The Turner Prize 1997: Gillian Wearing, Cornelia Parker, Angela Bulloch, Christine Borland
This essay reflects on the Turner Prize 1997 on the basis of a viewing of a Channel 4 one hour documentary screened on the night of the Prize award (2 December 1997) and a half day visit to the Prize exhibition at the Tate Gallery, London
Bussel, David 1997 'Angela Bulloch' Frieze, June-August issue.
Button, Virginia 1997 The Turner Prize 1997 (Gallery catalogue) Tate Gallery Publishing Ltd.
1997; previously unpublished
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Philosophers characteristically like to distinguish things where they feel there has been conflation and muddle. Philosophy is a practice of discrimination. The 1997 Turner Prize exhibition of the work of four artists shortlisted for the £20000 annually-awarded Prize might have been constructed just to give philosophers some practice. It is a dreadful muddle.
There are a number of simple questions which can be sorted out and posed at the outset:
(1) Does the work in the exhibition merit being displayedin the Tate (as opposed to Anytown Museum and Art Gallery)? This is a question about whether the work is arguably the best of its kind, with the notion of 'Anytown' being that of a place able only to command the worthy and only by accident find itself host to the exceptional.
(2) Does the work belong in an art gallery (as opposed to some other kind of venue, like a cinema or a concert hall)? This is a question about what kind of work the work is, and what presuppositions are best brought to its viewing.
(3) Does the work belong anywhere? This is a question framed in relation to the response that what is on display at the Tate is (by and large) a lot of rubbish.
I'll make a start with question 2, and first of all in relation to the work of the 1997 Turner Prize winner, Gillian Wearing who works mainly in video. Her Tate display comprised two separate works continuously screened in two separate darkened spaces, but without seating and without sound insulation. A short piece, runnning for some twenty minutes, is called Sacha and Mum and is described as a work in 'Video and Sound' . It is without titles or credits, and the exhibition catalogue says of it that ' shows intimacies between a mother and daughter at home. But their embraces become struggles, the mother using a towel to mask and restrain the younger woman, clad only in bra and pants. Wearing has choreographed their movements, and by running the stark black and white film backwards, creates a disquieting scenario in which horseplay turns into coercion, bordering on violence' (Button 1997, unpaginated). So Sacha and Mum could be read as coded for S and M.
A longer piece, running for sixty minutes, is entitled 60 Minutes Silence and is described as a 'Video Projection in colour and sound'. It shows actors dressed as police officers, posed as for a group photograph, and instructed to stand motionless for sixty minutes while the unmoving camera is trained on them. They can't hold their poses, and at the end of the hour there is deafening sound as at least one actor roars with relief at his release. (At the same time, Sacha and Mum are making continuous noises off in the next screening booth).
If these works were screened as time based works in a conventional cinema space, we would react and question according to that context. Does the work hold our attention for its duration? Was it any good? Is the absence of titling and credits interesting (with its suggestion of Home Video)? Is this absence actually appropriate for works which run on a continuous loop and can apparently be entered for viewing at any point in their running time? What use does the artist make of the camera (in Sacha and Mum it is moved about; in 60 Minutes it is fixed). And so on.
Shown at the Tate some of these questions are occluded. I watched all of Sacha and Mum, in some discomfort, sitting on the floor. It was a perfectly watchable piece, though 'watchable' at the voyeuristic end of the spectrum. Had a male student made the piece on the MA programme on which I teach, I reckon some of our female students would have called it 'pornographic'. But while I watched it, around half the audience came and went. They didn't see the complete work. I also watched nineteen minutes of 60 Minutes, also sitting on the floor. This was seventeen minutes longer than anyone else who wandered in and out during that period of time.
In a cinema space, that would spell Disaster: if the audience doesn't last out the piece, the piece is no good. In the Tate, it would cause a logjam in the exhibition if everyone did stay to watch. But what is atually happening, and appears to be all that is expected and required, is that visitors to the exhibition pop in for a couple of minutes and get the general idea of what Wearing is up to - it's a piece about people being asked to stand still and not being able to do it. Oh yeah. Move on.
But this is a highly unusual relation to a time based piece: we don't reckon to leave a performance of Romeo and Juliet as play or film when we've got the general idea of what it's about; we don't leave a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony when we've got a general idea of the musical material it is deploying. You don't experience a work as a work of art and you don't experience it aesthetically if you merely sample it.Sampling is an intellectual relation to the work - you accumulate knowledge about the work by means of sampling; you don't experience the work itself. Does Wearing want us to experience the work itself? If so, she needs to think about seating and sound insulation. She needs a cinema space, not the Tate.
