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.

Northumberlandia

Northumberlandia 1

I have a meeting with a lady. She is, apparently, very beautiful. She is called Northumberlandia. Although we have not met before, I know I am about to become one more admirer. I drive a long way to our rendez-vous in Northumberland, England. The weather gods have served up the vilest of British weather for our first encounter. I emerge from a dripping beech forest and catch my first awe-inspiring side-view of her face and breasts. She takes no notice of the lashing wind and rain.

The full extent of her beauty is revealed when, later, I go on-line and find an aerial view taken in unimaginable sunshine.

Northumberlandia 2

Ol Batten’s award winning drone photo of Northumberlandia, 2015

Northumberlandia, seen from above or explored at ground level, has the air of some ancient pagan queen. She is immense. She exudes fertility. Her coy pose and raised right index finger indicate that she is at once inviting and admonishing. Her vital statistics are impressive. She is four years old. She is 400 metres frown crown to toe. Her nose is 40 metres above the ground. She weighs 1.5 million tonnes. Her features are drawn by six kilometres of sandstone paths. She is beautiful stuff on a grand scale. I am smitten.

This is one more dazzling project conceived by architect-sculptor Charles Jencks who took inspiration from the feminine forms of the distant Cheviot hills. Today, these hills are lost to view.

Northumberlandia 3

Big public sculpture doesn’t get better than this. The whole enterprise was sponsored by the BANKS Group. They run the adjacent Shotton surface coal mine from which the rock and clay for the construction were transported. DEFRA provided additional funds. The land was donated by the Blagdon Estate. The site is co-managed by the Land Trust and the Northumberland Wildlife Trust. It warms my heart that such co-operation is possible in the spirit of creativity and environmentally conscious development.

Northumberlandia 4

I stand atop her right breast. I can’t help thinking that the undulating green of her right hand could have been the work of Old Tom Morris.

I am alone. The wind blows harder. I struggle unsuccessfully to keep my camera dry. I decide to take cover in the visitor centre. I meet Wayne, Northumberlandia’s warden. Today, he has time to chat. Nice guy. He makes me a warming cup of coffee. He is justifiably proud of his charge. When the weather is fine, he tells me, the place is heaving. Last year saw 90,000 visitors. I buy a post card, say goodbye and trudge soddenly back to my car.  I am cold, wet, enthralled and enchanted. I am determined to see Northumberlandia again.

Fame and fortune in Vevey, Switzerland

Vevey 1

It’s said that, after Mickey Mouse, Charlie Chaplin‘s tramp is the world’s most recognisable character…… ever. I think it’s true; the little black and white figure with bowler hat, tiny moustache, tail coat and cane is everywhere in Asia and Africa. I guess this is because his fame came from the era of silent film; language wasn’t necessary to generate wide appeal.

Chaplin was barred from America in 1951 because the FBI believed he was communist. Vevey in Switzerland became domicile for him and his family. If you know where to look, you can even find his grave. It is something of a paradox that a statue in the memory of someone who identified with and highlighted the plight of the poor and oppressed can be found on the shores of Lac Leman in Vevey, Switzerland; just about the wealthiest little town in Europe.

Vevey 2

This is a much loved statue. The shabby-comic-sad air is captured. If it moved, there is no doubt the walk would be immediately recognisable. Note the left arm and shoulder burnished by thousands of hands; everyone wants their photo taken arm-in-arm with “Charlo.” Holding the flower-girl’s rose to his heart, he looks out onto the calm waters of the lake. Something seems to have caught his eye. Maybe he is reflecting on why Vevey is so wealthy?

Vevey 3

A massive eight metre stainless steel fork is embedded in the water’s surface. It is pristine, clean and intriguing. It is arresting for sure. This is the work of Jean-Pierre Zaugg. It is the lakeside showpiece of the Alimentarium; a food-discovery museum steeped in the history of one of Switzerland’s best known – and Vevey based – multinational corporations: Nestlé. I look at the fork. I take a photo or two. And yet, my enduring fascination with Chaplin’s genius inevitably draws my thoughts away from a celebration of food to the spaghetti scene in Chaplin’s “City Lights.”