One of the World’s most defining art prizes opened in 2011 at Baltic. We explore the shortlist with Godfrey Worsdale, Director of Baltic.
Since its inception in 1984, The Turner Prize has come to define the current state of British art. Founded to recognise the greatest contemporary contributor to British art and named after the pre-eminent 19th century painter, the Prize has taken various guises and seen an underplaying of its competitive qualities (represented in all the shortlisted artists receiving a £5,000 share of the prize money and the winner receiving £25,000), the introduction of a 50-year age limit, and a re-classification through being awarded to artists who have made an “outstanding” rather than “the greatest” contribution to British art.
This year, The Turner Prize is held at Baltic in Gateshead. It’s the first year the Prize has been held outside a Tate venue and only the second year it has exhibited outside of London. This represents a new initiative to combat the London-centric nature of the UK art establishment and welcomes engagement across the country. Following on from receiving works from the Artist’s Rooms project and further key loans from Tate, Godfrey Worsdale, Baltic’s Director, explains that this collaboration is a natural progression for the gallery as the largest outside of London: “Baltic is developing a dialogue around contemporary practice with our visitors and what better, more effective exhibition to create a discussion than The Turner Prize? It is the pre-eminent show in terms of the media and the public conscience, and really does drive discussion, so it feels like a very good fit.”
Worsdale is sitting on the 2011 jury with Katrina Brown (Director at The Common Guild, Glasgow), Vasif Kortun (Platform Garanti, Istanbul), Nadia Schneider (Freelance Curator) and Penelope Curtis (Director at Tate Britain), creating one of the most international juries in the history of the prize. The perspectives of Kortun and Schneider are representative of the global nature of contemporary British art and society, and each juror has made an important contribution by encouraging their colleagues to travel to new exhibitions in the one-year period of considering nominations. According to Worsdale, the jury “accommodates the reality of what British art means now in the world. It’s such a global village, particularly in terms of art practice and the interactions that artists have … great British art is only great if it’s internationally engaged and has an international perspective.”
Consistently controversial, The Turner Prize has inspired debate over the nature of art today, with many traditionalists taking issue with its very naming and questioning whether the eponymous painter would have approved of the myriad installations, video works and photographs that have been displayed over the years. Most notably, the Prize fuelled the publicity machine of the Young British Artists in the 1990s and the two parties mutually built up their profiles with much of the public being introduced to the artists through the Prize. With Damien Hirst’s 1995 winner Mother and Child Divided, Tracey Emin’s 1999 nomination My Bed, and Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 winner House, for a period in the 1990s the YBAs came to define The Turner Prize. Controversy has also stemmed from Martin Creed’s Lights Going On and Off (winner 2000), Langlands and Bell’s 2004 nomination for The House of Osama bin Laden and Simon Starling’s Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture No 2) (2005), but it is interesting to note that the ire of the press has not been matched by the public, and for many The Turner Prize has become an innovative introduction to contemporary art practice, welcoming engagement and debate outside the usual demographic of gallery-goers. Worsdale explains: “The media forms a bridge between the prize and the wider public debate. It feels like it’s a co-owned initiative: Tate authored The Turner Prize, but the media has such a strong commitment to it that it’s understood as everyone’s prize. That can only be a good thing for contemporary art.”
In taking on the huge legacy of the Prize, Worsdale is emphatic that it’s an exciting time, and waxes lyrical on ushering in a new phase in its 27 year history: “I see the prize as having three incarnations – in the first the prize reviewed the real high points of artistic practice … all the great mid-generation artists were recognised. [Then…] it coincided with the YBA phenomenon … Beyond that the Prize became a little bit more considered; it was harder to call who might be on that list. In all three periods the Prize has been really exciting.”
The shortlist for 2011 consists of Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Hilary Lloyd and George Shaw. It’s remarkably versatile, comprising sculpture, painting, installation and video works and each artist has “made their own contribution to contemporary practice.” After being appointed, the jury had a 12-month period when “we were independently invited to travel around, see shows, form our own opinions and then interact as we so chose.” When the jurors saw a show that particularly “enthused” them, “an email would whiz around and comments would come back.” Each juror was inspired by the experiences of the others and would make the effort to attend standout shows: “When we met it was great, when a number of us had seen the same shows, to debate them.” The entire process was accompanied by each of the jurors privately considering their own list throughout: “Ahead of the first meeting we all drew up a shortlist of six or seven people that we each wanted to talk about. What was interesting was to see where the lists overlapped and where some of us alighted on shows or artists that others hadn’t. The debate to get it down to four took place over one day and was a fairly unanimous decision. There were other artists talked about, but at the end we felt like we had a good shortlist.”
