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October 27, 2006

Jane Kelly finds that at this year's show there are some pieces - if viewed through strong field glasses - that are at least recognisable as genuine creative works: Turner Prize 2006 at Tate Britain

Posted by Jane Kelly

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

There is definitely a change of mood at this year's Turner Prize show. The howling idiocy of the last few years seems to be somewhat muted, as if yes, there is some creeping desire growing among the prize organisers to be taken seriously.

There is still a lot of laughable dross on show, but also some pieces recognisable, at least through strong field glasses, as genuine creative work. One key belief in the faith of post-modernism, which still lingers on, is that the artist should do little, while his viewer works up a sweat trying to work out his or her meanings. As old fashioned aesthetics have been junked, work is usually about "ishoos", presented through unrelated or laterally related objects.

Information about the show says Rebecca Warren, 41, a Londoner, is interested in "gender and nature". Forget that, you'll look forever, in fact her work is about parodying the formal art of the past which happened of course to be mainly produced by men.

She uses bronze, but she tells us on her commentary, her voice rich in trendy glottal stops, that her bronze, unlike that used by naughty old Rodin and Degas, is kept "true to its origins". Her material is pure while theirs was sordid. Theirs was polished for effect while hers is puritan dark, almost black, unpolished and does not have any particular character.

She mainly presents unfinished lumps and small towers of unfired clay, with cute names like BoBo, and Dou Dou Che, which look like a cross between Grindling Gibbons and Bernini in serious meltdown. Apparently by demonstrating no skill at all in her work in the traditional medium of clay, she is challenging the "drunk old men who used to do sculpture". This is what today counts for what the catalogue calls "subversive charm", and has all the effectiveness of throwing a stone or a lump of wet clay at a passing politician.

A critic of her work writes that she is "self-deprecatory and yet self-celebratory", a typical post-modernist nonsense, yet just seeing work in clay in The Turner Prize show is a relief. The fact that some self-absorbed young woman bothered to put her arm into a bucket, take something out and made it into something marks a real change.

This year, not only do we get a wave towards sculpture, or at least a two fingered gesture towards it, but we get some real painting - in acrylic and oil on canvass.

German abstract painter Tomma Abts, 38, doesn't draw but begins by dividing her small canvasses into sections and works intuitively, putting in detail first, background later. A kind of backwards way of painting, full of spatial effects. Her work has a serious, formal quality, and when the catalogue mentions her "rigour", you can see what they mean, just.

She makes correspondences between the paintings by use of colour and line, but like most contemporary artists she is interested in the process of painting not the end product, and the viewer must work hard to make these associations.

She takes a long time over her work and it is nice to see paintings that have been really worked on to achieve some kind of resolution.

Andrew Renton, a director of curating at Goldsmith's College, says she has "extended the language of abstract painting". I think you could say that for Kandinsky and Mark Rothko, but I am not sure it is possible to say that abut any artist working these days. He also insists on seeing astonishing "depth and gesture" in her work, heralding those qualities as if they are particularly unusual and remarkable in a painter.

Renton has recently stated in the press that "painting is alive and kicking", and this enthusiasm for her work though marks a mood shift, the start of a new trend, so it could be that Abts, a mere painter, might win the 25,000 prize, when the winner is announced on the evening of 4th December.

The judges, who for some reason include the journalist Lynn Barber, would probably do it for the novelty value alone.

The Tate doesn't let this new formality go too far though. At the entry to the show you wouldn't know there has been any change from the days of desolate beds, flashing light bulbs and garden sheds. The girls are sandwiched between two typical Turner Prize entrants - the electronic gadgetry and sump oil enthusiasts who recently dominated the contemporary art world, making exhibitions resemble Hamley's boy's toys department, are still in evidence.

Mark Titchner, 33, from Luton, presents us with How To Change Behaviour (Tiny Masters of the World Come Out). His installation at the start of the show assaults the eyes in the form of a hideous, giant orange billboard, while his mock-Cockney voice on the electronic commentary tells us that he wants to get us into the "inter-reaction". Perhaps presenting something loathsome is his way of doing this, and looking at his bill-board is cheaper than going off to some broken down, poverty stricken part of LA to look at theirs.
He then blinds us with some kind of pseudo-science, labelled as "quasi-scientific".

