The 2010 Turner Prize was announced last night, and Susan Philipsz was named the winner (against betting company William Hill’s unlikely odds of 16/5). Her piece, Lowlands Away, has been much ballyhooed as the first sound installation to win the award for UK artists under the age of 50, in a somewhat empty controversy as such. The piece, a critic favorite before the announcement, is an easily digestible recording of the artist singing a traditional Scottish folk song. It was originally installed along various river-adjacent alleyways in Glasgow, re-contextualizing the spaces with the lament of a man whose lover had drowned.
Philipsz’s work is considerably less politicized than that of her fellow nominees: painter Dexter Dalwood, installationist Angela de la Cruz, and filmic collective the Otolith Group. Reviews of the Tate Britain exhibition of the nominees’ works were fairly polarized, those siding with the more populist, crowd-friendly Philipsz often characterizing the pointedly ambiguous, academic nature of the Otolith Group as pretentious. The Otolith Group’s work — with which I will admit to being more intimately familiar — decidedly intertwines theory and the political, and that was a turn-off to quite a few reviewers. BBC’s Front Row program even addressed this idea of “pretension” in their recent interview with the Group’s Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun, a characterization they embraced.
Watching the awards, I found that the a/political divide seemed to pronounce itself in the din of the student protesters at the Tate. Several dozen protesters demonstrated in and outside the museum against the proposed cuts in governmental education and arts funding, wearing dunce caps and chanting loudly throughout the ceremony. A bashful and somewhat awkward Susan Philipsz took to the stage to receive the prize, obligingly acknowledging the on-going demonstrations by accidentally stating that “education isn’t a right, it’s a privilege” [check out the video above at the 02:27 mark] although she makes it clear she is in support of the protests. Meanwhile, Anjalika Sagar of the Otolith Group read her prepared thank you speech to the “brave, bold, and brilliant students and schoolchildren” outside, announcing the Group’s continued support of the protests and pledge to join the marches later this week [check out the 01:42 point of the video below]
Linking the eloquence of a statement of support for an on-going political issue with the degree of political investment of an art practice is tenuous, and would not suggest the rigor of thought or inherent brilliance of the artists or their works. That said, pronounced political artistic engagement often lends itself to political engagement to the world at large. For me, these issues raise questions of the role of art and the artist in relationship to politics and whether that role should be validated or valorized by an award — especially an award that is increasingly described as irrelevant.
Regardless, I commend each speaker in support of the protests, whatever their role or practice, as doing so acknowledges the institution’s roots in accessible education.
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