The 2016 Turner Prize Shortlist: Baffling, Brazen, Banal and Beguiling

Turner 1

Michael Dean

I pluck up courage to visit the exhibition by the four shortlisted candidates for this year’s Turner Prize. I am not sure that anything I have to say is relevant. This is, after all, one of the most prestigious international visual arts awards; it specifically celebrates new developments. Unsurprisingly, it is probably the most controversial as well; especially since that bed business. But Tate Britain asks visitors for their opinion. So, here goes!

I ask the helpful staff member personning the entrance if it’s safe to go in there. She laughs. She is well used to the occasional barbed comment; this is about as contemporary as it gets. We chat. She assures me that there is nothing a five year-old could have done. It’s my turn to laugh. She has a preference but feels she should keep this to herself for fear of prejudicing my visit. She agrees to tell me when I come out.

Turner 2

Helen Marten (Photo: Martin Godwin for the Guardian)

The first space is given over to work stations each housing a construction by Helen Marten. They are bizarre and baffling. However, their placement is careful. Their construction is complex and heterogenous in source material, colour, texture and form. I am drawn in to examine them minutely. The close encounter is gratifying.

Turner 3

Helen Marten

Despite a steampunkish feel, there is, at the same time, something quiet about Marten’s work. It is proportioned. It is unthreatening. It does not confuse.

Turner 4

Anthea Hamilton

The next space is lined by brick-wall-paper. In one corner, a matching suit is suspended on a hanger. Whilst trying to assimilate this easy-on-the-eye juxtaposition, I turn around…….

Turner 5

Anthea Hamilton

On the opposing wall, drawing sniggers from other viewers – one of whom who was kind enough to take a direct sub-anal stance for scale purposes – is…. well…. description is superfluous. It is, apparently, a direct take-off of a 1970s proposal by designer Gaetano Pesce for a doorway into an apartment building in New York. The back door?

Anthea Hamilton’s space is brazen. It provokes a reaction, for sure. My problem is that I am aware that my reaction feeds off a latent schoolboy sense of humour. I struggle to find aesthetic appeal. Is this important? Despite my years as surgical registrar on the proctology unit of University College Hospital, London, I want to by-pass the self-pulled-apart buttocks (‘Ere, Doc, take a look at this!) I want to look away. The cocktail of amusement and discomfort is unique. I feel a creeping embarrassment that, by appreciating it as contemporary “art,” I might become a figure of ridicule. I harbour a forlorn hope that somehow, the trousers of the suspended suit behind me are pulled up over this supersized bum. I would love to know if this paragraph represents mission accomplished for Hamilton.

Turner 6

Josephine Pryde

The next, more modest space is taken by Josephine Pryde. It is something of a relief. It also, I am sorry to say, leaves me a bit flat. In the centre of the room is a model train. I read the Turner Prize text. “The New Media Express in a Temporary Siding (Baby Wants To Ride) is a scale model of a Class 66 diesel locomotive and carriages in DB Schenker livery. The carriages are tagged by graffiti artists from the cities in which the train has previously been exhibited…”

Turner 7

Josephine Pryde

On the wall Pryde has hung a series of closely cropped photographs of well-manicured women’s hands. Each image shows the hands in contact with, for example, clothing, a book or a mobile phone. I read that “our attention is drawn to the point at which the body and the object meet and to the gestures the hands perform.” I’m struggling.

One more space to visit and I am not sure I have yet seen my new friend’s preferred work. And then, as I edge myself into the next space, it is obvious (and is later confirmed when I leave.) I am in Michael Dean’s beguiling white-out-scrap-heap-alphabet-jungle. I am confronted first by tight angry cement fists impaled on a coiled steel reinforcing rod. I feel an immediate little burst of outrage; about what, I am not sure. I squeeze around the margins of this mesmerising jumble of discarded materials. From a visual perspective, I cannot help be drawn into it.

Turner 8

Michael Dean

I am captivated by four standing slats of corrugated iron. Each has two holes near the top. These eye-holes transform the slats into a dull humanoid family whose feet are planted in a thick layer of coppery glittering grit. I move in for a closer look. The grit consists of thousands upon thousands of one-penny pieces. That feeling of outrage is finding a focus.

Turner 9

Michael Dean

The title of this work takes some beating: “United Kingdom poverty line for two adults and two children: twenty thousand four hundred and thirty six pounds sterling as published on 1st September 2016″ This annual subsistence sum is represented here by 2,043,600 pennies. In fact, there is one penny less. When installing the work, Dean removed one coin meaning that the family has to get by on one penny less than the poverty line.

