Has the Turner Prize Gone Soft?
The Turner Prize was more sedate than usual this year. Has the award that’s known for supporting shocking and innovative art, like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, become too grown up?
The Turner Prize turned 30 this year, and with age has come a move away from its wild past of obtuse, conceptual art by young upstarts to a more introspective, cerebral selection of nominated works. Nowhere was this meditative spirit more visible than in this year’s winner, Duncan Campbell, and his “essay film” It For Others. Long gone are the days of the Young British Artists movement: now a salt-and-pepper-haired filmmaker is the artist of the moment.
If you’ve never heard of the Turner Prize before, you have certainly heard of the artists it has discovered. Since the prize was established in 1984 as one of the only awards for contemporary art, it has recognized some of the biggest names in modern Western art. Take Damien Hirst, for example. His The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (aka the shark in formaldehyde) won in 1995 and sparked a new age in young British art. Or transvestite potter and 2003 winner Grayson Perry, whose ceramics feature images of child abuse and tower blocks. The year 1999 was perhaps the award’s most controversial: it was that year that Tracey Emin’s audience-dividing My Bed was nominated, but lost to Steve McQueen’s video art exhibition. Past winning artists generally were either complete outsiders (McQueen) or divisive figures in the art world. Perhaps the starkest example was 1993 Prize winner Rachel Whiteread who’s work House—a sculpture made by filling an old house with liquid concrete—was demolished by the council just after she won. Hirst and Perry too have courted their fair share of controversy.
But far fewer feathers have been ruffled in recent years. 2014 was both a video heavy year and one focused on ideas of ownership and identity. Three of the four shortlisted artworks were films: Rosebud by James Richards interspersed censored Japanese erotica with images of the countryside, Tris Vonna-Michell’s Postcript II mixed concrete poetry with obsolete technology, and winner Duncan Campbell made a documentary about the ownership of art featuring an interpretive dance inspired by Karl Marx. The fourth nominee was Ciara Phillips, whose printing project (she was the first printmaker to ever be nominated) meditated on ideas of collaborative manufacturing and the fine line between craft and design.
Video has been the medium of choice for winning artists of late; the two previous winners were both video artists. But with this year’s jury interested in appropriated images and meaning, Campbell quickly emerged as the favorite to win with a piece openly inspired by another video artwork. In Les statues meurent aussi, Alain Resnais and Chris Marker explored the fall of traditional African art in relation to the rise of commercialism. Campbell runs with this idea, exploring what it means to own an artwork and the morality of national collections of international work. Marker also played a vital role in the creation of Campbell’s piece, collaborating with him to create one of the film’s chapters, and even attending the ceremony this year to support him.
But the build up to this year’s Turner prize painted it as, in the words of The Independent’s Zoe Pilger, ‘frustratingly timid’. With so many videos featured, the exhibition of the work, held at the Tate Britain, is composed mainly of dark rooms with single screens, a far cry from the sharks in formaldehyde, messy beds, and lurid pottery of previous years. The fact the award is therefore cementing the past trend towards video art, rather than praising a new art form in Ciara Philips, doesn’t help: in previous years the Turner prize has helped to legitimize more niche art forms, such as in 2010 when sound artist Susan Philipsz won, but this year, instead, continued a now well-established trend for video art. The fact that this year’s favorite won—a rarity for the Turner Prize—will do little to dispel these feelings.
Duncan Campbell, however, was thrilled to win and said that the £25,000 prize would help change his art, although he could not elaborate on how. ‘This money will make a huge difference to me,” he said. “Even being nominated for the prize has given me great heart. The opinions of the people on the jury matter a great deal to me.” He went on to thank his family, his gallerist, distributor, and paid tribute to artist Ian White.
Although the Turner Prize has often been a maker of big names and the breeding ground of fierce discussion on what constitutes art, audiences seem less sold than ever on the nominated artists. The Tate Modern’s exhibition of shortlisted artists asks audiences for feedback as they leave, and, this year, a record 95 percent of people said the work was dreadful.
Nonetheless, Turner-nominated artists continue to succeed. This year McQueen picked up three Oscars (including best picture) for his third motion picture 12 Years A Slave. Runner-up Tracey Emin’s My Bed sold at auction for $4.3 million, a personal best for her and a notable upset to the tradition of male artists selling better than women at auction. So, culture vultures take note of Duncan Campbell, he’s in very good company.