Turner Prize shock: 2012 shortlist proves accessible and exciting at Tate Britain

By Mark Sheerin | 18 October 2012
Colour photo of two puppeteers in strange garb
Spartacus Chetwynd, Odd Man out (2011)© All rights reserved. Courtesy Spartacus Chetwynd and Sadie Coles HQ, London
Exhibition Review: Turner Prize 2012, Tate Britain, London, until January 6 2013

Not only is this the most exciting Turner Prize in recent times, it is the most accessible – which, you might think, can only be a good thing for contemporary art. And indeed, what other show provides such extensive toilet humour, puppetry and disaster footage, plus a drunken chat show guest?

The above can be found in the work of Paul Noble, Spartacus Chetwynd, Elizabeth Price and Luke Fowler. The former two, especially, are easy to enjoy, but all four place enough demand upon the visitor to satisfy the art enthusiast along with the casually curious.

But mainstream media has indeed been curious – thanks, in part, to the elevation of faecal matter to subject matter. Paul Noble does not exclusively draw human stools, but he has included enough in his room full of drawings to give that impression.

In actual fact, the turds are less worth remarking on than the attention to detail. Along with a lurid imagination, he exhibits obsessional hard work. That must have been needed to fill these monumental drawings with thousands of details like identical rocks or raindrops striking water.

Chetwynd also makes great copy. For many Prize onlookers, her first name alone has been a source of great amusement and intrigue. Plus, she is the first performance artist to ever make the shortlist, and that alone will baffle traditionalists.

Ultimately, though, her show at Turner is easy to get into thanks to a sleazy yet pulsating soundtrack and a cast of friends and family dressed in medieval weeds, who introduce a number of puppets to the crowding viewers. Otherwise sober men have been spotted boogying down with a handful of said puppets.

Colour photo of a black and white film in a darkened installation
Elizabeth Price, The Woolworths Choir of 1979, installation view© All rights reserved. Courtesy Elizabeth Price and MOT International, London
These two artists may grab headlines, but it is Elizabeth Price who grabs your scruff of the neck. Her work is a 20-minute video about a lethal fire in a Manchester branch of Woolworths. It builds with a PowerPoint-style lecture on church architecture and peaks with footage of girl band The Shangri-Las.

By the time she is enumerating the deaths of 10 shoppers, you feel as exhausted and helpless as the firecrews. Price is adept at generating excitement out of archival material, doing so here with an array of jump cuts, handclaps and finger clicks. She has been tipped to win and I hope she does.

The final piece on the shortlist winds you in at a more leisurely pace. This is Luke Fowler’s 93-minute film about the controversial psychiatrist RD Laing. It is as much a portrait of the man as a study of his ideas.

It may surprise that mental health was once so hotly contested. And few communes exist for the sole benefit of psychotics today. So Laing, sadly, went into decline, as an inebriated appearance on RTE’s The Late Late Show does here suggest.

Fowler’s film is underplayed and lengthy. As such, it suffers by comparison with work by other artists on the shortlist. His interest in Laing is exciting (this is part three of a trilogy), but one wonders about the ongoing relevance of his work in an age of more humane attitudes towards the mentally ill.

It says something that Fowler might be the least involving name on the short list. In many other shows, his feature length documentary would be a highlight. As it is, all four artists shine at Tate Britain, and Fowler, Chetwynd and Noble offer strange worlds.

In the end it is, however, Price’s concentration and precision which carry the day.
  • Open 10am-6pm (10pm Friday). Tickets £8.50-£11, book online. Follow Tate on Twitter @Tate.

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