The Turner Prize goes BALTIC
The ever controversial Turner Prize looks set to change its image once more this year. For the first time the exhibition will take place outside of the Tate galleries, at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art- a short train journey away from Durham. The Prize’s shortlist is also notably dominated by artists based outside of London. Of the four nominated artists only the video artist Hilary Lloyd lives in London, and she was trained in Newcastle.
All in all, this year’s prize presents a very different picture of the state of British art to the much discussed nominations of the 90s and early 00s. The influence of the London elite- the so called Young British Artists, including such household names as Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst- appears at least to be waning.
Does this image reflect reality however, or is the move to Gateshead an artificial attempt to nurture visual culture in the North of England? There is probably some truth in both views. The past ten years have seen a considerable growth in the reputation of art galleries and institutions outside of London. The Baltic can truly claim to be one of the largest and most influential spaces for new art in Europe, never mind the UK, and as such is an entirely appropriate venue for an event purporting to celebrate contemporary British art. The art scenes in cities outside of London has also noticeably grown and it seems only right that this should be recognised.
On the other hand, the move away from London has certainly been influenced by critic’s claims that the Turner prize itself had entrenched London’s monopoly on visual art, by giving high profile media attention to the Young British Artists and their associates. It seems this point has been taken to heart, as the Tate have announced that, at least for the next few years, the Prize exhibition will move between galleries throughout the UK and will no longer be an exclusively London event.
Venue aside, what does this year’s shortlist tell us about visual art in Britain now? George Shaw stands out as an unusual choice for nomination. Not only is he a painter, he is a realist painter. As such he will inevitably get some support from the traditionalist camp that typically showers harsh criticism on the proceedings- a prominent example being government minister, Kim Howells’ description of the 2002 prize exhibition as ‘cold, mechanical bullshit’. Shaw is not a traditional painter however. He paints pictures of insignificant English council estates in household enamel paints. His subject matter and medium are remarkable only for their banality, yet his images have an accessibility which is rare to find in the shortlists of previous Turner Prizes. The postmodern themes of much contemporary art- politics, culture and interpretation- are alien to Shaw’s work, which is more concerned with personal sensations of loneliness and existential freedom. This fact alone makes Shaw an unusual Turner Prize nominee, though it hardly indicates a full scale change in the attitudes of British artists.
The Glasgow based sculptors Karla Black and Martin Boyce appear to be more conventional nominees. Black produces colourful abstract forms, informed by feminism and psychoanalytic theory. This influence is most apparent in her choice of materials, which range from balsa wood and plastic, through to toiletries, makeup and soil. Her sculptures are certainly visually arresting, but also have a familiar place in the context of contemporary sculpture and installation aesthetics. Ironically, Martin Boyce is a more backward looking than Shaw, though his work might not immediately be perceived as traditional. His sculpture draws heavily on the visual forms of 1920s modernist architecture which he transmutes into his own visual language. Art Critics and gallery goers alike have commented on the melancholy atmosphere which surrounds Boyce’s metal structures. In many ways his colourless, austere objects are the polar opposite of Black’s flamboyant offerings, though both artists can be comfortably located within diverse aesthetic sphere of contemporary sculpture.
The final nominee Hilary Lloyd produces audio visual installations of the kind which are often favoured by the Turner Prize shortlists. Lloyd uses multiple video images together with dislocated sounds to disorientating effect, warping our perception of everyday scenes and media images.
Which of the four nominees will win the prize is anyone’s guess, and perhaps isn’t that important. The prize money itself is unlikely to have a great impact on an artist’s career- the media attention and reputation boost each nominee will experience is more likely to be life changing. Shaw would certainly be an interesting choice, if only because he is a rather different artist from the prize winners of the last decade and a half. This verdict might signal a change in the attitudes of national art institutions in the UK, as well as critics and artists themselves; on the other hand the prize could just as easily go to Black or Lloyd and simply reinforce the established paradigms.
Whatever its national significance, it seems clear that this year’s prize can only have a positive impact on the art scene of the North East. The Exhibition will be accessible to a large number of people in the North for whom a London would have been too far to travel. If the prize does its job it should at least stimulate discussion about contemporary art on a local level here in the North East, in addition the media discussions which the prize inevitably stimulates. Perhaps more importantly, the profile of the Baltic, and other North Eastern art institutions will be raised, and local artists will be spurred on by the national recognition that the North East has a visual culture that is worth celebrating.
For Durham students this is a unique opportunity to be part of an internationally important art event. High profile exhibitions like this don’t happen on our doorstep every year and anyone with any interest in visual art would be foolish to miss the chance to experience it first-hand.