TURNER PRIZE: A PANDORA’S BOX OF ODDITIES

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UK’s Turner Prize continues its tradition of celebrating the absurd with the announcement of its latest laureate last Monday, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke

For aesthetics, it has been an agonising fall from grace. Now, not even the most prestigious art prizes reckons with it any more. And the Turner Prize, numbingly predictable for courting controversy, preens itself on its not being an exception to this trend.

Yet, last Monday night’s live broadcast of the prize’s award ceremony on BBC World was hard to ignore. This, after all, is the UK’s most prestigious art prize! Even the quality of the audience at the Tate Britain gallery, which looked more establishment than avant-garde, attested to this fact. Nigerian-born literary luminary Ben Okri, after his preliminary remarks, finally announced the winner as Helen Marten.

Marten’s eventual choice should no longer surprise anyone. Surprise has long ceased to be a factor. Not after she had come this far as one of the contenders for the prize. But who is she, anyway? Not so long ago, she had won the inaugural Hepworth Prize for Sculpture, worth £30,000.

If some among the clique of Turner Prize watchers had rooted for Anthea Hamilton (one of the artists in the shortlist), it was because Hamilton adhered to the prize’s long-standing penchant for arousing apoplexy. Her giant bare buttocks held by two hands, obviously, had the intention to irritate.

Yet, despite her statement that suggested she didn’t expect the win, Marten remained many pundit’s favourite. The Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing graduate is clearly the favoured one of curators and critics, what with her major show at London’s Serpentine Gallery and her winning the inaugural Hepworth prize for Sculpture last month.

The 31-year-old had, on being announced the winner of the inaugural prize, promised to share her winnings with her fellow artists. This gesture, she also later confirmed, would be replicated with the Turner Prize, worth £25,000. Indeed, this decision of hers to share the prize money with fellow shortlisted artists – “quietly” – could endear her to more people. But her magnanimity is really not the point here.

Rather, her winning work is under the spotlight here. The installation work has earned the reputation for not only confounding its viewers, but for also fascinating and delighting them. This is even when it edges the traditional notions of aesthetics further towards irrelevance. Aficionados are invited to contemplate and scrutinise her puzzling assortment of found objects as though they were an archaeological dig. Her cacophony of materials consisting of cotton buds, bicycle chains, shells, marbles, snooker chalk, fish skins and
eggs with so much else are joined together as strange bedfellows.

This is what is expected of a typical Turner Prize winning work. Since its launch in 1984, the prize has stirred dissension among artists, critics and the art-viewing public. An anti-conceptual art group that call itself the Stuckists has been a leading opposing voice against the prize since 2000, deeming this year’s edition unforgivably dull.

The Guardian of UK quotes the group’s co-founder Charles Thomson as saying: “It is appalling that innocent victims expecting to see challenging art should end up bored to death. I have lost several friends in the last few weeks.

“There needs to be immediate action. The Turner prize should be shut down before more people end up meeting their demise from sheer boredom.”

Nevertheless, its professed mission to promote contemporary British art makes it unarguably one of the biggest events of the UK’s cultural
calendar.

Hence, The Guardian also quotes the chair of judges, Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson, as endorsing the Marten’s work for having real longevity and for using objects, forms and images just like a poet would use language.

“The judges were impressed by the complexity of the work, its amazing formal qualities, its disparate materials and techniques and also how it relates to the world … how it often suggests meaning, but those meanings are all in flux somehow,” Farquharson said. “One image, one form becomes another.”

A peek into the prize’s past winners reveal a Pandora’s Box of oddities. This was the prize that dredged up the likes of Damien Hirst, Martin Creed, Mark Wallinger and Chris Ofili, among others, from the depths of anonymity. The works of these past winners of the prize – awarded to a British artist, under the age of 50, who would have held the best exhibition of the past year – raised hackles among the newshounds.

Take Hirst, for instance. Not a few among the cognoscenti would have wondered what his winning work in 1995, which was a collection of animals pickled in formaldehyde, had to do with art. As for Ofili’s paintings made from elephant dung, which won in 1998, some critics were certain the artist was courting cheap publicity. Then for others, Creed’s light going off and on in a room in 2000 bordered on the ludicrous.

Now that new canons of aesthetics have become de rigueur in the art world, art purists might just as well bridle their sneers. That is, if they cannot play quietly play along with this trend like the obsequious courtiers in Hans Christian Andersen’s well-known The Emperor’s New Clothes. At least, playing along would make them not to be seen as unusually stupid.

There is, in any case, a draught in the realisation of higher art forms. This has been so ever since mankind bowed in reverential awe before the Golden Calf of material ephemerality. Art is rarely appreciated as a gift from Above and is rather applauded as the product of the artist. Little wonder its modern high-priests would rather degrade it from its lofty position as the work of the spirit. For them, the intellect – even with its limitations to the earthly conception of time and space – should call the shots.

Thus, the world’s most prestigious art prizes, biennales, triennials, art fairs and forums have become orchestrated dance orgies of obscurantism around this intellectual idol. What passes for art in these events now takes on scarcely believable forms. Woe unto that “reactionary” who dares raise his voice in protest! What does he know about art? Does he not realise that this is the 21st Century and not the Dark Ages?