I later ask myself if I am qualified to judge these works and commit my judgement to e-print. One internal voice tells me this would be unwise; I am not swimmer enough to plunge into such controversial waters. Another voice tells me that not so many people are prepared to take the plunge and I may swim as strongly as anyone who is. Whatever, here’s my judgement for what it’s worth. Dean!

Anywhen: live report day 2

Yesterday’s experience of Anywhen stays with me overnight. I can’t help thinking that, ultimately, what Phillippe Parreno is doing is playing with our absolute desire for certainty in our lives. I decide to give it another go. And so, at 11.45 today, I return to the famous Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Sombre base non-melodic music greets me. And…..  Wow! A helium filled fish drifts by. Children leap in excitement. Adults point their iPhones.

Anywhen day two 1

I take my place on the carpet. I sit down among a hundred others. Amazingly, most are under twenty years old.

11.50 The music continues; it increases in volume. The lights go up. The suspended screens perform a little vertical shuffle with squeaky mechanical noises.

Certainty. It is essential for our mental and social well-being. We look for it in our daily routines, in the sun rising, in religious beliefs and in statistics. The seemingly random happenings in Anywhen deprive us of any certainty in our immediate surroundings. I hear a voice behind from a young lady “I guess it’s all about anticipation!” I guess it is.

11.55 The lights go down again. More music. Some people leave. Others arrive; they wonder why everyone is lying on the carpet. I make a new friend.

Anywhen day two 2

12.04 The ventriloquist lady (Nina Conti) and the cuttlefish-squid are back on the screen.

Anywhen day two 3

12.10 She asks “Who is the master? Who is the slave?” My fellow viewers (experiencers?) are drawn into the hypnotic log-curve forms of the fish.

12.25 I look behind. Everyone has a mesmerised expression. A huge chaotic noise rolls down the hall. A hundred school children arrive in hi-viz vests. This, I assume but without certainty, is not part of Perrano’s “immersive” creation.

Anywhen day two 4

12.32 Lights flash. A woman screams “Attention!” Electronic bips and burps. Then silence. Microphone feedback squeal. “Grass!” an android voice shouts. “Rain!”

12.36 The screens descend but only partially. More people drift in expecting the show to begin. I am certain that this is far from certain. I harbour a little smug feeling that I can anticipate their disappointment.

12.38 Right on cue. The lights come on and the screens are hauled back up. Everyone stays. Scratchy recording of folky guitar song.

12.39 Very noisy airplane swoop. Some of us duck in a startled way. Another fish swims by about two metres off the floor. A young girl tries to catch it.

Anywhen day two 5

13.01 Only electronic sounds. Nobody seems bored. Some snooze. Some kiss. Some check their snapchats, instagrams and whatsapps.

13.10 Nothing new to report. Feeling hungry. Feeling also rather happy I came back.

13.11 Total silence. Surprising.

13.15 I try to examine my very mixed feelings. I remain intrigued. I am not disappointed. Thanks to the others around me, I am far from bored.

13.20 I conclude that Anywhen is a remarkable experience. It seems the uncertainty that this concept serves up appeals to younger people. Perhaps this is because modern life is so full of … well…. certainties. Who knows for certain? Sorry about yesterday’s blog post, Tate Modern. Bravo, Monsieur Parreno!

13.25 Lunch.

Reporting live from Anywhen

It is 11.10 on 2 November 2016. I lie on a carpet in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. (How I love this place!) I am here to experience “Anywhen.” Nothing much is happening. A mother feeds her baby. Some schoolchildren scrap and roll in the enormous space.

11.20 The lights go down. There is the sound of rain falling. Massive white screens hang enticingly from the ceiling. The screens move. Bright white light is projected onto one. There is the sound of waves breaking.

11.25 There is a flicker of excitement from the children. A large plastic fish is spotted moving high among the wires that suspend the screens and multiple loud-speakers.

11.30 I wait. I read the promotional blurb. “Prepare to have your senses activated and stimulated by a spectacular choreography of acoustics, sound lighting, flying objects and film, each connected to the other and playing their part in a far bigger score. Tate’s Turbine Hall becomes a universe of inter-related and connected events and parallel realities. Events will unfold anywhere.” I am indeed prepared.

11.35. I wait.

11.48. Something is about to happen. There is the sound of machinery. Vehicle reversing warning beeps take over. The screens descend to near-ground level. The hundred or so people waiting with me move with interest. A businessman in very smart pin-stripe suit and tie with poppy plants his brief case next to me and lies down.

