Sex, death (and art)

Many visitors were left unmoved by the 'Stomach Turner Prize'.

Tamsin Francis

Topics Culture

When I had to queue to get into the Turner Prize exhibition, I started to wonder if I had missed something – was it now being touted as the Greatest Show on Earth?

Not exactly – the queue was due to the painstakingly thorough bag search visitors were subjected to at the door. Obviously the finalists in this year’s competition had produced work so vile that it would incite an army of Aaron ‘comedy terrorist’ Barschaks to destroy all that they saw. After all, many of the headlines in last week’s tabloid papers conjured up images of ‘the stomach Turner Prize’ as an immoral and shocking exhibition of ‘modern ar*e’ (1).

Among the most controversial installations were the Chapman Brothers’ bronze casting of blow-up sex dolls in a compromising position, and their sculpture of decaying corpses hanging from a tree; or ceramicist Grayson Perry’s vases depicting scenes of child abuse, and his sexually explicit ‘coming out dress’. These artworks have led Tate Britain to slap an advisory ’16’ certificate on the exhibition.

The perennial ‘what is art?’ question has been raised by the inclusion of Anya Gallaccio’s work constructed from fruit and flowers that will gradually decay, and Willie Doherty’s dual-screen projection of a man running across a bridge. But are these artists really so shocking for an art world that grew up with Damien Hirst’s fauna in formaldehyde in the 1990s?

Many of the visitors’ comments on the purposefully provided noticeboard at the end of the exhibition were not so much scandalised by the exhibits, as annoyed that they were considered art in the first place. One contributor was so depressed by the ‘total lack of imagination, sight and creativity’, that they were ‘off to see some real art now’. Others described the show as ‘rot’ or ‘ART with a capital F’.

There was some support for individual artists (most noticeably Grayson Perry), and the odd person proclaimed the competition to be ‘strong’, ‘interesting’ or ‘£4 well spent’. A movement seemed to be sweeping the board urging that the public’s comments should win the prize. Surely the entries for this year’s competition were not so dismal to be trumped by a spontaneous collection of (admittedly quite funny) soundbites?

Tate Britain is encouraging more interaction between the public and the Turner Prize this year. There is an ongoing web-based public vote to decide the most popular nominee from the competition’s 20-year history. With this in mind, I canvassed some passing members of public on their view of the prize.

Many saw the yearly sensationalist journalism as an anticipated component of the Turner Prize’s publicity machine. Some thought that this year’s entrants weren’t so shocking in comparison to pieces that they had seen elsewhere – but there was a general view that any publicity was good publicity, so long as it ‘helped to create an awareness…to get people into the gallery who otherwise wouldn’t go’. As one conceded, ‘the majority of visitors probably think that it isn’t art, but at the end of the day they have paid £4 to get in’.

Although many saw the publicity as an ‘irritation’ that they tried to ‘ignore’, they appreciated that the controversy was likely to affect their experience of the exhibition. One man had decided not to see the exhibition because ‘all the publicity means I don’t need to go and see it – I have already seen the art in the papers’ and he ‘didn’t want to pay £4 just to be shocked’.

Of those who had seen the show, some were shocked by the publicity-generating work of the transvestite potter Grayson Perry, and those enfants terribles the Chapman Brothers. The Chapmans’ work that fuelled most anger wasn’t their explicit pieces ‘Sex’ and ‘Death’, but their re-workings of Goya’s etchings. Meanwhile, one interviewee refused to give her opinion on Grayson Perry’s work, leaving it to her husband to explain that ‘she thought that paedophilia is a subject so crammed full of dangers that it should not really be touched upon by art – a virus that should be contained rather than bringing it out into the open as his art does’. Others, though, said that they had not been surprised by anything in the exhibition.

While one person saw the Turner Prize as ‘synonymous with shock rather than as a prize for modern art’, others suggested that this image is now rather outdated (2). Modern art may have pushed the boundaries of taste in the past, but shock-value is now an expected characteristic of nominees’ work. It seems that most visitors – aside from tabloid journalists – are not particularly shocked at the content of the work anymore, especially since the Royal Academy of Art’s sensational 1997 Sensation exhibition.

One controversy that still remains among Turner Prize followers is the question of the validity of contemporary art. If the prize’s original purpose was ‘to promote public discussion of new developments in contemporary British art’ (3), then the debate that has been raging in the press and on the comments board should be a sign that the prize is fulfilling its brief.

As a result, the Turner Prize is seen as a forum for challenging people’s conceptions of art and stimulating debate beyond the art community, as much as it is for deciding on the best art of the day. One person I spoke to said: ‘the Chapman Brothers should win – as artists they set out to make people question society, which they do very successfully – just look at all the publicity they generate.’

The prize’s focus on generating public debate and challenging conceptions of art, suggests a certain confusion within the arts community about how art should be judged. When it comes to deciding what makes a Turner winner, the curators might well be as bemused as the public.

(1) ‘The Stomach Turner Prize: sex dolls and corpses on display’, Sun, 29 October 2003; and ‘Modern Ar*e: Blow-up dolls in running for latest Turner Prize’, Daily Mirror, 29 October 2003

(2) Guardian, 30 October 2003

(3), 29 October 2003

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Topics Culture


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