One possible response to this is to say that 60 Minutes is not a time based piece of work: the exhibition catalogue describes it as 'like a living sculpture' and, but for economic considerations, it would indeed be possible to employ actors to stand still in a gallery for sixty minutes at a time. You would pay them on an hourly basis and they would work in shifts. It's been done for smaller scale works. But it would be fatal for Gillian Wearing to say she resorted to video because of economic constraints. Though we reckon that the place of sculpture is in the art gallery, including the Tate Gallery, Wearing can't say that her work is ersatz sculpture. Her work then disqualifies itself as video . She got her prize as a video artist.
Even if one tries to remove the notion of time-based art, problems still remain. For example, the novel is not often classified as a time-based work, for though it is read (experienced) in real time, one can pick up and put down a novel ad libitum. But there is a big difference between novels we have finished reading and novels we haven't. Nor have we read a novel when we've read a synopsis of a novel: that way we can get to know what War and Peace or Finnegan's Wake is about (we get a general idea); but we haven't read them. And if we are reading synopses because the novel is unreadable, or not worth prioritising in our busy lives, then that is a fairly damning criticism of the novel. If 60 Minutes isn't worth sixty minutes of our time, even on a put-down and pick -up basis, it's not worth the Turner Prize. Our New Labour Commissar for Culture, Chris Smith, awarding the Prize to Gillian Wearing invoked the crowds at the Tate Gallery as evidence for the importance of the Turner Prize exhibition. Yes, but they are actually voting with their feet, day in and day out: they are giving 60 Minutestwo minutes, deux points and not soixante points.
There is by now a considerable history of long and boring films and videos which everyone has heard about and no one has watched from beginning to end: it began in the sixties with Andy Warhol (Remember The Empire State Building). Quite a few people will watch Sacha and Mum from end to end; very few will watch 60 Minutes. If they do not need to - if all that Gillian Wearing, the Tate, the Turner Prize jury want and expect of us is that we should drop in on the work to see what she gets up to - and indeed this is all the gallery space can cope with - that is a disastrous position to adopt. In the eighteenth century, people on Sundays dropped in on Bedlam; that did not make them psychiatrists.
One could, of course, now develop a theory of Drop In Art (let's call it Drart) Much television programming has drop-in possibilities: you can join and leave at any point. The programming is only apparently time based. So a direct question to Gillian Wearing is to ask whether she sees herself as producing Art or Drart. And, in my view, any attempt to sustain a conception of Drart will inevitably have to downgrade or eliminate the notion of aesthetic and artistic experience, since these notions are intrinsically connected to the notion of giving a work due attention over due time.
Let's now try another question and another artist.
I'll pair question 3 with Cornelia Parker who was represented numerically by more works in the Prize show than any of the other finalists. But these works, on inspection, prove to be very disparate and some of them are not in any obvious sense 'Works' at all.
The centre piece of Parker's show is titled Mass (Colder, Darker Matter) and is (oddly) described as a 'Drawing made with charcoal retrieved from a church struck by lightning , Lytle, Texas'. It is actually a suspended installation occupying a square cube of space about four metres on each side and consisting of pieces of charcoal suspended on threads or wires (about thirty rows in each direction) and so organised that the charcoal is denser at the centre than at the periphery. It is lit from above. It is a very striking piece. It would be effective as an installation in a church, or a fire station, and is perfectly acceptable as an orthodox work in an art gallery. I liked it, and am happy to find it in the Tate. I have no problems with it, other than the one created by Parker's insistence on the provenance of her material - a recurrent aspect of her work. So the charcoal came from a burnt out church. So what? It would not diminish the work as a gallery piece that the charcoal was assigned no provenance at all. Equally, were the piece to be located in the rebuilt Baptist church at Lytle, Texas, it would be meaningful ( have an intelligible purpose) that it should be tied to that specific site through its use of charcoal from the burnt out church. The title is a bit unfortunate - Baptists don't go in for Masses - but the provenance of the charcoal would function as a kind of memento mori in the context of a reparative act. In the same way, after the 1987 Hurricane, which devastated parts of southern England, I suggested to my local Parish Council that it put aside some fallen oak trees and in due course use the wood to make benches for the village green. This has now been done.