11.52. Ah! Something flickers on-screen. A beautiful woman ventriloquist starts to talk into a microphone (without moving her lips!) about perpetuity, eternity, opportunity, complexity, cosmic inevitability and neuronal connectivity.

12.04 Her voice continues in the same vein. On screen is a watery surface. There are splishy. sploshy splashy watery sounds.

12.08 A non-human eye appears. This turns out be the eye of a beautiful cuttlefish-squiddy beast that swims around elegantly. It changes colour in dimply blue-yellow waves. The woman’s voice dies away. The businessman departs shaking his head.

12.10 The lights go up. The lights go down. The speakers crank out a kind of Darth Vader on Ecstasy voice.

12.15 Big lights strobe. The now-fed baby cries in confusion. The screens are still hanging there. The lights go up.

12.16 Nothing happens. I return to the blurb. “Anywhen is a site-specific exhibition that changes throughout the day and that will evolve during the six-month period of the commission. The exhibition is conceived as an automaton which guides the public through a constantly changing play of moving elements, light configurations and sound environments. The artist states that ‘the exhibition is a construction of situations or sequences in a non-linear narrative’.”

12.20 Still nothing. “The commission responds to the Turbine Hall’s position at the centre of the museum, an open space connected to the city itself. The artist combines aspects of chance and control: the sequences of events are triggered by software which is informed by micro-organisms. These react to and activate elements of the commission through a bioreactor visible at the far end of the Turbine Hall.”

12.22 The lights and screens go up together. The music of a not-so-talented busking guitar player- singer fills the hall.

12.25 His voice is drowned out by what sounds like an underground train passing.

12.26 He stops playing. One person claps.

12.28. The screens descend again noisily. Big machinery sounds. The screens go up.

12.30 I take a photo. I’m not sure why ….. or of what.

Anywhen

12.32 Another fish passes by. A little lower this time. Airplane sounds. Lights flash.

12.35 Electronic buzzing. Ticking noises. I read more.Philippe Parreno is a French avant-garde artist who came to prominence in the 1990s and is perhaps most widely known for his feature film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. Parreno works across film, video, sound, sculpture, performance and information technology and collaborates extensively with musicians, scientists, architects and writers.”

12.40 Just sound. Wait! The screens are moving again.“The Hyundai Commission is a series of site-specific installations by contemporary artists in Tate Modern’s iconic Turbine Halll. It is made possible by a unique long-term partnership between Tate and Hyundai Motor.” I remember the mind-boggling work of Abraham Cruzvillegas.

12.50 I am caught between mild intrigue, mild irritation, mild boredom and mild disappointment. Has the last hour enriched my life? Not really. Have my senses been activated and stimulated? Not really. Phrases from my yesteryear school reports come to mind: “Could do better.” “Room for improvement.””Has difficulty focusing.” “Shows occasional encouraging signs,”

12.59 I think maybe I am missing something. Caffeine maybe? But I’ll give it another go tomorrow.

He photographs the songs of Charles Aznavour!

This is photography in a league of its own. Imagine you have the words of songs on paper with no opportunity to hear them sung. Imagine also that the songs are amongst the most iconic of French songs sung by one of the most iconic of French singers. In his exhibition “Viens voir les comédiens,” photographer Patrice Fileppi sets out to deliver via images the passion, heartbreak, despair, nostalgia, jealousy and love-misery that the songs of Charles Aznavour engage. Does he succeed? You bet!

Charles Aznavour 1

Fileppi gives me a tour of his exhibition. His iPhone allows me to hear Aznavour croon the most famous line of franglais: “You are the one for me, for me, for me formidable!” The corresponding photo is immaculately and beautifully staged. It radiates the misty-eyed moment of madness when a frenchman declares his love for a freckle-faced English beauty. The pigeons and the bronze horses share the startled excitement as she runs towards her new amour to throw her arms around his neck. The dress and indeed the freckles reflect the texture of the polished marble of the fountain (that in turn subtly alludes to multiple ejaculations.) A London bus goes by. It bears an advertisement urging us to fly British Airways; this is maybe how our gallant arrived in London. Was he invited over by a call from an O-so-British telephone box?

