Art: Does the Turner prize annoy you? It should

    Contemporary artists must not hold back from dealing with contentious issues, says Waldemar Januszczak

    What seems to have got all these goats is not just the fact that the four artists on show all work in video at some point in their display, but the tone and thrust of their video pieces. It’s true: there is something mildly Newsnighty about the tenor of much of the work. Jeremy Deller goes to Texas and finds out what Dubya eats at the fast-food outlet near his ranch (cheese- burgers with fries). Langlands & Bell enter Afghanistan to find the house of Osama Bin Laden. Kutlug Ataman interviews a gang of reincarnationists who live on the border of Turkey and Syria, and learns what it’s like to live twice, while Yinka Shonibare explores the problematics of African identity by visiting 18th-century Stock- holm and watching the Swedish king dancing backwards at a masked ball while togged up in African fabrics.

    This, therefore, is a Turner prize that’s keen to shove its thermometer up the global agenda. The show’s central stretches, where the search for Bin Laden continues and the eerie confessions of the Syrian reincarnationists are heard, have a parched and Middle Eastern mood to them. The dangerous religious mutterings of our times are being listened to. But before we get in there and savour these overhearings in detail, let us first launch a fatwa of our own against the ludicrous and ignorant opinion that art should not meddle in the news; that artists should not be documentarists; that contemporary politics is not art’s domain.

    Actually, art has always meddled in the news. It’s traditional. When Trajan commanded that his great column in Rome be carved with scenes from the campaign against the Dacians, was he somehow avoiding contemporary politics? When Hogarth recorded the ups and downs of the Harlot’s Progress, or Daumier lamented the plight of the Parisian washerwoman, were they failing to be proper artists? When Raphael painted the Coronation of Charlemagne on the walls of the Vatican stanzas, was he being unartistic? Hardly. Social and political concerns have always formed a huge part of art’s domain. By focusing on such issues so fiercely, the latest Turner prize is merely being old-fashioned.

    The first combatant here is Deller:

    London-born, Courtauld-trained and in a perfect position, therefore, to know what art should and shouldn’t be. Deller’s room is busy with videos, photos, texts and stickers, all of which record the artist’s sneaky observations of the way we are. Memory Bucket, as Deller’s Texas video is entitled, homes in on the religious and nationalistic confusions that make contemporary America so utterly terrifying. The opening chunks of the video deal with the horrible events in Waco in 1993, which resulted in 86 members of a religious cult called the Branch Davidians being torched to death in their Texan headquarters when the FBI sent in helicopters and tanks. “Apocalyptic” is indeed the word that springs to mind at the sight of Waco burning crazily in Deller’s video. For the first time in this parade, but not the last, I found myself noting the obvious truth that fundamental Christianity and funda- mental Islam are different coats cut from the same cloth.

    Of course, in Trajan’s time, the FBI campaign against the Branch Davidians in Waco might have been recorded in the Forum by a carved stone frieze spiralling up a column. Yet, since Deller’s story line takes him next to the local burger restaurant in Crawford, where George W Bush is a regular visitor and where the presidential choice of fillings is the subject of keen photographic memorialisation on the rest- aurant walls, video is surely a more appropriate medium. It’s a case of matching banality to banality. Besides, the burger restaurant is only one storey high, and a carved column would have stuck out through the roof.

    Ataman was born in Istanbul in 1961. His extraordinary contribution consists of six screens scattered about a darkened room, on which six Arab monologists, of striking ordinariness — one works in a garage, another sits on a beige sofa in front of the television — tell us what it is like to be reincarnated. One bloke has stopped visiting his own grave because his wife didn’t like it. Another tracked down his former family, and now his old family and his new one are friends.

    Because there are six speakers, the piece is called Twelve.

    All these monologists are members of an Arab community that survives on the Syrian border and clings to an utterly baffling set of reincarnationist beliefs. It is the banal tone of their video confessions that gives the work its charge. Here are matters of immense religious complexity being discussed with complete matter-of-factness by garage mechanics and shop hands. “You don’t know if you should talk to your kids like a father or a friend. We are the same age,” worries a particularly alarmed returnee. It’s like hearing the eschatological implications of the Prophecy of the Seven Seals being discussed on London Tonight.

    Langlands & Bell keep us in the Middle East, which is rather surprising. They are two people who make art as one, a couple who look the same and dress the same, in what I imagine to be a deliberate attempt to submerge their individual personalities. Their thing is to look robotic. Think of Gary Numan in his Cars era. So, sending these two to the dusty, goat-beaten, bombed- out interior of Afghanistan to bond with the local gun-toters and interrogate the warlords-in-waiting was, you would have thought, an act of cruelty by the Imperial War Museum, which commissioned the trip in October 2002. Surely Langlands & Bell could not survive this far from a place that starches shirts? My fears turned out to be unworthy.

    Langlands & Bell have returned from Afghanistan with a beautiful and original set of observations. Their opening works are based on the names of various org- anisations that sped off to Afghanistan when hostilities commenced and have now filled the country with an alphabet soup of portentous acronyms: CIC, ALA, USAid, UNHCR. There are thousands of them, each as meaningless as the other, and all existing as nothing more tangible than a sign by a road. The reality of Afghanistan and the unreality of the huge array of slick western logos now littered about the place is surely what Langlands & Bell are seeking to contrast.

    They have also made a hilarious piece about the real house in Afghanistan that Osama Bin Laden lived in, which they managed to track down and visit. Using the same virtual technology that archi- tects employ so flashily these days to bring their schemes to life, the dapper Langlands & Bell have created a frustrating digital tour of Bin Laden’s house and grounds that allows you to explore the various corners of his compound with much energetic steering of a joystick. Thus, a technology that is usually used to imagine unfeasibly tall towers and huge, glassy foyers leads you here across the mud of some thatched outbuildings and into a sequence of grim concrete bedrooms. It’s a superb piece, reminiscent in tone of those US air-force videos from the Afghan war of stealth bombers tracking camels.

    In a show that was so reliably about important things, I found myself dis- appointed by the ornate contribution by Shonibare. As always, he seeks to make his points with fabrics. Fragonard’s famously teasy painting of The Swing is re-created with the addition of a tribal peekaboo dress. A long video set in the court of the Swedish king Gustav III shows his majesty bouncing about in an outfit of loud African prints on the night of his assassination at a masked ball in 1792. The king does much of his dancing backwards, and the piece is certainly startling. But it lacks the heft of the other works in the show and feels camp in this company.

    This is still an excellent Turner prize selection — one of the best I’ve seen. The award should go to Deller, for holding up such a pin-sharp mirror to the poor cut of our times.