Three hours, three helpings of conceptual art

It’s that prize again
In the end, I suppose, the right man won. It wasn’t so much that Keith Tyson deserved the dubious honour of a Turner Prize, as that his three shortlisted rivals apparently deserved it even less than he did. And, to give him a sort of grudging credit, even if the concepts behind his work are just as sclerotically dull as the concepts behind most of what passes for conceptual art these days, at least his paintings have enough in the way of formal qualities — things like colour and line and faint designerish stylishness — to hold the eye for more than a moment, which is more than one could say for the competition.

Still, this was hardly one of the all-time great Turner Prize years. Culture minister Tim Howells did his bit, manfully trying to start a scrap over the merits of contemporary art before being swatted down by a band of smirking leader-writers. Meanwhile the likeable Tracey Emin, knowing that it would not feel like a real Turner Prize evening without a flash of décolletage and an explosion of Margate vowels, complained loudly that the prize was ‘undemocratic’ as if this were a bad thing. But there was a strong sense of deja vu coupled with a sense of having seen better, too. On the banks of the Thames in a bijou little gallery, hundreds of people were partying the night away in celebration of a type of art known more through reputation than direct contact, and here we sat one Sunday evening, watching them on television. No, I didn’t envy Matthew Collings the task of having to present Turner Prize 2002 (Channel 4).

It is hard these days to separate Matthew Collings from the prize that he, and Channel 4, have made so firmly their own. There are plenty of people out there who have spent years studying art, creating art, thinking about art — Collings’ USP as a critic is to combine all that easy stuff, somehow, with a distinctive ability to appear as if he’s just a really normal guy who has stumbled into all of this, knows no more about it than we do, but who at the same time finds it all quite interesting. Whether this persona is infuriating or endearing is a question of taste, or perhaps even mood. Suffice to say, last night, Collings — an experienced broadcaster — looked as if he’d stumbled into broadcasting, knew no more and possibly less about it than we did, and at the same time found it all frankly terrifying. His scripted material was well-organised and occasionally funny, but the live interviews were all over the place, not helped by the way in which the jittery hand-held camera (why?) kept showing the poor man, nose buried in his notes, frantically swotting up on something as a elegantly-turned-out if boring Sadie Coles hyped her eponymous gallery.

By contrast, the pre-recorded profiles of the four contestants, whoops, artists were trenchant if, understandably given the gnats’-attention-span hour-long format, extremely short. Collings had, I suppose, a mandate to flesh out four uninspiring stereotypes: the scientific one (Keith Tyson), the clever one (Liam Gillick), the rude one (Fiona Banner) and the nice but not very distinctive one (Katherine Yass). Here and there, we were also given a glimpse of the faces, haircuts and sartorial inclinations behind a handful of famous artworld names. And as if to shore up Collings’ claims to blokey ordinariness, the impenetrable art-speak quotient was very high indeed.

So, what did we learn? As far as the artists were concerned, probably as much as most of us will ever need to know. Tyson has a beard, gambles a lot, and theorises even more — and probably less profitably, too. His ‘art machine’ concept, where a computer generates projects for him to complete so as to ‘erase all traces of personality or authorship’ from his work, is much less interesting than the works it generates — all of which, incidentally, look as if they were done by Tyson. So much for that concept, then. Gillick is a middle-aged, middle-class, slightly bald person who thinks hard before coming up with rectangular shapes which are then fabricated by someone else. This is presumably why he is considered clever — the adjectives ‘capable’ or ‘multi-talented’ certainly don’t spring to mind. Compared with all this, Catherine Yass seemed all the nicer for being so very unassuming. Her photographs and film of Canary Wharf have a definite lyrical quality. She thinks hard, too, but in her case the concern is about how her images will look and the sort of impression she will make, which seem to me a legitimate concern when it comes to making art. But is photography really ‘art’, or if so, is it an art so consonant with, say, painting that it deserves to be judged alongside painting? For reasons too complex to raise here, I’ve never been convinced that this is the case. But having said that, I remain unconvinced that what the annoying Fiona Banner produces is really art, either. By carefully describing, word by word, a hard-corn porn film in pink paint on a large canvas, she tried to live up to the great Turner Prize tradition of using sex, swear-words and femininity to generate column-inches, but in the event even journalists are so bored of this stuff by now that virtually none rose even limply to the occasion. The problem with porn is that it is either repulsive or boring or both. Fiona Banner captured this quality, but did it need to be captured?