Charles Aznavour 2

An elderly gentleman watches old films at home. We have no idea what is being projected. Whatever it is, it has reduced him to a kind of stupefied half-smile of nostalgia and regret. His hands are clasped as if in anticipation of a particular moment in the film. He is twenty years old again. Aznavour’s “Hier encore” is about times passed, time lost on stupidities, loves lost and a life that has achieved only a well-furrowed brow. In creating such a poignant image, Fileppi surrounds the man with fragments of his past but denies us, the viewers, a glimpse of what is moving him so. A large oil painting shows a half-open garden gate with nothing beyond. Despite its extravagant frame, the painting sits on the floor leaning against the wall. It is not hung because preference is given to a jumbled gallery of small photographs of people. The man wears a thick woollen pullover that gives warmth and protection against a cold and menacing loneliness.

Whist on a relaxing holiday in 2011, Fileppi’s mind idled. He then heard an Aznavour song. He then found himself really listening to “Comme ils disent.” He was profoundly moved. In his mind a scene appeared. He then wanted to photograph this scene… but first he had to create it. And so the story starts. This former electrical engineer – self taught in photography – tells me the exhibition “is a visual reflection of the emotion I feel while listening to the songs of Charles Aznavour. It is a tribute to him.” The exhibition comprises twenty large square photographs each representing a song that has touched him most. Why the square format? It is a timely allusion to those old vinyl album covers!

Fileppi is welcoming, modest and generous with his time. I spend a couple of hours discussing his work. I come to appreciate his creativity and attention to detail. Both are admirable. I begin to understand the days and energy invested in these twenty images and why the whole is the culmination of four years work. I realise that, above all, Fileppi is a photographic story-teller. This is why I am drawn to his exhibition; it is strong on narrative. And I am always drawn to the narrative behind beautiful stuff. Furthermore, the narrative of Fileppi’s beautiful stuff is intriguingly layered. There is the narrative of the whole project. There is the narrative of each Aznavour song. There is the narrative of the interpretation from words to image. There is finally the technical narrative of Fileppi’s scene-setting for each photo.

Charles Aznavour 3

For a modest sum, Fileppi sells a sumptuous catalogue of these photographs in high resolution next to the words of the parent song. For fans of Monsieur Aznavour, my copy just happened to fall open at the pages dedicated to “La Bohème!”

This exhibition is hosted by “Images de Marque” at 12, Grand Rue (Old Town) in Geneva.  It runs until Friday, 28th October. Don’t miss it and don’t simply wander around looking. Seek out and let yourself be carried away by those wonderful narratives!

Schiphol Clock

I am, once again, in transit at Schiphol airport. It is 3.54 pm. I have a few minutes for a coffee and a snoop about before a connecting flight. There’s always something interesting to discover here like big luggage people.

Schiphol Clock 1

I see a guy cleaning a big clock suspended from the ceiling. He seems to be wiping the clock-face from the inside. I can’t understand why so many people have their smart phones directed upwards.

Schiphol Clock 2

He’s obviously taking the job seriously as he’s removed the minute hand to give that frosted glass a good polish! I go to find a coffee.

Schiphol Clock 3

At 4.03 pm I am striding towards my departure gate and pass the clock again. The guy is still cleaning away. People are still fascinated. He then serves up a surprise!

Schiphol Clock 4

With a rubber window-cleaning blade, at 4.04 pm, he scrapes off the minute hand …..

Schiphol Clock 5

….. and repaints it one minute later with a small roller. I grasp what this is about. He has been doing this all along minute by minute. This is a performance in real time. Lordielord! This is brilliant! I am riveted.

Schiphol Clock 6

Entranced, I watch him wipe away and repaint a slightly advanced hour hand. Inevitably, a series of questions run through my head. Is there someone really inside that box? How does he get in there? Is he an “artist” or an employee? Does he get a break? Is there a change of shift every hour or so?

Schiphol Clock 7

I am now late for my flight but I have to satisfy my curiosity. I look up at the back of the massive clock. Sure enough, there is a ladder and a door. It seems the guy really is inside. I run grinning like an idiot. My heart sings. I have just witnessed creative genius on a grand public scale. This makes my day.

Later internet research tells me this is the work of Dutch designer Maarten Baas. It is one of his “Real Time” series. For his “performance,” Baas wears a blue overall and uses a red bucket and a yellow cleaning cloth all in solidarity with all those folk who keep the airport spotless.

Inevitably – and with only a little disappointment – I learn that this is a precisely synchronised 12 hour-long video performance projected within a stainless steel box. The ladder and door into the “clock” build an illusion of reality; the viewer is led to imagine the guy descending from a hatch in the ceiling and locking himself into the box to do his job.

I just love how Schiphol goes to such lengths to bring beautiful stuff to travel-weary passengers. Admirable! Fabulous! Thrilling!

Watch the video!