I was surprised to read that the winner of this year's Turner Prize, Laure Provost was the rank outsider. 'Rank outsider' is a pretty serious term. It meant she had no chance at all. Wonder why?
The other short-listed works were brilliant: Lynette Yiadom-Baokye's portraits (yes, a painter was shortlisted. The complaint that painting isn't ever nominated for a prize named after a painter is an old one. Her work is in the style of the French 19th Century heroic painter David; big, emotional works that she completes in one day. You stand, you stare at them in awe, not only for the artist's passion and artistry, but because of the bigness of her heart and soul.
David Shrigley's sculpture is so playfully controversial that some schoolchildren were steered through a special door away from it and onto the next gallery. That's because his naked male figure is urinating - loudly - in a bucket. And you can sit there and draw any part of his anatomy that you wish. Shrigley makes you engage with not only your own priggishness, but your own inability to sit still long enough to have the contemplation it takes to study a work and re-make it in your own way. The gallery where the sculpture is located is decorated with the attempts of spectators to capture the work. The subsequent drawings are funny, touching, thoughtful, inept, all of the stuff that amateurs do.
Tino Sehghal - the favourite - does not allow any of his work to be filmed and you can see why. Because it happens inside of you. It is you. I will never forget the four elderly gentleman arguing at the top of their lungs on the subject of "what's it all about?" They almost came to blows at the exit. After all, they'd just moved through a completely empty gallery where an actor in the role of gallery guide walks up to you to engage in a conversation about capitalism and its insidious effects on the world. If you agree to engage - no matter what your point of view on the subject is- you can then collect a few pounds at the exit desk. About 7,000 quid has paid been out so far. Most people do the conversation in order to collect the money. That's the point. There are people who will do anything - no matter how banal-for money. It makes you stop and think and it is profound.
But it is Prouvost's work which is unforgettable.
You enter it the way you enter a prehistoric cave. There is a sharp, black momentary darkness where suddenly, you hear a film playing. It is the French-accented voice of the artist herself, telling us the story of her lost grandfather. There are things in the space: dusty, disorderly tea pots and tables, all a bit like Miss Haversham's room in Great Expectations. But you are mesemerized by the story itself: where is the grandfather? Is he dead or alive? Is he even real? And what are these objects around us: tea pots, plates... half-made. Strange.
At once you know that you are in the presence of a great story-teller. It's like the very best story-time you ever had at school, when you sat there, utterly mesmerized as a great teacher acted out all of the voices and you saw it all in your mind's eye and you never, ever forgot .
There are the usual nay-sayers about the Prize itself and about what's called "conceptual art". How can an unmade bed, a sheep pickled in formaldehyde, a light switch be art? We can do that stuff ourselves, can't we? No, we can't. That's the first reason for the prize - it makes you confront the everyday, put yourself up against an artist and judge. Nobody can be a Rembrandt, but can you be a Tracey Emin? That is the question, and it is an important one. Because if we just confine art and culture to the museum - something Michael Gove wants to do with education, for example, roll it back to the past - then we lose. Then the nation becomes in danger of what the Chinese newspapers are calling the UK - "just a small island, nice to visit".
The Turner Prize is important because it keeps the art world, the cultural scene awake. Yes. its atmosphere can be too full of art 'luvvies' and 'mavens' and the 'usual suspects' but they're easier to get rid of than the idea - and need - that art and culture matter. They do. They are what we are.
What Laure Prouvost's installation entitled: 'Wantee' (punters put a sum total of £22 on her chances of winning, according to Ladbrokes ) demonstrates, too, is that big, bad Mighty London with its critics/punters/experts/buyers doesn't always get it right. Seeing this work in Derry/Londonderry, at what was actually a pop-up gallery located in a former army barracks (the culture secretary was "too busy" to visit, but what a gesture that would have been!) made this work - the entire show - even more powerful.
The genius of the great JMW Turner was acknowledged early in his life, and the prize is given to a young/youngish artist. As it should be. And it is a French woman, long resident in Britain, who sheds some light on the national story. With her tea cups and saucers and pots, woven through her imagination, it is her foreign eye that expands the vista.
So perhaps we need art, challenging art, because - for a moment - it pins down our restless, nomadic species. Art might be a method that we humans have evolved to bind together our wandering, elusive selves .
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