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Forum: Is the Turner Prize still relevant at 30?

The Turner Prize turns 30 this year – but does it continue to represent the best of contemporary British art?

Turner Prize 2014 Image courtesy Tate photography. © The artist

The Turner Prize turns 30 this year. Historically, it may well have opened up contemporary art to a new audience – and encouraged debate through a series of controversial nominations – but does it continue to represent the best of British contemporary art?

YES: Declan Long

After 30 years of its turbulent life, how should we define the ‘relevance’ of the Turner Prize? ‘Relevant’ to whom, and for what reasons? During its history, there have been competing claims for the significance of its nominations and awards. Fogeyish veneration of established figures dominated in the 1980s, in a way that probably didn’t matter much to younger artists. Later winners have sometimes been seen as either relevant to art world insiders, or to wider opinion: was it more important that Grayson Perry won over Willie Doherty in 2003, or Keith Tyson over Liam Gillick in 2002? Perceptions of relevance depend on where you’re standing.

On 22 October 2013, the day the Turner exhibition opened in Derry – the first time it had been staged outside England – the prize certainly seemed relevant. More than that, even, it was a reason for out-of-the-ordinary jubilation and optimism, above and beyond customary art world celebrations. Walking across the city’s recently-built Peace Bridge towards the Turner’s base at Ebrington – a former military barracks that had been specially transformed to accommodate brand new museum-standard galleries – there was a stirring, collective sense among those attending that opening up such spaces for culture genuinely mattered. For years the Ebrington buildings had been hidden behind high fences and barbed wire, and so the launch of the Turner Prize show on the site was a landmark moment in the regeneration of this part of Derry as a shared public amenity. In the context of the UK City of Culture award – of which Derry was the inaugural winner – the Turner was therefore powerfully relevant as a source of potential civic pride and cultural debate. It promised fresh conversations about the role of art and culture in the city – and, prompted by the wonderfully strange perspectives of the selected artists, about much more besides.

The Derry staging of the Turner Prize naturally triggers other unavoidable thoughts about the enduring, or indeed transforming relevance of the prize. This is the major prize for British art, and so to host it in long-‘troubled’ Derry (or Derry/Londonderry as the city officially became known in UK City of Culture parlance) was a radical shift. Perhaps a city with two names, expressing different national affiliations, is an ideal place to examine the meaning and relevance of ‘Britishness’ in art today. And, in fact, the very different backgrounds of the artists selected for the 2013 prize, along with the distinctive personalities of their art, together formed a remarkable group snapshot of ‘British art’ at the present time. There was Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, an artist with a Ghanaian family background who creates beautiful, entrancing paintings of imaginary characters – and whose works in part respond to the historical representation of African people in European art. There was also Tino Sehgal, an internationally prominent artist born in London, but brought up abroad and now based in Berlin. Sehgal’s carefully choreographed ‘constructed situations’, with their live encounters between performers and the public, thrive on new connections between people, on accumulating moments of conversation.

The winner of the prize, Laure Prouvost, was born in France but based for some years in London. Her work in the exhibition dealt with histories, real and fictional, relating to the later life of the German artist Kurt Schwitters in the north of England. Prouvost is wonderfully, unmistakably French, and her work merges subjects from a challenging diversity of cultural sources: such enlivening pluralism surely helps to make this a ‘British’ prize, which corresponds to the complex composition of art as it is developed in, and in relation to contemporary British society.

Worth noting too is that the final shortlisted artist from 2013, David Shrigley, is from Macclesfield but has made his career within the thriving Glasgow art scene. Next year, when the Turner Prize moves to the Tramway arts centre in Glasgow, there will be another chance to scrutinse what we mean by ‘British art’. Given the tensions and excitements of the recent Scottish independence referendum, a gathering in Glasgow of ‘new developments in British art’ will have additional resonance. Relevant too, of course, is the major impact that Scottish artists have had on the Turner Prize. Six artists from, or based in, Scotland have won the prize, and 17 more have been nominated. Among this year’s crop of Turner Prize nominees, three have studied at the Glasgow School of Art (Duncan Campbell, Ciara Phillips and Tris Vonna-Michell), once again emphasising Scottish art’s strong identity and impact over recent decades. At the exhibition at Tate Britain this year, there is an implicit recognition of the far-reaching relevance of an art scene such as that of Glasgow. Through such accurate and important perspectives on contemporary art – and from productively shifting positions – the Turner ensures its own continuing relevance.

