The Turner Prize short list is embarrassingly light on talent, says Waldemar Januszczak
Of course, some will rejoice at the news. They would be wrong to do so. The incontrovertible truth is that the Turner Prize has changed the relationship between the British public and modern art. Some would argue — me among them — that its success in capturing the nation’s attention and inflaming its appetite for modern art has led directly to the success of Tate Modern. At the very least, it has moved contemporary art from page 9 to page 1. Watching it expire so visibly ought not to please anyone who cares about the health of British contemporary art.
But there’s no arguing with the evidence of terminal decline provided here. The latest selection is the feeblest ever. It’s even less impressive then last year’s, which takes some achieving. The excitement has gone. The signature works of their times have gone. The sense that you are watching the A list in action has gone.
Most disappointingly of all, the umbilical cord that connects the Turner Prize to the year that spawns it has been stupidly severed. This is a show without lifeblood. It is not a true or telling report of significant developments in British art today.
So, what is it? Well, basically, it’s a particularly dull selection of the state-approved contemporary academicism that is nowadays championed by the Tate empire. A century ago, the exhibiting artists would have been called Bouguereau and Legros, rather than Liam Gillick or Fiona Banner, and, somewhere in Paris, covert impressionists would have been gathering in cafes to challenge this state-approved mediocrity.
Those whom the gods wish to silence, they first make respectable. The process was probably made irreversible the moment Nick Serota accepted a knighthood for his services to the Cool Britannia image makeover. You cannot simultaneously remain Sir Nicholas Serota and a convincing champion of modern art’s essential rebelliousness. Lackeys don’t make waves. Or, as Banner, one of the four short-listed artists, would put it — because she cannot spell, even though her work consists almost entirely of words — lackeys don’t make “waives”.
Banner is this exhibition’s token shock-seeker: having one in the mix has become a reliable element of the Turner Prize routine. Banner watches porn movies, then describes their action in detail, in long texts plastered around the walls. I suppose the idea is that the process of dipping in and out of her stream of concupiscence acts as an antidote to the brutal porn being recalled: seeing the dirty talk written up in big red letters shows it up for what it is.
But an artist who, in the most prominent of her porn texts, places a high-born member of society in a position more usually adopted by a plain member, by calling a “knob” a “nob”, cannot confidently be listened to on the subject of linguistic intercourse. Banner’s entire artistic game plan is, we are told, to explore “the seemingly limitless possibilities of language”, yet with the first sentence she writes — “Then everything goes waivy (sic)” — she waives her right to credibility.
Even if we forgive this illiteracy, the question surely remains: why would an artist wish to explore “the seemingly limitless possibilities of language”? Isn’t that a writer’s task? Alas, in the dreary polytechnic thinking that passes for artistic reasoning among such second-raters, there is a reliance on half-baked semiotic faux-theorising of the sort that went out of fashion in other creative disciplines 20 years ago. Watching it clinging on grimly in art-school circles is dispiriting.
The show’s worst culprit in this respect is the tragically boring Liam Gillick, who has built a false roof of multicoloured Perspex that is supposed to comment upon the impact of institutional spaces, and who also shows us a display cabinet filled with typography designs for assorted European clients, including the Norwegian state telephone company, Telenor. God preserve us from this pan-European logo bore.
The remaining two artists are better. Catherine Yass mines a similar institutional wasteland to Gillick, but is true to her feelings, rather than her textbooks. Her painfully slow filmed journey down a Canary Wharf tower, from the fog above to the building chaos below, is a ghostly descent into hell for the Docklands era. Keith Tyson, meanwhile, is a blunderbuss who mixes science, obfuscation, sculpture, paintings, installations, more texts, pictures and digital displays, and serves them all up simultaneously. There is modest pleasure to be had keeping track of the myriad events he lists happening at once in his tribute to chaos theory. Here, at least, is an enthusiastic mind at work.
But none of these four artists can be said to have had a forceful impact on contemporary art in the past year. Not under my nose, at least. So where have they had an impact? I see that Banner owes her appearance on the short list to a show at the Neuer Aachener Kunstverein, in Aachen; Yass is praised for her contribution to the Indian Triennial; Tyson for something at the Kunsthalle, Zurich. The selectors may be hoping to signal the healthy internationalism of contemporary art with these absurdly global citations, but all this really proves is that today’s curators are better at accumulating air miles than they are at noting the important developments that have taken place closer to home.
The past two years have been memorable for the achingly powerful memento mori of Sam Taylor-Wood, and Michael Landy’s fiercely radical dispersal of his possessions; for the dark and violent manoeuvres of Jake and Dinos Chapman, and the continuing distaff feistiness of Sarah Lucas. These are the A-list moments that ought to have animated the past two Turner Prizes. The fact that they have not proves that a culture of second-rateness has set in that is probably terminal.