Gerry Byrne reviews the Turner Prize 2002 exhibition, Tate Britain
"When I hear the word 'culture', I reach for my Browning."
Hitler’s Reichsmarschall, Hermann Goering.
"Cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit. If this is the best British artists can produce, then British art is lost. "
Culture Minister Kim Howells on the Turner Prize 2002.
Not that I’m saying Kim Howells is a fascist, or New Labour can be equated with the Nazi regime. It’s more subtle than simple philistinism. Goering, the founder of the Gestapo, was a witty man (as evidenced by the punning quote above: Browning referring either to the sub-machine gun or the English poet) and fond of the finer things in life. After the Nazis’ exhibition of “Degenerate Art”, several early Impressionist works went into his private collection, to the horror of Goebbels, who thought they should all be burnt.
Kim Howells expanded on his comment. “The final insult was to walk through a room of Francis Bacons and Henry Moores that exude artistic ability and humanity.” He also describes himself as an admirer of Jackson Pollock and Lucian Freud. This is like those who insist that good popular music ended with the Clash or the Ramones.
Is a picture emerging? Things that were intolerably modern, avant garde, over time become critically sanctioned, become the new standard by which we berate the newest work. Turner himself, especially in his late works, dissolving almost into abstraction, was incomprehensible in his day and is now “our greatest painter”.
Which is not to say that everything that is new is good, only that it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand — which is what Howells did, lumping together four very different artists with widely disparate media and concerns, in a feigned populist outrage. The usual word for people who condemn “all this” is bigot.
Some contemporary art is inaccessible, cold, pointless, clever-clever; but the point is to make the accusation stick for any particular artist or work. Anything else is ignorant bombast.
So what of this year’s Turners? I have my own subjective criteria: would I want to look at it again? Own it? Am I kicking myself for leaving it so late to visit the exhibition? Do I want to come back? Does it take me out of my habitual mindset or way of experiencing the world? Does it make me think, cry, laugh or just gaze in awe? And (this is the crunch with me) does it inspire me to rush back and make something? Does it expand my sense of what is possible in art?
On those criteria, Keith Tyson was rightful winner. I even went so far as to buy the (incredibly expensive) book of his studio wall drawings just so that I could take in all the details of his incredibly exuberant mind. I have a grapevine in my tiny garden which, while I was ignoring it, plotted to take over the world. That’s what Tyson’s work is like, a bit too much, almost impenetrable in its inventiveness. About as far from cold and mechanical as you can get.
His Bubble Chambers: 2 Discrete Molecules of Simultaneity, twin paintings of vaguely atomic-looking coloured circles bearing the same date stamps with different short texts, is both visually interesting (worth seeing even if you couldn’t read the words), poetic and intellectually exciting. It sets you off thinking about chance and simultaneity, but not at all in a “bullshit” sort of way — more in that sort of awed reverie that starry nights, deserts or microscopic life induce.
Conceptual art, if the term means anything, is the predominance of the idea over either the medium or the execution. In contrast to “art for art’s sake”, Abstract Expressionism, say, is totally engaged in the material or the process — the laying on of paint or the constructedness of sculpture - or the referentialness of representational art (getting a likeness of reality).
Tyson’s work, especially his drawings and paintings (he works in a variety of media) is very engaged with its media: his pictures are exciting to look at; his sculptures and installations are ingenious, tactile: you want to get round and under and inside them. The only way he could be called conceptual is that he has ideas. If the mere possession of ideas is enough to disallow art, then I think that is fascistic, that’s taking the most reactionary tenet of post-war art criticism and elevating it to a totalitarian principle.
Catherine Yass, who works with photography and video, could only be called mechanical by the most idiotic literalism: she uses machines, cranes, model helicopters, cameras to obtain her images. In Descent she lowers a video camera down a building site in Canary Wharf in deep fog, then runs the resulting video upside-down. The effect is engrossing, mesmerising. In related stills shown in light boxes, she moves the camera to create blurs of light. Critics have pointed to the striking similarity of these effects to the work of Turner. Kim, if you want to rid the world of this sort of conceptualism, you’ll have to burn your Turners and Monets too.
The most conceptual of the artists here is probably Fiona Banner’s work. She transcribes moment by moment descriptions of a porn film on huge sheets in hard-to-read hand-writing/-painting. It’s impossible to take in all at once. You find yourself peering at fragments of text which may be “obscene” but are broken up from the narrative. It may be cold and mechanical, but as a critique of the source material. You may be left with a sense: why would anyone bother? But that reflects back on porn. It’s the question you don’t ask when viewing porn in its “normal” context.
Personally, the artist who left me cold was Liam Gillick. His brightly coloured perspex and aluminium ceiling just looked like a neat piece of corporate design (the graveyard of modernism). Similarly, his designs for everything from books to beach towels seemed coolly slick rather than challenging. I imagine he’d go down a bomb at Heals or Purves and Purves. One could imagine Cherie doing out Number Ten in his designs. Cool Britannia.
There’s nothing like instant heritage, is there? Anyone for a J.M. Turner tea towel?
Reviewer: Gerry Byrne