Turn, Turn, Turn: Martin Herbert on the 2004 Turner Prize

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"EVERYBODY GETS A TURN. THAT'S WHY IT'S called the Turner Prize," quipped Dinos Chapman to Time Out (London) last year, when he and his brother Jake were nominated for the UK's most prestigious art award. There may be no love lost between the Chapmans and the Turner jury's chairman, Tate director Nicholas Serota (it's been widely bruited that the brothers' public Tate baiting cost them the prize), but here's one thing they can agree on: Everybody does get a turn. OK, not everybody--no doubt veteran protesters the Stuckists will once again camp out on Tate Britain's steps during the show's run, wailing that there are no proper figurative painters amid the short list of Kutlug Ataman, Jeremy Deller, Langlands & Bell, and Yinka Shonibare--but this year in particular the jurors (including curators Catherine David and David Thorp and British art critic Adrian Searle) appear mostly concerned with offering palliative nods of recognition to known quantities who have previously, and in some cases inexplicably, been overlooked.

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Which is, you know, nice. And the booty has doubled, rising to [pounds sterling]40,000 (about $73,000) under the terms of a three-year sponsorship deal with Gordon's gin. Given that none of the contenders are spring chickens--at forty-eight, Ben Langlands is almost twice the age of some previous nominees--perhaps that's only fitting. As may be the fact that, in the year that many commentators pronounced the death of Young British Art over the smoldering ashes of the Momart warehouse fire that torched several key YBA works in May, the short list predominantly privileges tenacity over velocity. You can almost hear Simon & Garfunkel harmonizing over the televised award ceremony's opening credits: "Slow down, you move too fast ..."

Forget about feelin' groovy, though, for insofar as the Turner Prize takes the temperature of contemporary British art, this year's edition finds a serious fixation with capitalized essences: History, Power, Identity. Shonibare's work, with its programmatic deployment of bright, African-style printed fabrics (tailored into neo-Regency formal wear and wrapped around mannequins, stretched as the support for thickly impastoed pattern-based paintings, or adorning the artist's own body in his 1998 photographic series "Diary of a Victorian Dandy"), is only superficially a sunburst. The textiles he uses--industrially produced by the Dutch from Indonesian designs and bought from market stalls in Brixton, South London, where their filtered ethnicity appeals to the area's migrated West African community--are freighted with postcolonial concerns, and the playful energies his art releases rely on its background context of colonial restraint.

If Shonibare has contentedly consolidated his approach for several years, Langlands & Bell arguably deserve their nomination for ringing some changes on a practice that had long seemed inflexible. …