The shortlist provides a good cross-section of contemporary art practice. Martin Boyce studied at Glasgow School of Art and continues to work in Glasgow. Preoccupied with the legacy of Modernist design, Boyce investigates how the political and aesthetic ethos of these objects has changed over time. He creates meticulous sculptures, re-staging the outside within the gallery space with modernist forms that create an alternative city of man-made design. Although not site-specific, the spaces that Boyce’s works inhabit create a certain mood through which to understand his pieces. In Venice, the 15th century Palazzo Pisani became a faded, once beautiful, garden through his addition of concrete hollows and unswept leaves representative of its abandonment, while the clean, graphic lines of modernist light fittings sliced aggressively into the space from overhead. In referencing design so closely in his work, Boyce continues the long-running and complex relationship between functionality and fine art. Worsdale sees his practice as similar to the “very early modernist fine art practice, which strongly influenced modern design in the licence that the early abstractionists and constructivists had in making art without purpose, and investigating form in that pure way. It’s really circular in that [Boyce is] bringing some of those characteristics back, removing the functionality but retaining the character of function.”
Fellow Glasgow alumnus, Karla Black, creates expansive floor-based works and suspended sculptures combining traditional art-making materials with substances from her everyday life. Although Black stresses the materiality of her works, arguing that her use of plaster, crushed chalk, make-up and moisturiser is instinctive, to the visitor the beautiful, but invasive and meditative qualities are the most notable aspects of the work. Strictly abstract, Black’s creations spread across the rooms and melt into their atmosphere. They cause the viewer to take in the whole; to be absorbed by the work in the manner of a Rothko and yet also bear witness to their process through evidence of being patently hand-made. For Worsdale, the fact of the materials and their relation to art history remains pertinent: “The inevitable question about using cosmetics in a gallery context can take you in lots of different directions. It can introduce gender politics and disputes, but there’s a fundamental cornerstone in that activity for me that is about the use of materials, the use of colours and things bound in other substances to create artists’ materials and tools. And that is something that you can level at any artist in art history. Rembrandt took pigment and bound it in oil, and cosmetics manufacturers [work along similar lines].”
Hilary Lloyd explores the nature and potential of the moving image in art through a complex network of video and slide projections, and films on monitors. An important element of her work is the incorporation of technical equipment into the piece, so that video projectors, DVD players and monitors splice through the space, suspended from chrome columns, and broad tracks of black cabling run across the ceiling between the suspended projectors, ranks of DVD players and power supplies. Atypical of the type of installations that have frequently been seen in the Turner Prizes past (and those heavily criticised in earlier years), Lloyd’s work is nevertheless “very consumable in lots of ways because she removes a lot of the editorial process. Her work is pondered and thought through and experienced in a way similar to real life, and when you relax into the work you can very easily become subsumed in it.” The videos are entirely unedited, and as a result their subject matter is often ambiguous, as is the omnipresence of their relative equipment. Recording a variety of urban scenes from building sites and work places to domestic chores and card games, Lloyd meditates on urban existence and its repeated motif of the mundane: “Her relationship with her subjects, be they human or street scenes, is very voyeuristic – an opportunity to hear another world and analyse other behaviour.” Removing these personal characteristics, Tunnel and Motorway engage with the urban environment as an isolated, lonely place, providing snatches of information and encouraging the viewer to contemplate the architecture of our urban existence. Worsdale observes: “In many ways, [Lloyd is] every bit as formal a sculptor as Martin Boyce … she’s a very committed artist when creating the context of her installations so every small detail of the mechanics of her imagery is crucial.”
George Shaw takes the scenes of all of his paintings from a half-mile radius around the Tile Hill estate where he grew up in Coventry. He projects a lonely, industrial place, devoid of human figures and with few natural elements. Tile Hill is representative of hundreds of post-war council estates, creating a timeless quality in his work. Although figurative and meticulously created, Shaw’s use of industrial Humbrol enamel denies the naturalistic qualities of oils, further enhancing the bleak, man-made landscapes of his subject matter and articulating “some quite grandiose art historical references into this strange, quasi-schoolboy history context.” Shaw describes Humbrol as “humble paints, they’re not made for saying the great things in life like oil paint is made for – flesh and life and death and skulls and Jesus.” In addition, the pigments of Humbrol create a sort of in-between state of night and day in Shaw’s light. Like the calm before a destructive storm he records this portion of English history and forces the viewer to contemplate the future of such places and communities – a notion that is particularly pertinent in light of the recent social unrest seen across England. Worsdale furthers that: “It’s quite dark … there’s a threat in that work that I think very quickly begins to surface and that articulates George’s literary interests in mid-20th century film, and also a strong thread of comedy.”
At time of going to press the pieces selected for each artist and the curation of the exhibition were not finalised, but Worsdale explains: “We would hope as a jury that the work that’s shown indicates some of the reasons that the artist was selected.” In considering the legacy of each artist and their unique contribution to the history of the Prize, Worsdale recognises that an element of competition remains: “If I’m honest [their legacy] will depend a little bit on which of them wins; each of them has a mode of working that will add something different to the roll of honour. Whichever artist wins, they will inevitably shape a bit more what it means to be a Turner Prize-winner for other artists and for the history of the Prize. We will know that with the benefit of hindsight.”