This was my fourth year visiting the Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain. As ever, as soon as the exhibition started, the inevitable ignorant backlash began in the newspapers, and the public immediately began their grumblings about the nature of art. "If it ain't a painting, then it ain't art", "My five-year-old could do that", and so on. No, of course, most of them hadn't been to see the exhibition - the very idea of parting with hard-earned cash in order to go and actually see the art is glorious anathema to them. Cosseted in their ignorance, they're happy not to actually go and see something, simply passing judgement without experiencing the thing that they're criticising. The fact is that the majority of contemporary art is conceptual. Much of its value comes from the unlikely surroundings in which the art is found. Take, for example, Tracey Emin's notorious unmade bed, in last year's Turner Prize exhibition. Yeah, anyone could just stick an unmade bed in an art gallery. But did you think of it? No, you didn't. And that's the point. The last thing you expect to find in an art gallery is the accoutrements of someone's life laid bare. The presentation of a bed in an art gallery, particularly one in the state in which Emin's bed was left, is unexpected, and that's part of its appeal to me. Essentially, the point of the piece was to lay bare the state of her life for the world to see. If you're the sort of person that needs an analogy, this is like Van Gogh painting the famous self-portrait after cutting his ear off. At the time, Van Gogh didn't expect to sell the painting, nor did he make any money from it in his lifetime, but just wanted to artistically express his state of mind. His painting would, were it now to be sold, fetch a multi-million dollar price at auction. For Emin, given the space to present her art in the Tate Britain, she chose to dis
play her bed, in the state it was left after finishing a long-term relationship. This is something many people can relate to - the pain, the anguish and the frustration. All of these are woven into the knotted bedsheets, the discarded tissues around the bed, and so on. However, the masterstroke, the thing that makes the piece "art" rather than a mere piece of furniture, is that it is displayed in an art gallery. The simple action on the viewer's part of having to go to an art gallery, and then walk through the building to actually see the bed affects the viewer's perception of the piece. Seeing a picture of it isolated from this atmosphere on the television, and passing judgement on what it's like to see the art, is like looking at a photograph of a Caribbean beach and pronouncing that it is fantastic there - when for all the viewer knows, there might be a heavily-polluting power station just beyond the edge of the photograph. Context is fundamentally important to art, and this seems to be something that most people fail to appreciate - mainly due to an unwillingness to actually experience something before passing judgement. The fact is that, in order to be offered exhibition space in the Tate Gallery, particularly in the Turner Prize exhibition, an artist has to be technically competent, and has to have proved themselves as an artist. The artist is then free to choose how to express him or herself in the gallery space that they are offered. Imagine that - freedom to do whatever you like, in a room in one of the city's most visited tourist attractions. Is it any wonder that so many artists seek to shock and surprise? It is this sense of shock and surprise that I crave. I love discovering something unexpected and original in an art gallery. The sheer amount of work that an artist has to put in to gain the right to display an exhibition in the Turner Prize surely justifies that people should make the effort to at least see i
t in person before passing judgement. Although, one of this year's exhibitors, Martin Creed, produced an exhibit that was about as minimalist as you could possibly imagine, he had to do a lot of work in order to earn the right to display that exhibit. His decision to display the art that he did was entirely his right, and although on the face of it, it is very simplistic, the statements that a viewer can infer from it are potentially strong ones, and I'll come to this later. THE EXHIBITION As ever, the exhibition space given over for the Turner Prize nominees was at the far north-east corner of Tate Britain. It's a large space, divided into four sections - one for each of the four nominees. Each area was presented to the exhibitors with bare white walls, and bare wooden floorboards. As with the exhibition space in the rest of the gallery, the rooms were well lit, with ceiling skylights and neon lighting. In previous years, visitors would pass through each of the exhibitors' exhibitions in turn. This year, however, the nature of Mike Nelson's exhibition led to a peculiar layout which meant that visitors could completely bypass his exhibit without realising that they'd actually missed anything. Nelson claimed the far corner of the exhibition space, and entry to his "room" was only possible via a closed, brown door, which looked like the entrance to a broom closet in the corner of Creed's exhibition space. The exit to Nelson's exhibition space was similarly innocuous, marked by another closed, brown door, which could only be opened from the inside. RICHARD BILLINGHAM The first of the four nominees for the 2001 Turner Prize was, for me, probably the dullest of the four. Visitors to the exhibition pass into a room, on the walls of which, several paintings displaying six of Billingham's photographs. The most interesting of these, for me, was his untitled 1999 triptych of pi