But Mass isn't presented as a site-specific piece; it is free-standing. It's there for you and I to look at. And the concern with material provenance serves as an index or symptom of an obsessive, ritualistic aspect of Parker's personality which obtrudes on the work and in other instances dominates the work.
In the exhibition catalogue, an illustration of Mass is paired with an illustration of Twenty years of Tarnish (wedding presents) - two silver plated goblets placed on display under glass. Twenty Years of Tarnish (wedding presents) suggests that the viewer start thinking about marriage and how over time it, like the goblets, gets tarnished. And so on.
Tarnish invites a different kind of commentary to Mass. You can put anything under glass and label it and gallery technicians are skilled enough to make it look very professionally done. The display is not a work in any conventional sense involving the artistic working of a definite material (as with Mass). It produces a curiosity, and cabinets of curiosities have always pulled in the crowds - as have chambers of horror (something Damien Hirst has exploited).
Parker's display is full of curiosities, and shows her talents as a collector rather than artist. But to stay withTarnish, Parker herself says of it. 'Normally tarnish is something we rub away. The silver is considered an object. But I would really love to have the tarnish and nothing else...' (Butler 1996-7, p 8). So maybe Parker is using the Formalist technique or device of estrangement: putting something familiar in an unfamiliar context in order to make us see it or see it afresh. It is a technique used by verbal and visual artists throughout this century. There is no end to the possibilities it offers, since it is a technique rather than a theme or frame of reference. But equally there are dangers. It can become itself routinised and, severed from a meaningful context - a narrative or a more encompassing work - it becomes bland and banal. Stick enough objects under glass with leading titles and they do reduce to the level of curiosities, of which we are soon sated. This is what happens to Parker's work, three quarters of which she would have done better to leave at home. It is not significant enough to claim Tate Gallery space, however cute the titles or exotic the materials.
So in Parker's case we are confronted with a mix of recognisable works of art, one of which I am happy to praise highly, and collected curiosities which don't earn their gallery space by any stretch of the imagination. In between, there are partially-worked artefacts about which a bit more needs to be said.
Let me look briefly at two examples of such partially-worked artefacts. Inhaled Cliffs consists of two 'sheets starched with chalk from the white cliffs of Dover', and is shown 'Courtesy of the Artist and the Frith Street Gallery in London'. The sheets are neatly folded one on top of the other, as if by a launderess, but the lower one protrudes a little, creating a representation (specfically, an icon) of the white cliffs. Very cute. Two observations.
First, there is a fairly long tradition of using ready-mades in art works where they get to be seen as something different to what they are. There are numerous works by Picasso which do this (a pair of bicycle handlebars functions as a pair of bull's horns; a toy car figures as the face of a gorilla; and so on). Parker is working in that tradition, albeit minimalistically. It is a tradition unlikely to produce art of great consequence. Second,, the sheets could have been seen as cliffs without having been put through an alchemical laundry first. Reading about the alchemy may make us smile; it doesn't alter the work sitting under glass on the gallery plinth. The alchemy points us away from the work and towards the artist: How imaginative she is! What a sense of humour! I wonder what she'll think of next (actually, with the co-operation of NASA, returning a meteorite to space). In other words, the work is merely a lure put down to satisfy the artist's narcissistic desire to receive our look, our interest. The starched sheets are a decoy.
Another set of works is entitled Freudian Abstracts and is described as 'Photograms made with dust and fibre from Freud's couch', with thanks given to the Freud Museum (when Freud fled to London, he brought his couch with him). The three photograms (sometimes called Rayograms after Man Ray's pioneering role in developing them) can be seen as suggesting human faces and bodies, just as the white sheets can be seen as white cliffs. But these suggestions appear rather casual and undeveloped. Once again, our interest devolves from the photograms to the alchemy involved - to the provenance of the dust and fibre, and thence to Cornelia Parker who was shown at some length in the Channel 4 documentary on the Turner Prize actually extracting the stuff from Freud's actual couch into little plastic bags where it would be free from risk of contamination. Strange but true. But fairly ordinary photograms do not become considerable works of art because their maker is a bit peculiar, and all that the Channel 4 programme established was the peculiarity, not the value of the photograms. Fairly ordinary photograms probably belong in someone's degree show in Anytown, and it is odd that being able to obtain access to Freud's couch should become a ticket to the Tate. (Think of the consequences when this reality is realised! Why even I might try my hand: Dear Mr Blair, I see you have been nursing a heavy cold. Some good could yet come of it if you would kindly let me have your unlaundered handkerchieves with the aid of which I could create my projected work Snot...' and so on ad nauseam).
