This December, as in every December, the Tate Gallery in London will award the prestigious Turner Prize for the best contemporary artist in Britain. Despite various controversies over the years, the prize – which awards £25,000 – is still one of the most coveted in the art world; previous nominees have included Tracey Emin, Damian Hirst and Anthony Gormley. As the semester goes on and the awards approach, I will a rundown this year’s nominees: Duncan Campbell, Ciara Phillips, James Richards and Tris Vonna-Michell. However, for now I would like to have look at some my favourite Turner Prize winners from the last few years, in the process exploring the role art can play not just in the gallery, but in the streets and in politics.
House by Rachel Whiteread:
by Matthew C When a row of Victorian terraces in East London was sentenced to demolition, artist Rachel Whiteread took a temporary lease out on the land upon which one of the houses stood. From this she produced a cast of the entire internal space of the house and then removed the outside. This was to be a monument – not to the architect or the town planner who was responsible for the outer appearance of the house – but to the internal space of the house and to the ordinary people who lived in it and, because of the reorganisation of the East End, had to be removed from their homes.House was met with rave reviews and soon this temporary structure became a visitor attraction and the subject of the petition to make it a permanent fixture. Some, however, took a different opinion; the head of the local council naming it a ‘monstrosity’ and one piece of graffiti on the piece begged the question “WOT FOR?”. A particularly witty response left underneath read, “WHY NOT?”. Sadly, the local council confirmed during the Turner Prize award ceremony that House would be destroyed. Demolished in 1994, nothing remains of House, a somewhat fitting addition to the social message of Whiteread’s original piece.
State Britain by Mark Wallinger:
by Loz Flowers
A further irony adding to the piece’s attack on authority is the fact that an exclusion zone prohibiting unauthorised protest within a kilometre of Parliament Square – something Haw himself was no doubt well aware of – runs straight through the Tate Gallery and bisected State Britain; Wallinger marked this intersection with a black line on the floor of the Tate. This was a final snub against the government and, I think, a final act of defiance in the spirit of Brian Haw.
Lowlands by Susan Phillipsz:
Susan Philipsz’ sound installation of her singing three versions of an old Scottish lament, performed under three bridges in central Glasgow, was the first sound art project to win the prestigious prize. The beautiful singing that echoes under these bridges is, in my opinion, a fantastic change to the art world standard as it successfully stands sound pieces alongside painting and sculpture as a serious art form. However, not everyone agrees; the Stuckist movement issued a statement of protest against the choice, stating that Lowlands was music and not art.
During the Turner Prize award ceremony, a student sit-in against tuition fee increases was held in the main gallery at the Tate and could be heard throughout the ceremony. Philipsz’ declaration of opposition to recent cuts in the arts brings a social conscience to the artist which further contextualises her installation. By using the old traditional folk music of Scotland and the bridges – the underground areas of Glasgow – she draws parallels between the disenfranchised of Scotland’s past with the social issues of Scotland’s present, while simultaneously raising the bridges of Clydeside to the reverence afforded to an art gallery. In doing this, Philipsz creates not only music, but also a celebration of Scotland’s working class heritage.
The Turner Prize has often been criticised for being overly conceptual and ‘wishy-washy’, but these three winners show that the contemporary art scene still can lend a voice to political and social issues that affect normal people on the street.