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Don’t DicTate

Turner Prize 2002 Exhibition

30 October 2002 to 5 January 2003

Tate Britain

£3.50 admission

Reviewed by Manny Thain

‘CONCEPTUAL BULLSHIT’ was how this year’s Turner Prize exhibition was described by Kim Howells, New Labour’s culture minister. This at least guaranteed front-page coverage for Tate Britain’s annual prize which will be awarded on 8 December to one of four shortlisted Britain-based contemporary artists. His statement also ensured that news of a record £14bn deficit in Britain’s tourist industry, for which Howells has ministerial responsibility, went largely unreported. But, does he have a point?

Keith Tyson opens the show. He has clearly been busy over the past twelve months. Tyson is concerned with the big issues: who and what we are; the nature of the universe; and, what are we doing here?

There is a wall completely covered in paintings and drawings. These are his ‘research projects’. One is called, Collected Works 1900-1969 – Tyson was born in 1969. Another is called 28 September and features playing-card aces swirling in the air. That date was when the largest anti-war demonstration in British history took place, with 400,000 protesting against Bush and Blair’s plans to attack Iraq. Is the connection intentional or coincidental? Tyson thrives on that ambiguity.

Now Capacitor is a flashing electronic counter/mirror designed to keep counting for 75.6 years – the average lifespan of a human being. A monolithic hexagonal black tower is called The Thinker (after Rodin). Tyson calls it a ‘comatose God’. There’s a computer inside, we’re told – a powerful one. But the only hint of activity is two small LED lights on the top and a faint humming.

Bubble Chambers: 2 Discrete Molecules of Simultaneity is two similar paintings side by side. They depict molecular structure models with ‘speech bubbles’ describing two events on the same date, some historically significant, others mundane. Table Top Tales is a sprawling sculpture about the connection between chance and existence.

This is frenetic activity. Some of the pictures are graphically interesting and well executed. Tyson’s use of different media keeps it stimulating. It is a kind of pick’n mix of art, science and fantasy, conducted by some frenzied alchemist with a great sense of humour.

Once out of that riot of activity, the visitor plunges into a sublime environment. Liam Gillick could not be more of a contrast. There’s nothing on the walls, but the whole room is bathed in red, yellow, orange and blue light, and the colours they create, produced by a perspex and aluminium ceiling and a combination of natural and artificial light. It recalls the effect of stained glass windows in churches. Gillick uses colour and structure to alter and influence environment, using industrially produced materials, and repetitive, geometric forms.

Down the middle of the room are display cabinets showing other projects he has been involved in. There are designs for a new traffic system for the Porsche headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, tinted windows for a Florida airport, graphic design for a plastic bag.

He writes about what he does, theorising on modern architecture and design, making some very pertinent points along the way. Gillick says that it is the large corporations that are putting into practice modernist principles of architecture. He states that one of the main differences between their buildings and some of the high-rise housing blocks of the 1960s and 1970s – built to provide cheap, good-quality housing but often ending in soulless, alienating, depressing and downright dangerous environments – was that the latter were constrained by low budgets and bad management. Money was tight, corners were cut and the materials substandard.

The exhibition space is not conducive to getting across the nature of Gillick’s work. But he provides much food for thought.

Over a number of years Catherine Yass has worked on a technique of combining positive and negative photographic transparencies, displayed on lightboxes, to create colourful, rich and disorienting images. Some of her past photographs – of psychiatric hospitals, prison cells, kitchens and toilets – have a haunting feel about them. Still and eerie.

For this exhibition Yass has worked around the differing but connected themes of flying, falling and drifting. There are three photographs taken at different exposure times, the camera moving at 40 miles per hour. The results are blurred images of buildings. A still life of falling.

Flight is a film taken by a camera fixed to a remote-controlled helicopter. It’s a dizzy experience as rooftops and buildings tumble and circle into view, looming too close for comfort at times as the film loops round.

Descent, on the other hand, is a slow, measured, straight line of a film, taken from a camera as a crane descends from 800 feet to ground level. This was taken on a construction site in Canary Wharf, East London. It starts in thick fog and the images form only gradually as the descent progresses. Yass screens it upside down, so you ascend to the ground. As the visibility improves, the brain adjusts to the contradictory messages. It is a drifting feeling, quite relaxing. An antidote to the vertiginous Flight.

The fourth artist is Fiona Banner who concentrates on language: as a means of communication; as a way of understanding the world; but also how it sometimes fails to convey thought and emotion.

Arsewoman in Wonderland, a description of the action in a pornographic film of a similar name, is the piece that has provoked the media’s consternation this year. It is pasted in layers, like a billboard, bright pink in bold text. It is visually arresting and you look at it like you would a picture, not as text, catching glimpses of phrases. Banner has explained her mixed response to the film – attraction and repulsion. In trying to tackle social taboos, she found herself confronting her own.

This is not the first time Banner has done this type of work. In 1997 she produced a 1,000-page book, THE NAM, describing the action in films about the Vietnam war: Apocalypse Now, Born on the Fourth of July, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill and Platoon. The central point here was that her and many other people’s understanding of the conflict is informed by these films, these fictional works.

Nude, is a portrait in words, an attempt to portray a traditional life drawing, but in words – what Banner describes as a ‘wordscape’. The words are painted directly onto the wall. As the writing descends the lines and words begin to merge, becoming denser – an impression of gravity and the darkness of shadows.

This is a room full of puns. There are ‘punctuation sculptures’ in bronze painted black, which punctuate the gallery space. Forever n Ever is a silk screen print of punctuation. You know that feeling when you can’t find the words? In others, the writing’s on the wall.

I don’t agree with Kim Howells. Firstly, his comments do not accurately describe this exhibition, which shows a wide range of media: painting, sculpture, photography, film, writing and architecture. Secondly, his outburst implies that only figurative, naturalistic art is viable. Conceptual art, and much modern art, aims to engage the audience. People are encouraged to think about it and draw their own conclusions. The last person to dictate what is good or bad art is some establishment Big Brother politician.


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