So much for the artists — on to the commentators. Jake Chapman, an artist I’ve never much liked, turns out to be a sharp-witted and sharp-tongued critic, olympian yet toxic when he wants to be. He ran circles round the great blowsy woman arts journalist with whom he was paired. Adrian Searle — a man who, unlike his broadsheet competitors, rarely writes anything really boring or obvious — came across as funny and down-to-earth. On the other hand, Julian Stallabrass, a youthful Marxist firmly ensconced at the Courtauld, has a shifty way of looking out of the corner of his eyes that is so distracting as to make his words unintelligible. Strangely, one of the best comments of the evening was made by a person named Claire, whose surname I missed, when she suggested that Liam Gillick’s work makes a better impression if you’ve also had the benefit of experiencing his warm, attractive personality.

And in a way, this summed it all up. The Turner Prize is, to use an annoyingly art-world type reference, centred around what Walter Benjamin described as ‘spectacle’ — not art, exactly, but all the artists and critics, the journalists and the arts ministers, the hand-held camera making kidding us that we are there amongst the milling crowds, having our champagne spilled by a thoughtless Nick Serota, and isn’t that Neil Tennant over there at the bar with Sam Taylor-Wood? It pretends to be about popularising art, but mostly by allowing anyone who wishes to press his or her nose against the cold glass and to admire the scene, without really having to understand or engage at any deep level with what goes on inside. Matthew Collings is himself a good illustration of all of this, his thin veneer of ostentatious cluelessness adding piquancy to, rather than contradicting, his privileged insider status. The Turner Prize is, I suppose, ever — at least in recent years — thus.

If there was an innovation, it came only at the end. Daniel Liebeskind, the architect of the Imperial War Museum Manchester, awarded the prize. So in place of someone who was a famous pop-star back when Collings & Co were young — well, less old, anyway — who missed the point with her look-at-me, aren’t-I-daring f-word, we instead had a genuine art-world insider who made polite little jokes, looked contaigously happy and did nothing to suggest that there might be some sort of world outside of this happy little enclosed-sphere. Keith Tyson, for his part, made an equally polite little speech by way of reply, which he ended by wishing his 87-year old grandmother a happy birthday. Was this a real-world moment, or just another conceptual ploy?

The art of Blu-Tack
The winner of last year’s Turner Prize was Martin Creed, whose show consisted of a room in which opening the door caused a light to switch on. Creed has also made works out of a small block of masking-tape, a ball of scrunched-up paper, and a little blob of Blu-Tack. All of which is, I suppose, pretty conceptual, but which made surprisingly interesting television nonetheless. In recent months Channel 5 — unmissable for those of you who are interested in soft-core porn, serial killers and unsecured credit, but generally pretty worthless otherwise — has amazed us all with a series called Art Now, consisting of twenty minutes’ worth of interviews with contemporary artists. This week it was Creed’s turn. Creed, it transpires, is a softly-spoken Scot dressed in a lime-green shirt, much given to writhing about in his chair and wringing his hands. More than anything else, he looks like some minor figure from some minor indie band that faltered in, say, the mid-1990s. And oddly, it turns out that he plays in a band, although if the examples provided on Art Now are anything to go by, he is unlikely to build up much of a following. (One of his songs apparently consists of the phrase ‘suck and blow’, repeated endlessly, with a bit of inept guitar thwanging away in the background — no prizes for guessing what those eminent MTV commentators, Beavis & Butthead, would have made of that.)