In terms of earning gallery space, Angela Bulloch fails badly. Even the Turner Prize Jury had difficulty with their citation, describing her as shortlisted 'for her inventive use of a wide range of media and approach to exhibition making'. Her installation pompously titled 'Superstructure with satellites' is basically a Bouncy Castle (and, as such, much appreciated by younger and young at heart visitors to the Turner Prize exhibition). Bouncy castles are now essential ingredients to any English village fete or school fund raising event. (For those on other planets, a bouncy castle is a large inflatable, often in the shape of a castle, on which children can bounce around and fall over without endangering themselves). They don't need elevation to the Tate Gallery; they are doing very nicely thank you. Nor is a bouncy castle installed in the Tate thereby converted into an interactive sculpture. David Bussel writes 'The viewer becomes the activator, making an intervention of some kind through the structure provided by the work itself within the context of the gallery. As such, the work becomes a kind of democratic collaboration of action and choice between Bulloch and her audience' (Bussel 1987 p 85). This is merely wind, better pumped into an inflatable. It is as pompous as the title of the work, and symptomatic of what happens when an attempt is made to justify work in the gallery which doesn't need or belong in the gallery. What Bussel says doesn't distinguish Bulloch's inflatable from the rows of machines in the Tate Gallery's basement which are activated by the intervention of a democratic show of hands underneath their patent hot air vents. And criticism which can't distinguish in this kind of way is vacuous. Bussel, nul points. Bulloch, nul points
This leaves Christine Borland's chamber (or, at any rate, little shop) of horrors. Her work belongs to that local tradition which treats artistic activity as a form ofresearch, and sees its output (its works) as a prompt or stimulus to the audience's thinking. This is clear from the Gallery poster giving the Jury's citation of her work which says that ' she has been shortlisted for her exploration of the language of forensic science...her work asks the viewer to consider the ways in which institutions exploit and devalue life. Like an archaeologist or historian she conducts research'.
But to this one might reply she isn't in the running for a prize in archaeology or history; nor is she submitting a Ph. D. exploring the language of forensic science. One question about her work is whether it is anything more than illustrative of theses and themes in the work of (say) Michel Foucault, so that one could (for example) imagine her 'works' as illustrations to his texts. But I'm sure the Turner Prize jury regard illustration as a low genre, and not the stuff of their prize.
In the Tate exhibition, Borland displays three works, all with a more or less complicated story behind them.
First, we have The Dead Teach the Living which, according to the exhibition catalogue, 'points to how science has legitimised the dehumanisation of racial groups' (Button 1997, unpaginated). A collection of death masks held at the Anatomical Institute in Munster, and probably at one time used as teaching aids, was subjected to laser scanning into a computer. According to Borland, 'the data was converted and painstakingly rebuilt in three-dimensionally molten ABS plastic by machine. The resulting piece is necessarily removed from the emotive originals, the new material inviting curiosity and interaction' (Borland 1997, p 76).
I don't understand how the buzz word 'interaction' can apply here - Borland's exhibition piece consists of Greek-sculpture like white heads safely under glass on gallery plinths. You can look at them and walk round them. If this is interaction, so be it. But as for 'curiosity', I think this is absolutely right: Borland has found one cabinet of curiosities in the Anatomical Institute at Munster, and created her own cabinet of curiosities as a replica of it. But a cabinet of curiosities is, in terms both of the museum and the art gallery, itself a throwback to a period in which an understanding of science had yet to stabilise and likewise a conception of art. The early records of (for example) the Royal Society are replete with examples of pseudo-experiments which aroused curiosity: a spider is placed in a chalk circle, and observation made as to whether it stays in the circle or runs out of it. But modern science requires that we go beyond mere curiosity; to do that, we need among other things the idea of a research paradigm and the distinction of appearances (which may be very curious) and reality (which hopefully falls into patterns we can understand and extrapolate from). Likewise, modern art, in freeing itself from connections with other institutions and practices to which it had been ancillary - religion, ritual, the fabrication of social distinction - establishes itself as something which allows us particular kinds of experience, of the beautiful and the sublime, which are categorically distinct from the everyday curiosity which we might feel about the objects displayed in an ethnographic museum. The Tate Gallery is not an ethnographic museum, and is ill-advised in turning itself into an amateurish one.
