picture credit: Rebecca Warren, Loulou, 2006. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York and Maureen Paley, London

Turner Prize
Supported by Gordon’s gin
Until January 14, 2007; winner announced on December 4, 2006
Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG
020 7887 8888; www.tate.org.uk/britain
Open daily 10am-5.40pm
Admission: £5