ctures of skin, viewed close up. These three pictures all had a banding pattern of horizontal lines across them, suggesting that the photographs were taken of a television screen showing the skin. The combination of the two textures - the organic lines and liver spots of the hands, with the regular horizontal banding of the television picture - created an interesting effect. The other photographs, depicting trees and a Cephalonian landscape, seemed less engaging to me. In a neighbouring room, Billingham displayed a video entitled 'Tony Smoking Backwards' (1999). The video consisted of a tight zoom on a mouth, which periodically absorbed smoke from the air around it, and then took in a cigarette. Basically, it was, quite literally, a film of someone smoking played backwards. The video was projected to fill the entire wall, and at the base of the wall, a couple of small speakers played the ambient noise presumably recorded at the same time as the video - repetitive musak and faint (backwards) speech. Again, I wasn't that inspired by the video, which seemed remarkably uninteresting. There was nothing novel or surprising about its presentation. Alongside this room, a darkened room displayed a video entitled 'Ray In Bed' (1999). The camera slowly panned over a man in bed, straying in and out of focus as it travels, or struggling to focus on objects too close to the camera. It was a gentle, soothing image, but at the same time, the dull surroundings of the room around him serve to document the working class poverty that Billingham grew up in. Ray, Richard's father, appears frequently in his art. Billingham seeks to chronicle aspects of his life as a document of what life is like for many British people - it's not judgemental, and he refrains from making any kind of political commentary, instead electing to simply present his art as a visual record of the period. MARTIN CREED From Billingham's exhibition,
visitors pass into Creed's exhibition area. Martin Creed's exhibition for the Turner Prize 2001 consisted of just a single room, with just the one piece in it - 'Work #227: The lights going on and off' (2000). The room is completely devoid of content - the walls are plain white, the floor is bare wood. The only thing that distinguishes the room as a work of art is that the lights (a combination of spotlights and neon tubes) turn on and off at five second intervals. OK, before I offer my interpretations and thoughts on the exhibit, here's what the Turner Prize exhibition programme had to say "Creed celebrates the mechanics of the everyday, and in manipulating the gallery's existing light fittings he creates a new and unexpected effect. In the context of Tate Britain, and institution displaying a huge variety of objects, this work challenges the traditional methods of museum display and thus the encounter one would normally expect to have in a gallery. Disrupting the norm, allowing and then denying the lights their function, Creed plays with the viewer's sense of space and time. Out negotiation of the gallery is impeded, yet we become aware of our own visual sensitivity, the actuality of the space and our own actions within it. We are invited to re-evaluate our relationship to our immediate surroundings, to look again and to question what we are presented with." The first thing that I felt, upon entering the room, is a feeling of being on show. As there is nothing in the room, the feeling of being "within the art" is more intense than in any other piece I'd seen. Part of the experience of visiting Creed's work is to observe how others react to it, whether they stride through it purposefully rushing to reach the explanatory text in the far corner of the room, or slowly move through it looking into the corners and at the other visitors. As I walked through the room, I couldn't help th
