Turner Prize, Tate Britain, London, December 2008
Call me philistine, attention-deficient (or even Ishmael at a pinch), but I can count the numbers of video installations that have really engaged me on the fingers of Mickey Mouse’s right hand. Pipilotti Rist in Venice (I could lie down); Fischli and Weiss’s ‘The way things go’ (I was 8 years old again); and Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave (more regression). So it was with little enthusiasm that I learned that two of this year’s four Turner Prize artists work mainly with film.
My first encounter was a brief reconnaissance, a dash not unlike Martin Creed’s Work No. 850 that had been performed 134,000 times one floor up. Goshka Macuga’s room seemed clean and polished; Cathy Wilkes’ seemed to be trying hard; Runa Islam? I wasn’t sure; and Mark Leckey’s section seemed confusing.
What was it all about, I ruminated at home? Here were four diverse artists I didn’t know, squeezed together, but with each artist curating their own area, and not actually intending to create a coherent whole. Then as I skimmed the newspapers on the internet, I re-realised that this is a multi-layered event, and one of its joys is the annual debate about its irrelevance or arrogance or sycophancy. One commentator stridently claimed how weak it was - so weak in fact that they hadn’t bothered going this time. Brian Sewell sighed that all the best artists had won in the first five years or so, so they should stop it now (that young upstart Anish Kapoor just missed the cut at no. 7). This year it was bad because it wasn’t shocking enough, in contrast to years when it was bad because it was too disturbing.
So, reinvigorated by this debate (though not in the best of health) I returned, better informed, and re-evaluated. Goshka (we were now on first name terms) was recreating and manipulating pieces relating to two couples who worked and played together - Paul Nash and Eileen Agar, who were part of 1930s British modernism, and Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, who worked as designers in 1920s Germany. In contrast to my initial impression, I preferred her Nash-related more playful collages to the sculptures, which I found a little sombre and reminiscent somehow of municipal bathrooms.
Encouraged, I ventured on into Cathy Wilkes’ world, and mused on the found objects she had placed together in order to to allow us to discover new connections. I pondered the mannequins (which could be her or us or humanity or just objects), the toilet (which having got all the headlines, was as shocking as this year’s selection got), the checkout counters, and all the dirty crockery. She had won the nomination for her Milton Keynes show that comprised one mannequin on toilet, one ladder, and one electric oven, which had a certain simplicity about it. She had the same pieces here again, but I wondered if their point had been weakened by being scattered amongst a host of new objects. Apparently she is keen not to limit our response by suggesting meaning, and I am sure she would accept my reaction, which was that there was little of interest, as being as valid as any other.
Then onward to my nemesis, the videos! Intrepidly I ventured into Runa Islam’s trio of rooms. And I was entranced. My initial statement can still stand, as these were not videos, but 16mm films, looping and clattering hypnotically, and producing slightly blurred images in 1960s colours. I found the film of the elegant woman in the fine china display amusing; I loved the textures and colours in the random views of the workshop produced by a camera spelling its own name; and could feel the wind as it picked up the leaves on the ground by the Bangladeshi rickshaw drivers.
And finally, buoyed by those 16mm delights, I moved on to the winner’s enclosure. Declared as such barely 40 hours before, Mark Leckey was very different again, investigating film history, lecturing, recreating. But it all felt crowded and busy to me. Maybe he suffered from being the last of the four artists, and my energy levels were fading - certainly I didn’t want to be educated at this point. I wondered if they draw lots when deciding what rooms they will get. Gamely I made my way to a chair at the back of the audience watching ‘Cinema in the round’, a lecture that I am told Leckey does many times, so that it evolves and changes. It wasn’t dull, but it was warm, and dark, and perhaps my virus was taking its toll, so that somewhere in chapter four, my head leant against the back of the auditorium, and I slept.