Borland's second work is called Phantom Twins and consists of two dolls made of leather, sawdust and replica foetal skulls and modelled on similar dolls used in the eighteenth century to demonstrate childbirth to medical students. According to the exhibition catalogue, ' The original "dolls" contained real foetal skeletons - beneath the stretched leather the skulls are clearly visible. Although Borland used plastic replica skulls, obtained from an osteological supplier, her "dolls" nonetheless convey, at one step removed, the poignancy and uniqueness of the tiny lives buried under the leathery carapace" (Button 1997, unpaginated).
This is a credible attempt to justify the work, though the titling of the work, with its allusion to phantom pregnancies rather than real ones doesn't help us get to this perception. Nor is it clear why two dolls are better than one for this purpose - wouldn't a solitary doll have been more poignant?
More to the point of this essay, the poignancy is created only through the telling of a story - the dolls require narrative support. And this is always problematic. Is it the dolls which convey the poignancy of those brief lives or the narrative which told us about 18th century demonstration dolls?
Borland's third work was shown in course of construction on the Channel 4 documentary which accompanied the Turner Prize (and the continuous screening of which was manifestly the most popular attraction on the day I visited the show. It helped that seating was provided). Entitled After a True Story - Giant and Fairy Tales the work is listed as made of 'Glass, dust, lights and books' (though the dust looked like talcum powder to me - and I am told that such was indeed one of its ingredients). The piece is made by laying a replica skeleton onto glass, dusting around it, removing the skeleton and lighting the resulting negative image. The books on display have texts which link us into such themes as bodysnatching - the fate of the corpse of the 'Irish Giant', Charles Byrne (1761-1783). There are two separate works on display: one made with the help of a big replica skeleton, one with a small replica skeleton.
Watching the works being created in the TV documentary, I was reminded of watching women arranging flowers for our local village hall horticultural displays. This may or may not be relevant. That I should have made this connection does suggest that I couldn't find an appropriate point of reference in sculptural traditions and conventions for what Borland is doing, but this may be simply because she isn't doing very much: she has to make or have made a replica skeleton (not so easy), design and get made a display installation (this simply costs money and someone's engineering skills), arrange the skeleton (easy) and dust round it (easy), then remove the skeleton without disturbing the dust (a tricky business). She thereby creates an interesting enough visual effect. So does my bedroom wallpaper.
Skeletons and images of them are evocative objects - they get used at Hallowe'en, on pirate flags, and in some paintings and sculptures (including medieval Church decorations and in morality paintings). They clatter around horror movies. In the Tate Gallery, a large room is given over to the negative images (Cornelia Parker would have called them 'The Negative of Death' or somesuch) they have left on dusted glass, cleverly lit to produce reflected images above and below. A couple of books lie open for us to read; Borland made the pages at which the books are open. The pages, which tell the tale of Byrne and Crachami (whose real skeletons are on display at the Hunterian Museum in London) are made so as to look authentically part of the books, though these themselves were obtained from a second-hand bookshop). It is curious, but it is not moving; it is not terribly thought-provoking; it is rather elegant and, in the end, rather fatuous.
Do these discriminations and evaluations lead to any general conclusions?
If there is one general issue worth singling out it is probably that of the relationship between object andwork. In some cases very obviously (Parker, Borland), the art work is, or is replaced by, an object, uniquely defined by its provenance. In this aspect, there is a reversion to pre-modern art forms, of which the religious cult object (relic etc) is archetypal. Such objects were objects of veneration before they were objects of aesthetic contemplation. The characteristic modern (post Renaissance) move is to free the work from this kind of dependence on the object which contains it, the material used for its construction. In Walter Benjamin's phrase, such modern works are post-auratic: no aura attaches to their mere objecthood. The test for a cult object is whether its physical destruction is an act of sacrilege.
But pre-Renaissance cult objects were created within an overarching theological and metaphysical framework , world-view and set of institutions. The Turner Prize objects lack such a framework of institutional and ideological support. They are megaphysical rather than metaphysical objects. Because the objects originate and are essentially tied to private obsessions, rather then public frameworks of meaning and understanding, they remain at the level of curiosities and horrors. They do not, except occasionally and per accidens, transcend their origins to which they are, indeed, insistently tied. As works of art they therefore limp. It is rather as if a group of bag ladies had been invited to come to the Tate and put the contents of their trolleys under glass, on plinths. I am sure it would make a curious sight, and it would certainly improve access and pull in the crowds. It gives me another idea. Dear Nicholas Serota....