Review of the Turner Prize 2007 at Tate Liverpool by Stuart Ian Burns
I’d been quite excited that the Turner Prize exhibition would be berthed in Liverpool this year, having spent years watching critics walking around on various television art shows commenting cynically about the London iteration. In previous years I’ve been quite passionate about the artists who’ve been involved with Rachel Whiteread and Antony Gormley at the top of the list for apparently finding a niche and yet still managing to be innovative and surprising and usefully spiritual, doing exactly what you’d hope an artist would do which is the bend the thing they’re interested in to a range of space and shapes and concerns. If Facebook had been around when Whiteread’s House was in existence I would have certainly created the group designed to stop its demolition.
Unfortunately, and it’s worth saying this up front – this year’s show is a bit disenchanting. Much of this has to do with it’s size, or lack of it. On the one occasion I’ve seen an earlier Turner Prize show in London, it’s filled many rooms and you could see the spread of the artist’s career that this is supposed to be commemorating. In Liverpool, the whole thing is jammed into but one half of the top floor, the other half being an information area and a temporary café. It’s horrifyingly anti-climactic. It just feels as though there should be more of it, that it could have been spread between the floors for example, meaning that some of the hiccups (which I’ll come to later) would not be magnified to such a degree.
Taking then, each artist in turn. I should warn you that there will be ‘spoilers’ in that I’m going to describe what’s there so if you’re intending to go I would skip the next four paragraphs because much of the fun is in what surprises there actually are. There is, I expect, a whole discussion to be had about what constitutes a spoiler in relation to an art exhibition – is it giving away the surprise ending of some video art or giving more information than you should about a painting and does it really matter? I suppose with this area of the visual arts its first impressions that count and sometimes someone else’s comments and bleed into your own initial reaction so your opinion is tainted. I didn’t read any of the pre-show reviews that I think was the best thing I could have done.
Mike Nelson is influenced by amongst other things science fiction, film and history and that’s certainly evident in his Amnesiac Shrine which attempts to plunge the visitor into a world of confusion and deja-vu. An attendant points you towards a small, long white room on the floor of which is a pile of charred and broken wooden branches with shreds of red plastic rising from it pretending to be flames. It’s not exactly an awe-inspiring start to the show since it give the impression of being an idea that’s better than the execution. In the next room you’re greeted by four square rooms without doors standing corner to corner each with a small hole in the wall at eye level.
A peak inside reveals a whole new world, a desert stretching into infinity illuminated by a droplet of light. This is much better, more exciting, like seeing into another much simpler world. Look to closely and you can see how its accomplished but that doesn’t stifle the magic. Walk past these rooms through a doorway and you’re back where you started with the logs, which is odd because you’ve walked in a straight line. It’s very confusing but ties the whole piece together with the visitor having to deal with the kind of infinity that is usually discovered by humans when they’re being tested by aliens in tv shows …
Mark Wallinger’s Sleeper is certainly the most entertaining piece and will probably win by that virtue alone. You’ve probably seen the photos – the artist spent ten nights at the modernist Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin dressed in an unconvincing bear suit and was filmed by a small crew as he walked around, dancing and interacting through a glass with passers-by and doing many of the things a real bear in captivity would do. The performance on show in the gallery is but one of these nights (which means that the artist must have rewatched them all so that he could pick the most interesting one which shows a real commitment) and there’s a lot of writing in the accompanying catalogue about ‘surveillance’ and how it represents Berlin’s national consciousness.
For the visitor though it’s a case of standing or sitting on a specially created (at a cost of £20,000) black marble floor (to reference the white marble in the video) watching the existential cousin of Bungle from the old kids tv show Rainbow trying to find something to do in a big open space; I imagine it’s a hit with children. I was reminded of Zidane, that ‘documentary’ from earlier in the year which followed a footballer around a pitch during a match and Asta Groting’s video piece Eis which featured a real bear sitting in the middle of an ice rink eating honey from a pail. It’s not clear whether the visitor is supposed to watch all of this or dip and out, but there was litter (well some crisp packets) on the floor whilst I was there, indicating that someone at some point that day had spent real time with the artificial bear.
