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October 13, 2006

If artists talk excessively about their work they devalue it, argues Lilian Pizzichini: Turner Prize 2006 at Tate Britain

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Turner Prize 2006
Tate Britain, London
3rd October 2006 - 14th January 2007
Daily 10am - 5.40pm (last admission 5pm)

The shock value usually generated by the Turner Prize has diminished, which is good news for artists and art. The bad news is that on repeated viewings the contestants for the prize, on the whole, fail to make a lasting impression. In the first room, Mark Titchner spreads his wares.

Psionics is the art of manipulating psychic abilities by means of physical instruments.
His stall sets out to be an examination of belief systems. His pseudo-scientific language and bizarre philosophies of belief borrowed from sources as arcane as Wilhelm Reich and trade union pamphlets announce their self-styled significance. It is time for us to think, he seems to be saying.

The Turner Prize press release describes his sculptural installations as "provocative hybrids" in that they combine new technologies with old techniques. I would argue that it is up to the viewer to decide whether we are provoked or not. Surely Tate Britain's lazy pronouncement that we will be provoked is another instance of what the artist himself is examining in his work: the authority of text dictates our thought processes, and we sit back and let it happen. What I decided for myself is that Titchner's sculptures are totemistic in appearance, that they layer belief systems and scientific certainties without judgement or irony. The reference to iconography is cleverly bound up with the uselessness of the objects themselves. These sculptures cannot be worshipped.

How To Change Behaviour (Tiny Masters Of The World Come Out), 2006 uses a computer-designed billboard. The billboard is bright and eye-catching, just as billboards should be. It carries the slogan "Tiny Masters of the World Come Out", a rebuke, perhaps, to the viewing public for sheepishly, subliminally responding to authority as it is rendered in advertisements. In front of the billboard is a series of tables on top of which are metallic boxes with leads coming out of them, quartz crystals and dials balanced on top of each one. The whole effect is that of the kind of laboratory that might have delighted Dr Jekyll or a villain in a Bond movie. Stencilled on to each box are slogans taken from trade union pamphlets, philosophical treatises, corporate mumbo jumbo and song lyrics. Again, he is exhorting the viewer to do something - to take some course of action, to be aware that they are following some creed. It is clever and funny but the provocation is ineffectual because, although the ideas are good, the visuals let them down.

Rebecca Warren, on the other hand, is provocative. The Tate displayed her work in their Triennial exhibition earlier this year, and now she is back for the prize. Her statues draw on a different tradition, the purely aesthetic, and where she provokes is in making her female subject unaesthetically pleasing. It is most refreshing to be confronted with a female form that has not been airbrushed into perfection. Warren is a woman working in a male tradition so she does not idealize the female body but makes her nudes fat and fragile.

Her unfired clay sculptures are very tactile, too, as though moulded from Playdoh, and this childlike, unfinished quality summons up a nostalgie de la boue where form collapses and we are taken back to a more innocent time, all larking about in the mud, knobbly knees, comic breasts and all. This amorphous quality also suggests the unleashed creativity of the artist exploding out of and merging back into her material. She is miraculously fresh and invigorating, and still manages to make reference to the past.

Her obvious predecessors, especially in her bronze work, are Rodin and Giacometti. These are the big, male heavyweights, and Warren, a woman, is getting her hands dirty alongside them. This is the message one can infer by her use of twigs and acrylic paint - in the first instance twigs stick out of the bronze, in the second paint is splattered on to it. Her graceful, shiny objects seem lightweight compared to the heavy blackness of Rodin's yet somehow too loaded with preconceptions to stand alone, like Giacometti's spindly maidens. This is how, through form, she positions herself beyond them. And it is in the marriage of her form to content that she manages to provoke.

On a depressing note, I could not help sighing at Warren's own reference to her "paint interventions". This is the legacy of bureaucratic jargon invading the Arts Council, which in turn, pollutes artists' own discourse about their work. I don't think we'll be seeing anything on the scale of Paul Klee's Notebooks again. It's all "interventions" and "outcomes", as well as "benefits to the public" (meaning minority groups). Trust me, I've been there. In my application for a grant, I was asked how I would "facilitate the outcome", meaning, I suppose, "write the book".

Sometimes, I think artists shouldn't be allowed to talk about their work. When Warren talks about the "unfinished" quality of her work, one's heart sinks again. She explains the process of creation as being purely accidental. Bits drop off and she lobs them back on again. Her statues are made very quickly, it almost sounds carelessly. But in these days of interactive exhibitions where gallery-goers are encouraged to wander about the rooms wearing headphones, being told what they are looking at and why there is no room for the imagination - we get trivialising "statements" instead.

Tomma Abts is the only painter in the contest, and her series of 48x38cm acrylic and oil paintings are a muted fusion of the "rational and the intuitive". She simply starts painting and sees where it takes her, pasting layers of paint on top of each other, waiting for patterns to emerge. She is interesting in that she begins with no idea of what will happen next. We do not get chaos but some kind of internal logic making itself felt. And the point is? There is no such thing as an "abstract". Abts' canvasses are muted and tricksy and not at all appealing, in that they are more concerned with the history of their own making and becoming, as she puts it "congruent with themselves".

Phil Collins can equally well be dismissed briefly. He feeds on reality TV. He has made a series of video interviews in which the participants of Turkish reality shows discuss the impact on their lives. The erstwhile contestants ramble on for an hour or so. Their need for attention, for an audience, and for celebrity, expresses an infantile desire that does not recognize the need for merit or effort or talent or hard work. What one learns from this is that if you let a man speak for long enough he will reveal himself. And if I find myself using the word "learn" in respect of what I expect from an artist I am setting myself up for a fall that Mark Titchner would appreciate.

Artists always get the last laugh. Phil Collins's joke is that he has persuaded Tate Britain to install "Shady Lane Productions 2006", a production company and research office in their gallery as part of his exhibit. This office will be open until January 2007. The glass panels admit to a room in which office workers take phone calls, read the papers, surf the net, and generally lounge about as one would expect. It's quite funny watching them as they go about their spurious business. The idea is that erstwhile participants of reality shows will ring the office and then allow themselves to be filmed telling their stories of what it was liked to be filmed taking part in a reality show. Somehow I can't help feeling I've seen it all before. Oh, hang on, it was in the room before this one.

In my notes I see a reference to "a cycle of no redemption". He is right, there is no redemption here; shallowness, exploitation and gullibility are the only things on offer, as well as the artist's willingness to cash in. Good for him. At least Charles Saatchi can't buy it.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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