Turner Prize 2012


The artists shortlisted for the 2012 Turner Prize: Paul Noble, Luke Fowler, Elizabeth Price and Spartacus Chetwynd, have created an exhibition which carefully, and recklessly, balances on the edge of insanity. Beginning with Noble’s methodical technical drawings and culminating in Chetwynd’s carnivalesque performances, the show intelligently gathers momentum, creating a sense of overall delirium. 

Paul Noble presents a series of drawings of his invented town Nobson Newton, which he has been referencing since the 1990s, alongside faecal, marble sculptures. Each of his drawings, which are monumental in scale, begin with their title. This title is written in the centre of the page and is disguised as a building, anchoring his invented, microcosms of visionary architecture, modernism, turds and chaos at their inceptive roots. Nobson Newton itself is critically untouchable; Noble has devised his own formula and symbolic lexicon to a point beyond deconstruction. What he represents is almost irrelevant; it is the expunging of a calculated madness, which can only be fascinating. However, it is the muted meticulousness with which Noble details his fantasy town-planning which causes problems for the work.

Noble renders his drawings in very hard pencil. Thus, his drawings become vast expanses of pale grey. While the images are strange and fascinating, so much of their crude yet beautiful detail becomes lost. The desire to understand Nobson Newton is frustrated by its own suppressed portrayal. Conversely, the excremental sculptures are a lazy reference to his own symbolic language and feel crass and redundant. Noble’s offering is a confused mixture of compulsive insanity and restraint; a balance which could be brilliant but here feels underwhelming.

Elizabeth Price’s video installation The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979, is an exhilarating assessment of history. Price splices together images of ecclesiastical architecture, grainy film footage of dancing girl bands and scenes of the 1979 fire in a Manchester Woolworths which killed 10 people. 

Price intersperses the imagery with dry textual information, utilising fonts and graphics usually associated with commercial advertising. As the video progresses, the text is persistently intercut with footage of the Shangri-la’s, swaying in unison to an insistent, jolting hand-clapping and finger-clicking beat. The subjects begin to converge more and more until they are inseparable, and the helpless movement of a woman waving from a window in 1979, unable to escape the fire, is paralleled by a dance gesture of one of the Shangri-la’s, with Price’s words: ‘the greatest expression in the twist of a wrist.’ 

Similarly to Noble, Price adopts both absolute precision and obsessive frenzy. However, what Price manages to elicit is a 20 minute form of ecstasy, saturated with technology, information, history, rhythm, pace; a cinematic melodrama which leads you to an inevitable climax. The process is almost sexual, but Price’s decisions are highly intelligent, clinical and focused. It is a carefully orchestrated descent into madness. Whereas Noble’s approach is static and stultifying, Price’s momentum is unavoidable. 

Luke Fowler’s work most explicitly references madness, with his film, All Divided Selves about Scottish psychiatrist R.D Laing. In comparison to the other works, this film is long and slow, running for 90 minutes. Fowler uses archival footage of Laing to detail his ideas, examine his fame and subsequent controversy, proceeding through digression rather than linear narrative. The definition of insanity is quietly usurped; the chasm between those diagnosed as mentally ill and those surrounding them confuses and surprises itself. For a piece of work which deals with such subject matter, its effect is subtle, manifesting with a slow reflectiveness. All Divided Selves seeps slowly into your system, unlike Price’s work which affects you so dramatically it becomes hard to breathe.

The final artist, Spartacus Chetwynd, is the first ever performance artist to be nominated for the Turner Prize. Described as medieval morality plays, Chetwynd’s performances have an engaging but threatening quality; the majority of which involve public interaction. While this encroaching on private space might ostensibly encourage a break down of the unspoken, but prevalent, modes of behaviour in the gallery space, it actually encourages further alienation. Chetwynd’s world, full of puppets, dolls, mandrake root gods, inflatable slides and medieval clowns, finds itself in danger of asserting a superiority rather than the harmless, humorous ‘tonic’ she intended.

While it is liberating to see an artist make decisions entirely based on an instinctive relationship to fun and humour, Chetwynd’s deliberately amateur approach jarrs alongside the deliberation of the other three exhibitors. Price’s precision highlights the brash nature of Chetwynd’s work; Fowler’s subtlety exposes her vulgarity, and Noble’s obsessive technique emphasises her own slapdash approach. However, this doesn’t seem like something which would phase Chetwynd; an artist who works impatiently and spontaneously, with no desire to make things which last. 

This year’s Turner prize is not unanimously intelligent, nor is it entirely adept, but it is more engaging than it has been in years. Furthermore, it feels engaging on a human level rather than solely a critical one. The work ranges from crass to highly perceptive, liberated to restrained, quiet to clamourous and rational to completely unstable. However, the presentation of history as a malleable source is an undercurrent evident in all the works, rendering the exhibition both timeless and contemporary.  

Kathryn Lloyd
The Turner Prize runs until 6 January 2013 at Tate Britain
There will also be an artist’s talk from Elizabeth Price on Tuesday 13 November, 6.30 pm
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