The Turner Prize 2012

Back in Tate Britain this year after its sojourn to the Baltic, the Turner Prize features Spartacus Chetwynd, Luke Fowler, Paul Noble and Elizabeth Price

Feature by Jac Mantle | 26 Nov 2012

The Turner Prize isn’t intended as a barometer of contemporary British art – artists are shortlisted on the basis of specific shows – but this year it’s a fair indicator, with two video makers and a performance artist. Presenting similar versions of the shows the artists were nominated for, it’s as much about who fares best in the Tate’s galleries, as the works themselves.

With perhaps the biggest task in this respect, Spartacus Chetwynd hasn’t done too badly. Peering through tears in a big paper den, you observe a weird scene with figures dressed in mandrake costumes enacting a ritualistic play. If you arrive at the start of the performance, you can sit unpleasantly close to the figures and may be invited to visit the ‘oracle’ (a puppet) for pronouncements on your past and future. Pumping carnival-type music really makes strange this display, and those unfamiliar with Chetwynd’s work are given a rude awakening.

What the show doesn’t convey is the depth of research behind it. Reproductions of the programmes handed out at performances are a vital clue to the work, but are crammed into a corner and difficult to read.

By contrast, a spacious hall has been given to Paul Noble’s pencil drawings. Featuring futuristic-looking uninhabited buildings, each begins with a single word drawn in a blocky typeface in the centre, spelling out its subject. In Villa Joe, a Tetris-like glasshouse sits amid a desert landscape, housing precious objects. Surrounding the house are rude, blobby creatures of obese proportions. 

Pleasingly diverting, the ongoing series is nonetheless contrived within tight limits and the most conventional of the shows. The most experienced artist in the line-up, Noble had a complete overhaul of his practice in the early 90s, which you could argue puts him back on level pegging with the younger nominees. (Elizabeth Price went under a similar process of reinvention a few years ago.)

Watching Luke Fowler’s entry, All Divided Selves, you certainly wouldn’t say that he had less experience than Noble, but of course this is the case. Fowler’s third film on Glaswegian psychiatrist RD Laing (1927-89), it aims to convey not simply historical events but a more textured portrait of the mood of the time and Laing’s character. Assembling archive material with Fowler’s own filmic notes, it meanders between footage of psychiatric sessions with orthodox practitioners, and Laing’s radical way of thinking.

At 90 minutes long, the film asks a lot of the audience, but it’s installed well and immersive enough that even without any narrative markers, it’s possible to stay the distance. Had the last three prizes not been awarded to Scots and were Fowler not the youngest nominee, you’d say he was a good contender.

After Fowler’s marathon, Elizabeth Price’s 20-minute film barely seems to have begun before it’s over. Perhaps this is because the room feels like a thoroughfare. The Woolworths Choir of 1979 begins by describing ecclesiastical architecture of churches then explodes into footage of a girl group named Choir, dancing to the powerful hooks of The Shangri-Las. By now, the silent onscreen narration is revealed as unreliable and not convincing in the slightest.

The tenuous links between these disparate bodies of culture are hinged on wordplay and visual motifs such as a hand waving. It is this blatant flimsiness of reason – a trademark of Price’s videos – that makes the work brilliant.

If the allotting of gallery spaces is any indicator, though, it seems the most deserving artist will not be the winner.