inking that in many ways, Creed was seeking to make a statement about the progression of contemporary art. His implication being that less and less effort is needed in order to produce art nowadays. Now, personally, I see nothing wrong with that, were it Creed's actual intention. That statement would be no less valid than any other. There is a certain braveness in choosing, when offered exhibition space in one of the world's best known galleries, to present an empty room. Having said all this, the fact that the piece itself challenges the notions of what actually constitutes art, means that it creates debate. For me, that is fundamentally important to contemporary art. Anything that makes people talk about art is a good thing - when was the last time that you talked with co-workers about Mondrian or Kandinsky? I'm willing to bet never. But I bet most offices had idle lunchtime conversations about that bed, or the lights going on and off. Yes, most of those conversations were dismissive and negative, but the fact that they actually happened at all was, to my mind, a good thing. Creed isn't even the first artist to present art such as this - as early as 1958, Yves Klein presented a piece entitled 'The Void' consisting of completely empty, white gallery. There, there wasn't even the disruption of an unconventional lighting system to break the monotony. But more important than all of this, what was my opinion of it? Well, overall, I wasn't inspired. Yes, there's the initial surprise of entering a room that's actually devoid of any content, but I have to admit that beyond that, it does have an element of Emperor's New Clothes about it. I got the point intellectually, but part of me wondered if it was actually a point that needed to be made. As it happened, the tabloid reaction showed that it was... MIKE NELSON From one corner of Creed's room, visitors passed through a nondescrip
t brown-painted wooden door into Mike Nelson's exhibition - 'The Cosmic Legend of the Uroboros Serpent' (2001). This is precisely the sort of exhibition that I love. Nelson specialises in large-scale architectural installations. He uses the historical nature of the site, and its geographical location, to influence his design, and then creates his installation by constructing internal walls and decorating it with found materials. A month before the Turner Prize exhibition, I visited an exhibition by Mike Nelson at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The exhibition took the visitor through a series of rooms, each with a different theme and appearance, before guiding them through a series of labyrinthine passages into the bar. It was one of the most intriguing exhibitions I've ever visited, so I expected big things of Nelson's Turner exhibit. I wasn't disappointed. Nelson plumped for a piece similar to his earlier works - with a series of twisting turning corridors, leading into a giant "storeroom" at the heart of the exhibition. The installation attempted to look as much like what the Tate Britain looks like behind the scenes as possible, and achieved this brilliantly. As I mentioned earlier, it appeared so like a store cupboard, that the entrance to the exhibition could easily be missed by someone that didn't know it existed. The dingy corridors and the adequately-lit central storeroom both looked more or less how you would imagine them to look in areas of the building not visited by the gallery's visitors. The distant echoing footsteps of the other visitors to the exhibit added to the atmosphere. The storeroom held a series of wooden panels and doors, photographs, an arcade console, chairs, fans, and all the sort of things you can imagine being stored in a disused corner of the gallery's basement. For me, this was the most fascinating of the exhibits, the fact that you had to "fin
d" it within the exhibition made it more intriguing, and the busy-ness of the exhibit (particularly alongside Creed's empty room) made it very engaging. There's something fascinating about Nelson's attempts to recreate something that the visitor wouldn't normally see, and yet to deliberately do so in an intentionally unlikely and muddled way. ISAAC JULIEN At the exit to Nelson's work, visitors could turn left or right, in order to watch either of the two video installations submitted by Isaac Julien - 'The Long Road to Matzalán' (1999) to the left, and 'Vagabondia' (2000) to the right. 'The Long Road to Matzalán' is a very colourful piece, filmed in San Antonio Texas, consisting of a three-panel video wall, with the three panels arrayed horizontally. At times the three images combine to produce a single wide image, and at other times the three panels display different images - usually different views of the same events. The video deals with issues of male masculinity and repressed desire - essentially showing a series of glances between two men dressed as cowboys, in a series of different scenarios. For example, in one scene, one of the men poses a la 'Taxi Driver' in front of a mirror, posing the question "Are you looking at me" (rather than "Are you talking to me?") while the other peeps at him through the window. The imagery was outstanding throughout the video, borrowing from Western films by directors such as Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, making it fascinating to watch from beginning to end, in spite of the lack of any substantive narrative. 'Vagabondia', by contrast, follows the fictional custodian of the Sir John Soane's Museum in London - an impressive museum packed with hundreds of architectural artefacts from around the world. The video consists of two panels, which mirror each other along a vertical central line. The imag
