It’s that time of year again — when the British art world picks up with excitement, expectation, and eye rolling over the announcement of the annual Turner Prize nominees. The prize, which is named after the Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner, awards £25,000 ($42,412) to one British or Britain-based artist under the age of 50 for work in the last year.
Although the British papers and tabloids usually generate some kind of controversy over at least one of the nominees each year — Fiona Banner’s text piece that describes a porno film, “Arsewoman in Wonderland” (2001), for instance — past winners basically read like a who’s who list of British art: Gilbert and George, Tony Cragg, Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst, Gillian Wearing, Chris Ofili, Steve McQueen, Wolfgang Tillmans, Grayson Perry, Jeremy Deller, Susan Philipsz, Laure Prouvost … So the Turner Prize is clearly doing something right.
The nominees for this year, the award’s 30th anniversary, are Duncan Campbell, Ciara Phillips, James Richards, and Tris Vonna-Michell. Let’s take a look at each one.
This Dublin-born, Glasgow-based artist is the oldest of the group, at 41. An announcement of a Campbell retrospective at the Carnegie Museum of Art in 2012 explains the artist’s work thus:
Based in a sincere desire to understand the past, as well as the conviction that documentary is only “a peculiar form of fiction,” Campbell’s films trouble the boundaries between the actual and the artful, record and interpretation, in historical narrative and media representation.
Campbell is nominated for his film “It for Others,” which Scotland showed at last year’s Venice Biennale. The work is a meditation and riff on another film, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’s Les Statues meurent aussi (Statues also die) (1953), and uses archival and original footage to explore commodities exchange and cultural imperialism, in sections including a performance by Michael Clark Company and shots of smiley Japanese products.
Phillips, 37, was born in Canada and, like Campbell, is now also based in Glasgow (both attended the Glasgow School of Art). Phillips works in the most static media of the group — printmaking — although the way she used it in the show she’s nominated for brings it to life in an active way. It’s also the mostly expressly political project of all the nominations. Phillips’s exhibition, called Workshop (2010–ongoing), turned The Showroom gallery in London into a temporary print studio last fall, where local artists, designers, and women’s groups could come and make screenprints. As the exhibition text explains:
Guests will bring their different knowledge and experiences of working collectively to the Workshop, whose structure is open for development as the project progresses. These new collaborations will initiate conversations and actions that aren’t contained within specific disciplines of art, community action, design or activism. By making prints in these new collaborative groupings, Phillips will explore the potential of ‘making together’ as a way of negotiating ideas and generating discussions around experimental and wider uses of print.
At 30, British artist Richards is the youngest of the nominees, something that the press seems to already be playing up in calling him a “YouTube artist.” Richards makes quasi-abstract collage films using everything from YouTube clips to found imagery to handheld footage he’s shot himself. His work seems to draw on a long history of collage in art, as well as on the 1980s British “scratch video” genre, drawing out not just the visuals of images he combines but their textures as well. “Rosebud,” the film for which he’s nominated, was shown as part of the official group exhibition, The Encyclopedic Palace, at last year’s Venice Biennale. It was in part inspired by (and includes shots of) a set of censored art-book images that Richards found at a library in Japan: the genitals in photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, Man Ray, and others had been rubbed away by Japanese censors trying to make sure the content wouldn’t arouse viewers. As Richards explained in an interview with Rhizome:
[T]he video somehow is focused on the violence of the action of sandpapering—the point where glossy black printer ink gives way to the scuffed and bruised paper stock underneath. There’s something intense but also futile in these marks. The video is a study of rubbing against and along different surfaces: the meniscus of water over the print, the elderflower rubbed along a boy’s body.
The UK-born, Stockhom-based Vonna-Michell, 37 (and also a former attendee of the Glasgow School of Art), is perhaps the best known in the US of all the nominees; he was included in the New Museum’s inaugural 2009 triennial, as well as the X Initiative in Chelsea and Creative Time’s first “public art quadrennial” on Governors Island that same year. Vonna-Michell’s work is, in a way, the most ephemeral of all the Turner nominees: his main art is storytelling. In both live performances and installations, the artist spins narratives based in autobiography out into mesmerizing, meticulous tales compiled of bits and fragments, a form of collage of his own. As Cathleen Chaffee wrote in BOMB:
Vonna-Michell’s performances enfold audiences within the opiate of fiction, but their speed and fractured reportage break that spell, much like the disjuncture found in sound poetry with ties to Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate. As in the formal “push-pull” sought by Hans Hofmann for abstract painting, listeners alternate between forgetting themselves in the thrall of an intoxicating tale and scrutinizing the story’s vertiginous improbability.
Vonna-Michell is nominated for his solo exhibition last summer at Brussels’s Jan Mot gallery. Titled “Postscript II (Berlin),” the installation involved the artist’s recorded narration of a story about his parents in Berlin along with two projected sets of slide images.