Nathan Coley’s is probably the most offensive of the four exhibits partly because it seems to take up the most space even though it’s the least effective of the four but mostly because it just doesn’t seem very well thought out in terms of how visitors interact with the gallery space. There are a series of ‘paintings’ called Annihilated Confessions in which what looks like a photograph has been blotted out with black or white paint which might be about censorship. There’s a giant sign with the words ‘There will be no miracles here” picked out in lit bulbs which was apparently originally installed at Mount Stuart (huh) in the Isle of Bute which conjures for me The Wicker Man since it sounds like the kind of thing the druidic Christopher Lee would shout.
Then there’s the untitled threshold sculptures. These are nicely cut blocks of oak wood which have been affixed to the floor at the entrance and exit of Coley’s exhibit so that visitors, in stepping over them, will have a greater awareness of moving into a new space. I hear that they’ve become one of the defining elements of the exhibition and that’s no surprise since they’re health and safety nightmare. The Tate have had to sit a gallery attendant next to the entrance block who must spend the day telling every visitor not to trip over it which means that everyone who walks through is all to aware of its existence. This is exactly the kind of work that I spoke about recently, in which the artist’s conception has little connection with what can happen in a gallery space when the public are added and attendants who have to police it. Then, the exit version was easy to traverse because an ugly metal ramp has had to be installed over it for wheelchair access which seems to miss the point entirely.
The exhibition ends (yes, already) with Zarina Bhimji and I think this was probably my favourite. She’s been given two rooms, the first of which features a range of photographs of walls and roofs taken in India Zanzibar and East Africa showing spaces in which humans have had an impact but are now nowhere to be seen. Echo is a wall covered in graffiti and Shadows and Disturbances features a palace window riddled with bullet holes. The most striking is Illegal Sheep as guns of various sizes lean against a wall and you’re not quite sure if they’ve been readied for action or have gone beyond their usefulness.
The accompanying film, Waiting, is perhaps the work of the exhibition. Shot in a factory built to process sisal, the organic material used to make rope a sequence of shows shows the material in various states of production but crucially humanity is missing here too. Only now and then do we see shapes in the corner of shots or shadows but for the most part the sisal seems to be creating itself as it wafts through the factory halls gathering and flowing in the wind. It reminds me of the fascinating films which used to appear on Playschool demystifying the production of chocolate bars and the filling of milk bottles, but there’s also a meditative stillness to the piece as the patterns in the fabric ebb and flow across the screen – and because it was filmed on 35mm celluloid and then transferred to an HD director you can see almost every strand.
And that is that. The ensuing information provides some of the history of the prize but this only succeeds in underlining how brilliant some of the earlier shows were. There a taxi in the room which is a fairly exciting discovery because you have to wonder how they got the vehicle in there (I imagine they opened the roof and hired a crane) which has been modified and the back seat replaced with a screen recreating a range of real journey’s revealing the opinions of people as the taxi driver explains to them that the Turner is coming to Liverpool. Most are suitably impressed. It’s a pity they haven’t tracked those people down and filmed their reaction to this ensuing exhibition – it would be interesting to see whether their excited opinion is transferred to the actuality.
Ultimately, it’s just all a bit underwhelming, generally the kind of work which stays with you for a few hours (or in this case long enough to write a review) but you don’t feel as though you can look back on it too fondly. I’m sure the judging panel, which included the Director of Tate Liverpool Christoph Grunenberg and one of my favourite columnists Miranda Sawyer made the right choices in relation to the artists – it’s just that this show does not really seem to represent their career at its best. I like my art to be awe inspiring either because of its ideas or because of the technique and there weren’t many moments when I thought I’d seen something truly innovative, something I’d want to keep with me. A friend has said she’s going to travel up to Liverpool for the exhibition and I was sorry to tell her to make sure that she had something else to look forward to when she got here, which is something I didn’t ever expect would be the case. Oh well.