There are boxes, or batteries, with slogans written on them, taken from old TU banners about building Utopia. This is apparently to do with his fascination with "belief systems", and the "faith we put in technology". It just reminded me of how little faith I have in technology, remembering the car batteries that have failed in cold weather leading me into the clutches of dishonest garages, and computers that have crashed at vital moments. Who puts their "faith" in technology? Most of us just learn to live with it and are deeply suspicious. Margot Heller, director of the South London Gallery, tells us that Titchner's work:

makes us think more than twice about how we receive, select, retrieve and sometimes reject information.
I wish he would create a device for dealing with claptrap.

As usual with young conceptual artists, he has a fervent moral message and the wisdom of a seer to impart. He attempts this in his Ergo Ergot, by means of wood, steel, electrical and mechanical components, DVD loop, monitors and speakers, a public record of Acts of Parliament passed since 1999 which have implications for civil liberties, and all this is heroically summed up by a row of spinning Mexican hats.

He also presents a booth full of crystals and magnets which you put your head in, connected by cable to his "wishing tree". Apparently he got splinters, poor dear, while making this, in an attempt to "empower the object a littul (sic) bit".

He is obviously too young to remember Enid Blyton's story The Wishing Chair. Now she would really be worthy of an installation piece, perhaps about how we all, from an early age, put our faith in writers, especially the ones who present us with a "belief system" which later turns out to be rather frail. In Enid's case involving serial adultery and nude tennis parties, but I digress, and walking round these exhibits it is really hard not to.

Titchner declares that he is interested in "complex statements with a lack of a fixed meaning", almost as hard as being self-deprecating and self-celebratory at the same time, so he can't mind if his viewers' minds wander towards meanings of their own. But that is of course part of the intention of the show.

After the clay and the paint we are back in the world of boy's toys. We are in a large dark room, ordered to take our commentary headphones off and obliged to watch a film of a woman talking in a foreign language with no translation other than boring sub-titles that don't tell us what is going on. All around the room, people appear to be riveted by this, but as I leave an elderly American woman follows me and shouts "Jesus!" in disgust. She then looks at me nervously, presumably in case I am part of the art Mafia.

That, whatever it was, was a video installation with a long, long, meaningless title, by Phil Collins, 35, an artist from Runcorn, who became well known two years ago with his video film of nine young Palestinians in a Ramallah disco dancing for eight hours.

This work purports to be about the use of the camera in peoples' lives. An interesting subject - but it turns out to be not about that amazing thing that allows people to take photos, but the TV camera, which affects many of us less and less.

Out of the video room, we find ourselves in a virtual office. How long before people are building whole installation houses and streets?

Collins has set this up as an imaginary production office, called Shady Lane Productions, complete with newspapers, box files, TVs, printers and computers. Boys need so many gadgets in their art work these days. The idea is that people who feel their lives have been ruined by appearing on TV talk shows can ring up this company and tell their stories on video. A kind of strange altruism directed towards people who are unlikely ever to visit this show.

At last we are at an end, but not quite. The final room has been constructed by the Tate to encourage yet more viewer participation. They should provide beds for the mentally exhausted.

The teak lined walls are covered in white cards, like Catholic votive messages, asking for opinions of the show, and there are benches lined with headphones, linked to more videos, of the artists prating again, about their work.

Visitor comments are mostly full of praise. Some are a little ambiguous. "Phil Collin's work is so Gillian Wearing!", says one. A brave soul has written: "very, very poor". He might have been referring to his own circumstances of course, but I don't think so.

Jane Kelly worked as a full time staff feature writer for the Daily Mail for 15 years, but she now lives as a freelance journalist and painter in west London.

To read Lilian Pizzichini's take on this year's Turner Prize, see: If artists talk excessively about their work they devalue it, argues Lilian Pizzichini: Turner Prize 2006 at Tate Britain.

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Lili is right - if painters start talking about their work, explaining it, run for the hills

Posted by: jane kelly at October 27, 2006 04:53 PM
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