Judging the Turner Prize is often more like assessing the relative merits of, say, a piece of plumbing equipment and a gerbil. Where do you start?
The four artists on the short list for the award -- worth 25,000 pounds ($39,677) to the winner and 5,000 pounds each to the three runners-up -- tend to have less in common than that.
This year, admittedly, two of the four, Dexter Dalwood and Angela de la Cruz, are exhibiting paintings, sort of, in the exhibition at Tate Britain that accompanies the prize. Of the other two, Susan Philipsz is showing an empty room full of sound. The Otolith Group has mounted a video installation involving the simultaneous performance of all 13 parts of a 21-year-old French television series on Greek civilization.
It’s no easy task that the jury, who selected the short list, has set itself. The only way to approach it is on gut feeling. What makes the most impact?
I’m prejudiced in favor of painting. But of the two exponents of paint on canvas, one -- Angela de la Cruz -- has done something guaranteed to rob the medium of its power. She breaks or removes the wooden stretchers that keep the canvas taut and flat.
Consequently, her pictures droop like the wings of an enormous bird or lie crumpled on the ground like something destined for a skip. The booklet published by Tate suggests she’s attempting to find an answer to the question, “When is a painting not a painting?” It’s an interesting puzzle, though my reaction was that she had discovered the solution.
Dexter Dalwood’s pictures are more orthodox. They are even figurative. His method is to evoke a historical moment by mixing together all manner of visual ingredients. “Burroughs in Tangiers” (2005) is a fantasy about the room that the writer William Burroughs occupied in Morocco in the 1950s. But it is pieced together from relevant oddments of art (for example, the bedspread comes from a painting by Matisse, “The Moroccans”).
When it works, Dalwood’s method produces witty art-historical fantasias. There’s something troubling about his pictures. Though consisting of paint on canvas, they often look like pasted paper, with sharp edges and no feeling of space.
That feeling of slight visual unease was replaced by utter bafflement when I moved into the room of the Otolith Group (a collective consisting of two artists, Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar, taking its name from part of the inner ear).
Alien in Bengal
They screen a film based loosely on an unrealized film script dating from 1967 about a visit by an extraterrestrial alien to Bengal. This is hard to comprehend. Even more elusive is the point of replaying the 13-part French TV series, mentioned above, all at the same time in an art gallery.
Mind you, I have similar doubts about the viability of using sound as a medium of sculpture. In principle, I find this dubious. In practice, Susan Philipsz’s piece, “Lowlands” (2008-10) struck me as beautiful. It consists of her unaccompanied voice singing a 16th-century Scottish lament on three separate channels, played by three loudspeakers in different parts of an empty room. While it’s hard to say what’s so good about this, the result is simple and delightful.
I think this Turner Prize is between Dalwood and Philipsz, and on gut feeling I’d give it to the latter.
The Turner Prize Exhibition is at Tate Britain through Jan. 3, 2011. The winner will be announced on Dec. 6.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. His most recent book is “Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud.” The opinions expressed are his own.)