es on the two panels begin completely in sync with each other, separating slightly as the film progresses. The video images, generally filmed through a fish-eye lens, provide a distorted view of history - combining narratives of imaginary figures from history with costumes figures walking through the museum. Again, Julien's eye for imagery is superb, recalling scenes from films by directors such as Orson Welles and Jean Cocteau. Both of Julien's videos were very beautifully presented, with beautiful locations and cinematography throughout. I enjoyed sitting through both of them. CONCLUSIONS Overall, I didn't feel as inspired by the 2001 Turner Prize exhibition as I have been by previous years' exhibitions. There were some intriguing pieces on display, but neither Creed nor Billingham really managed to inspire me, and it was only Nelson's exhibition that really caught my imagination. It is worth noting that the Turner Prize is awarded on the basis of all of each artist's exhibitions in the last year - and not just on the exhibits displayed in the Tate's Turner Prize exhibition. These exhibits are just a selection of each artist's work from the past year, selected (or created) by the artist for this exhibition. Inevitably then, it would be unfair to judge the individual artists' suitability as an award recipient exclusively on the basis of these exhibits. As I said earlier, I think that it's difficult to judge a piece of art without seeing it in its appropriate context - and hence it's important to actually go and see art before commenting. In the event, I was uninspired by Creed's 'The lights going on and off', but, on the other hand, I did experience unexpected feelings upon actually seeing it. It may not be one of the most sensational or inspirational pieces ever displayed, but it definitely elicits feelings in the viewer - for good or bad - and that can on
ly be a good thing. --- The Turner Prize exhibition 2001 ran from the 7th November 2001 to the 20th January 2002. Admission was £3, but I got in free, because I'm a friend of the Tate Gallery.
Looking at David Beckham picking up his well deserved no personality sports person of the year it couldn’t help remind me of the weekends other big winner. Martin Creed picked up a cool twenty grand for the Turner prize for switching alight on and off at the museum. Which is exactly what happens in Beckhams head on payday. They say if you want to make Posh n Beck’s eyes light up you should shine a torch into their ear. Two ludicrous wards have highlighted just how far we will go to be part of the crowd Previous winners of the modern art prize at the Tate have been Damien Hurst for his pickled live stock and Chris Offis for his elephant dung collages. This years winner had previous renowned “works of art”such as his screwed up ball of paper and a piece of blu-tac on a white background. When people talk of blank pieces of papers winning an award you always think its urban legend. Yet it happened last night in London. So what sort of people get together, put up the cash and vote for a man who has put in a timer to make the museum light go on and off. Were the pretencious gits deliberately trying to be superior and controversial to grab the headlines. Social climber Madonna was the special guest to present the coveted prize hoping some of its avante garde establishment gloss would rub of on her. What sort of self-important people think by saying a light going on and off is “art”it some how means they are relevant in society. How can America and Britain dump tons of munitions on starving Afghanistan peasant’s and allow this nonsense to go ahead. I switch my light on and off every day with noon giving me twenty grand, yet i thought of it before Mr Creed. I want my money now Madge. The artist himself was suitably tongue in cheek philosophical about it and said %50 of the work was for him and the remaining half (presumably the off switch bit) was for the people view
ing his work to interpret. What exactly there is to think about when a light goes on and off in an empty room that no ones thought of before beggar’s belief. These arty types are a continuing waste of space and the more extreme and minimalist they go, the more acclaim they get from the pretencious types that turn in these circles. One chap actually said it was cutting edge art and Martin was breaking new ground and pushing the envelope. The second and third places were almost as equally arrogant and stupid with that cliché pile of bricks coming in third. Tracey Emins bed seems almost a revelation after the last two winners. The new Tate gallery got a hideous amount of lottery cash to convert an old factory space to fill it with a ton of crap. I don’t think one of the exhibitors or the bulk of the visitors have ever been near a terminal. They say how successful the two hundred million project has been, but only because its free to get in!.Whos paying for the running of the place now, why the lottery players of course. How many of those blue collar workers who buy the tickets would be impressed by a light going on and off.