To say that I approached the Turner Prize with trepidation is an understatement. Before visiting the Tate Britain, my only exposure to this year’s prize was seeing a news report in which the permanently smug Jude Law made a speech, wading into the political deep-end, throwing the accusation of “cultural vandalism” at the government. Very little was actually made of the actual competition except that it was a ‘good year’. With memories of various farmyard animals in formaldehyde floating around my head, artworks that often showcase egos instead of artistic merit and a general mistrust of the conceptual nature of the exhibition, it was a struggle not to bottle it and ask for a ticket to see the wonderful pre-Raphaelite exhibition that was showing instead.
Upon entering my expectations were immediately dashed by Paul Noble’s opening pencil drawn display. His meticulous drawings and expansive imagination complement each other perfectly. Eerie, alien landscapes are populated by structures that could easily be the houses of the future, sometimes made entirely out of glass recalling the futuristic world of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We. The overall impression is that one is viewing a lonely dream, in which every detail has been remembered and painstakingly mapped out by the dreamer.
An example of Paul Noble's impressive landscapes.
Luke Fowler’s film All Divided Selves was next, a documentary concerning Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing. The film shows Laing’s life through brief snippets and sudden interruptions of found footage, with no clear narrative, leading the viewer to form their own interpretations. Although a fascinating and compelling film, at a running time of an hour and a half, I found myself becoming critical and questioning at what point an art film becomes a documentary. An unanswerable question I know, but I found All Divided Selves to be a little out place amongst the other entries.
RD Laing, the subject of Luke Fowler's submission.
The prize of the show, and indeed the winner of the Turner Prize, however was Elizabeth Price’s twenty minute experimental film The Woolworths Choir of 1979. Set in three distinct acts, the film shows common architecture in churches, resembling a documentary; archive news footage of a fire that occurred in a Woolworths shop in Manchester in 1979; in between this, the film explodes into a blurry 60’s video of the Shangri-Las belting out their pop hit Out in the Streets. The themes overlap, with visuals being emphasised with constant finger clicks and handclaps; obscure words are flashed on the screen, which slowly build in an intensity of sound and images. The words have multiple meanings and carry the film on to the next stage. The carved stone wrist of a recumbent church effigy suddenly cuts to the finger clicking wrists of a Shangri-Las singer to devastating effect. The word ‘choir’ links each segment and parallels are drawn between church furniture and the stacked furniture in Woolworths that actually started the fire.
A still from The Woolworths Choir of 1979.
The Woolworths Choir of 1979 is everything that an art film should be. In places its euphoric, disturbing, informative, witty, and aesthetically beautiful, whilst having a tremendous overpowering impact on the viewer, completely engaging you for the twenty minutes. It plays with film editing conventions, making you question what it was that you just watched but also doesn’t leave you desperate for answers.
The final exhibit was from Spartacus Chetwynd, who, despite the name and beard, is a female performing artist that uses props and puppetry in her work. Despite impressive set design that was reminiscent of 1920’s German Expressionist Cinema, and an undeniable sense of fun, this installation unfortunately distanced itself from the others in its lack of seriousness.
Spartacus Chetwynd and friends during a performance.
Upon leaving I happily realised that my preconceptions of the Turner Prize had not been met. This may have been a ‘good year’ for British conceptual art, but there’s no reason why this cannot be repeated next year, ad infinitum.
By Lee Greatorex