Elephant dung, pickled cows and lightbulbs

A retrospective at Tate Britain shows that, while critics have little time for the Turner Prize, the British public love it.

Emily Hill

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The Turner Prize believes in the right to offend. It calls it art. Puts up explanatory wall notes. And laughs its head off.

‘My 16-year-old daughter was at the Tate two weeks ago as part of her A-level art course’, a mother complained of Damien Hirst’s 1995 Turner-winning, cow-cut-in-half-and-pickled-in-formaldehyde exhibit Mother and child, divided. ‘[She] has suffered nightmares, poor sleeping and cannot eat beef as it makes her feel sick.’ ‘It’s amazing what you can do with an “E” in A-level art, a twisted imagination and a chainsaw’, Hirst cackled in his acceptance speech.

In 2003, Disgusted of Devon wrote to the Sun complaining about Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Turner-nominated work: ‘I am generally very broad-minded but the latest entries in the Turner Prize exhibition are enough to turn any stomach. Art can be portrayed in many forms but in my mind a pair of blow-up dolls on an airbed simulating a sex act is not art. Neither is a sculpture of flesh eaten by maggots.’ The prize was eventually awarded to a transvestite potter who made pornographic vases.

Last year, one artist was nominated for his work with reality TV contestants and another artist was nominated for arranging litter. Rebecca Warren ‘filled five display cases with bits of fluff, dust, hair, plastic, twigs, woollen pom-poms and a discarded cherry stone… The 41-year-old artist said she was interested in “what a bit of fluff and a bit of twig put in a particular order can mean”.’ In 2002, the culture minister, Kim Howells, clearly thought he stood for the nation when he scribbled ‘If this is the best that British artists can produce, then British art is lost’ on his visitor’s card. ‘It is’, he concluded, ‘cold, mechanical conceptual bullshit’.

And yet the audience loves it.

Perhaps the biggest controversy in Turner Prize history (aside from Hirst’s cut-up cows) was Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, which helped to earn her a nomination in 1999. Her exhibit didn’t win – but did help pack in 2,000 visitors a day to the Tate gallery. And debates on ‘is it art?’ raged. Many critics remain baffled to outraged by the Turner Prize and its success. In 1985, Marina Vaizey called the Turner Prize a ‘jamboree’ which ‘confirms most of us in the view of art as a freak show’. ‘I found myself surrounded by the ordinary public and forced to hear their uninformed chatter’, wrote an incredulous David Mills in 1993. ‘I was shocked. The public actually enjoy this stuff.’

In an entertaining review for The Times (London), Rachel Campbell-Johnston noted some peculiar trends in the judging, however. ‘Sheds’, she observed, seem ‘important to Turner Prize contenders – or, at least, they appear to feature rather a lot. Cornelia Parker blew one up; Steve McQueen let one fall down; Mike Nelson installed one in the gallery; and Simon Starling converted one into a boat.’

Perhaps hinting at the void between knowledgeable critics and ordinary gallery-goers, she also seemed to pick out for praise exactly the exhibits which had seemed most inaccessible. Richard Long’s squiggly white floor painting gave her ‘a postmodern twist to traditions that date back to cave paintings’. It looked like something borrowed from a children’s daycare centre. Martin Creed, whose on-off light switch Campbell-Johnston found ‘still provoking’, gave me a headache.

But I fell in love with Gillian Wearing’s 1997 winning piece of a police unit observing a 60-minute silence. Projected on to a wall, it looks like a large group photograph, but it suddenly creases and ripples and calms and ripples, as the unit becomes increasingly uncomfortable and restless, as individuals blow noses, roll eyes, shrug, look cross and then fade into the crowd again. Anish Kapoor’s huge blue bowl-like sculpture was also a surprise. Up close, your eyes get lost in it – a testament to how modern art can pull you in and drown your consciousness. Kapoor’s piece is as effective – though in a quite different way – as any of the grand masters. Grayson Perry’s pots were also engrossing. The huge pot, which produces a Turner Prize-giving seating plan, was downright beautiful. Gilbert and George’s huge mural is spectacular.

When one compares the offerings of the Turner Prize to the grand sweep of art history, it will necessarily look like a comma in the Encyclopedia Britannica. But it’s fun and it’s crowd-pleasing, and it draws out the green-ink writers like spring does rabbits. The Turner Prize Retrospective represents 23 years of offending the nation, and promises many more years of insult to come.

Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked.

Turner Prize: A Retrospective, 1984-2006 continues at Tate Britain, Millbank, London until 8 January 2008.

Previously on spiked

Chris Gilligan thought an exhibition of hitchhiking-related photographs was a powerful reminder of the benefits of trusting other people. Anna Travis bemoaned the way interactive exhibitions are turning galleries into mindless playgrounds. Emily Hill argued that Mark Wallinger’s State Britain was neither political nor art. Or read more at spiked issue Museums and galleries.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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