Where the Real Art Lies: The Winner of the 2008 Turner Prize Is Due to Be Announced Imminently, but Tim Adams Finds That the Tate's Catalogue Writers Are the Stars in This Competition
Adams, Tim, New Statesman (1996)
The newspaper stand outside Tate Britain announced "50,000 estate agents to lose jobs". My immediate thought was: imagine the loss to the nation of all that euphemism. In this age of transferable skills, in what other field could you employ a gift for making the pinched and poky "cosy" and "charming", or for selling the gutted and derelict as space with "scope for an imaginative buyer"? How else could you utilise the ability to keep a straight face while describing a flat on a flight path as "convenient for the airport"? Then, as I entered the gallery, one possible opening for the legion unemployed property consultants immediately became apparent: writing catalogues for the nation's emerging conceptual artists. Those flogging the merits of the Turner Prize hopefuls, as ever, set the standard.
In recent years the emperor's new prize has thrown up some inspired hyperbole, but in advance of the winner being announced, this year's crop of blurbs has already raised the bar. Given that the visual merit of the work of the four contenders for the prize itself may have been immediately apparent, particularly not to the casual viewer fresh from the Francis Bacon retrospective upstairs, the short introductions printed on the gallery walls have become essential reading. It is here that the real art lies.
Each description has its surreal merits. It would be easy to imagine that the Polish wannabe curator Goshka Macuga simply chose two artists from the Tate's archive and cut and pasted their work together in moderately surprising collages. The two artists she has chosen are the sometime lovers Paul Nash and Eileen Agar, which gives the work a vague romance (she does the same trick with Mies van der Rohe and his partner Lilly Reich, too, in a more sculptural way). But to appraise the display in this way would be to miss what is really going on here, and enlightenment dawns only after consulation with the blurbist's introduction. In this light, Macuga's "interpretation of these relationships shapes a countercultural theme in the history of modernism based on spiritual affinities, intimacy and intuitive understandings". In other words, she puts one thing next to another--a swooning beauty on a bomb site, a shadowy figure on a pathway--and plays modest games with the results.
In the adjacent room, changing the tone abruptly, Cathy Wilkes exhibits a pair of unmanned supermarket checkout conveyor belts. Next to one is a naked mannequin on a lavatory, adorned with wedding horseshoes and rose-petal confetti. Next to the other is an identical dummy, slumped and draped with dirty towels beside an empty baby buggy. The belts are lined with unwashed cereal bowls; there is a disconnected cooker, a stash of empty Bonne Maman jam jars, various spent batteries and piles of roof tiles. It is not essential to have a GCSE in sociology to deduce that this is a clunky allegory of the more dubious charms of domesticity.
Read the small print, however, and you find that what you are in the presence of is something rather more significant. "Wilkes's installations apprehend an end point in our understanding of things as they are--a point at which words become insufficient and the naming of objects is disconnected from our experience of them" (that is to say, "I can't think of any way of describing this"). And that is not all. "These precisely placed constellations of ready mades, sculptures, found objects and manipulated images form an uncompromising questioning of the self, and a constant desire to move beyond what is known."
That particular constant desire is also what takes you as swiftly as possible to the next room to view the three films that the Bangladeshi-born artist Runa Islam has made as her entry for the [pound sterling]25,000 top prize. …