Declan Long was a member of the judging panel for the Turner Prize in 2013.

NO: Laura Gascoigne

If the Turner Prize is relevant, it must be relevant to something. The question, after 30 years, is what? Since the Tate Patrons of New Art launched the inaugural prize in 1984, the contemporary art scene in Britain has changed beyond recognition. For this the Turner Prize can take much of the credit. When it set out to convert the great British public to contemporary art, the majority of gallery-goers in Britain still thought of visual art as representational painting or sculpture. The Turner set out with high hopes, an untapped talent pool and the suave assurance of Tate director Alan Bowness that ‘a bit of Miss World type show business excitement seems to me no bad thing’. In 1991 the excitement mounted when an upper age limit of 50 was introduced and a sponsorship deal was cut with Channel 4. The Turner Prize became a celebrity vehicle. 

But media attention, as Miss Worlds discover, has its downside. Fuelled by controversies stoked by a willing press, attendance figures for the exhibition initially grew, peaking at 133,000 in 1999 – the year of Tracey Emin’s shortlisting for My Bed – then dropping to 70,000 the year after, when the prize went to the unsensational Wolfgang Tillmans. Grayson Perry’s win in 2003 coincided with another peak of 101,000 visitors. When Perry joked in his acceptance speech, ‘it’s about time a transvestite potter won the Turner Prize,’ the Tate press office must have heartily concurred.

But novelty acts don’t come along every year. Over the past decade attendance figures have flatlined, if you discount the record audience of 150,000, attracted in 2011 by the prize’s temporary relocation to Gateshead. A fundamental problem with the Turner format is that supplies of exceptional artists are not unlimited – a rate of four a year for 30 years would have exhausted the resources of the Italian Renaissance. And opening the competition to foreign-born artists working in Britain has only meant that nominees have become increasingly obscure. Public interest is inevitably flagging. The first win by a video artist – Douglas Gordon in 1996 – caused a stir; the first nomination of a performance artist, Spartacus Chetwynd, in 2012 passed almost unnoticed. This year’s London Evening Standard headline characterising Tris Vonna-Michell as an ‘Essex wideboy’ because he comes from Southend smacks of media desperation.

The 2014 shortlist is a hard sell. Vonna-Michell, James Richards and Duncan Campbell all work with film and two of them use slide projectors, making their work stylistically similar. But this year’s prize is not about style or even content: the artists were selected, says chair of the jury Penelope Curtis, for ‘their strong international presence and an ability to adapt, restage and reinterpret their own and others’ works’. With the exception of the screenprints of Ciara Phillips, the work refers to previous artists, writers and philosophers. It’s art about art. In a short film outside the exhibition entrance, Nicholas Serota argues that the Turner Prize’s great achievement is that ‘it’s given people the opportunity to disagree with each other and form a view’. When I visited, audience comments pinned to the board opposite showed evidence less of disagreement than disengagement: ‘Well this board is really interesting,’ one read.

On day four there was a scattering of visitors in each gallery, most of them quite obviously art students. So who is the Turner Prize now relevant to? Is it an outward-facing exhibition for a general public or an inward-looking competition for art-world insiders? For the answer, check out the composition of the jury. The 1984 panel included three museum directors – two British and one foreign – a Patron of New Art and a newspaper critic. This year’s judges are all curators or gallery directors – three British and two foreign. The jury used to be leavened by amateurs, now it is solidly professional. And another thing. Although this year’s four finalists are all British-born, two were nominated on the basis of exhibitions at last year’s Venice Biennale. Turner Prize winners used to go on to represent Britain in Venice; now Venice anoints British candidates for the Turner Prize.

Like so much else in the contemporary art world, our national contemporary art prize is being decided by an international curatoriat reflecting the narrow tastes of an ersatz avant-garde which, in the words of Grayson Perry, is ‘talking to itself’. No wonder the public feels excluded from the conversation. The Turner Prize opened up contemporary art to a general audience. If it wants to keep its relevance to that audience, it needs to open up its selection process.

Laura Gascoigne is a writer and art critic.

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