I never thought I’d find myself writing these words: The Turner Prize exhibition of 2012 at Tate Britain is actually entertaining.
Mind you, a bald description of the contents might not sound that attractive. Then, the standards of entertainment at avant-garde art exhibitions are pretty low.
On display are, first, large meticulous drawings of a fantastic world populated by morphed versions of the sculptures of Henry Moore and (now this is more like the Turner Prize) some stylized excrement.
These, plus some inconsequential and excremental marble sculptures, fill the room of Paul Noble, at 49 the oldest of the four artists shortlisted for the 25,000-pound ($40,400) prize, awarded to artists of less than 50 years of age.
Next comes a 93-minute documentary film about the life and times of the late Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing (1927-1989), presented in no particular order.
After that, another shorter film by Elizabeth Price, blending the themes of church architecture, a hit by the 1960s American girl group the Shangri-Las (“Out in the Streets”) and a terrible fire that took place at the Manchester, northern England, branch of Woolworths in 1979.
Last, there are performances by Spartacus Chetwynd and associates. (She changed her first name in tribute to the leader of a slaves’ rebellion against the Roman Empire.)
The last line of Chetwynd’s biography in the accompanying booklet says she “lives and works in a nudist colony in South London” -- hinting that these performances might be a little too entertaining for Tate Britain.
In reality, for artistic purposes, she and her performers wear costumes. In one case they don Biblical-style robes plus a beard for Spartacus herself, and for the other piece they are dressed to look like newts from outer space.
Still not convinced this sounds like fun? Well, it’s true that this is not a show you can see quickly or easily. Paul Noble’s drawings require close-focus attention, since they are a mass of finely-drawn detail in a mixture of hard and soft pencil lines all depicting imaginary scenes in a town he named Nobson Newtown.
Noble’s work is certainly the closest to the activity previously known as art. His Nobson drawings have been compared with Bosch and Bruegel, and it’s true they fit into that tradition: the teeming fantasy, the naughty sexual activities in hidden corners (Michelangelo’s David seems to be playing with himself inconspicuously in one), even the scatological obsession.
On the other hand, there’s something airless and boring about Nobson, as if someone started telling you about their dreams, and just went on, and on, and on. You start to drift off.
My heart sank when I heard about the duration of Luke Fowler’s film about Laing, “All Divided Selves” (2011). Unexpectedly I found it, if not gripping, at least atmospheric and memorable. It’s a collage of archive footage featuring Laing himself, other psychiatrists and patients.
Certain sequences stick in the mind, such as a group of hirsute men discussing philosophy, very slowly, in what looks like an institutional kitchen in the 1970s.
Are they doctors or people with mental problems? It’s hard to say. An oddball recycling of events that happened in the 1960s and 1970s -- the decades in which all four artists were born -- seems be a common factor here. You couldn’t call that a movement, maybe a tendency.
Noble is the bookie’s favorite at 9/4, and you can see why. His work is in its way accomplished and individual. Chetwynd is an obvious rival in publicity terms (that nudist’s colony, for a start.)
Personally, I might go for an artist film maker, Luke Fowler. And those are also words I am surprised to find myself typing.
The Turner Prize 2012 is at Tate Britain, Millbank, SW1P 4RG, until Jan. 6, 2013. Information: http://www.tate.org.uk or +44-20-7887-8888. The winner will be announced at Tate Britain on Dec. 3.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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