It is a strange if perhaps meaningless irony that Creed’s surname recalls so poignantly the word for a set of things one is sure one believes, for Creed, it turns out, does not really seem very clear about much of anything. ‘The most difficult part of a work is making decisions, but it is difficult to make a work without choosing’ says Creed, sounding vatic. ‘My work comes out of trying to make paintings — trying to paint but not feeling able to.’ He also speaks about ‘an anxiety I feel about adding stuff to the world.’ Luckily for him, if not for us, a blob of Blu-Tack is not a particularly formidable addition to the world. Nor is a bit of masking-tape. Some of his other works are simply phrases, in neon or in — well, writing of some sort. ‘The whole world + work = the whole world’ is a representative example. He has also half-filled a white-painted room with white balloons; when photographed (as it was here) with enough adorable children playing in it, it looks marvellous — until one notices that one’s eyes have been trained on the children, not the work.

Creed, I suppose, must feel one of two things — either that no one can blame him if he doesn’t take much of a line on anything, or that this position of non-choosing is some sort of very striking and profound choice. But then he also has a slightly whimsical, ‘can-I-really-get-away-with-this?’ charm, and — poignantly — a print of Dürer’s famous, Christ-like self-portrait over his desk. Of course the all-interview, no-narrator format is a shocking abdication of critical initiative, while the editing process presumably allows those repressed critical impulses to surge forward anyway, albeit in a strangely indirect, passive-aggressive form. All the same, I shall certainly watch Art Now in the future.

A worthwhile concept, for once
Which brings us to Painting the Christmas Story: At the National Gallery with John Drury, the programme that followed Art Now. Frankly, had I not been watching Art Now and been momentarily too busy to switch off the television, I’d have missed it, and yes, once again I did check to make sure that I was still watching downmarket, sordid, populist Channel 5. Well, if this is populism, all I can say is that the BBC, for one, should be doing a lot more of it.

Here’s the format of Painting the Christmas Story. The Dean of Christ Church, the Right Rev John Drury, a thoroughly ordinary-looking well-spoken middle-aged man in an unremarkable suit, stands in front of paintings in the National Gallery and proceeds, clearly and matter-of-factly, to unpack their iconographic content. Yesterday’s programme — the first of four episodes — focused on the Annunciation. It must have cost about £10 to make, but the result is informative, intelligent and engaging in equal measure.

The Dean is not a natural televisual presenter and, unlike Matthew Collings, this looks genuine, not like a pose. When he has to speak to camera, he comes across as rather awkward, as if unsure why he should be addressing a piece of machinery. Yet in front of a painting he likes, there’s a sense of real admiration all the more striking for being such a departure. His interests are rarely formal. When line or colour is mentioned, as both sometimes are, it is always in the service of some particular theological point. There is none of that Neil MacGregoresque need to distance ourselves from Christianity, no insecurity about the universality and relevance of the Christian message. Yet the Dean also speaks powerfully about the sense of anxiety, as well as hope, that accompanies Christmas. His Christianity is complex and suggestive, as are the messages he finds in the three works he examines: one by Duccio, one by Fra Filippo Lippi, and one by Poussin. But it is also obvious that he really enjoys the sensory qualities of art, and his enjoyment is infectious. ‘This is one of the great yellows in the history of painting,’ he says of the Virgin’s robe in the Poussin painting — the sort of spirited assertion that makes one desperate to see this painting again.

The Dean has written a very fine book on religion and art, as well as the booklet which accompanies the television series. He looks closely and patiently. Of the Poussin he says ‘it is a great painting, but like a lot of great things, it takes a long time to understand its greatness’ — a phrase which, in the world of contemporary art, carries more shock value than a canvas-full of Fiona Banner’s overused swear-words. But in a way, the comparison is a neat one. By concentrating on iconography rather than formal issues, the Dean reminds us that a great deal of pre-modern religious art was, in some sense, highly conceptual in nature, in that the formal values were at every stage servants to a higher conceptual purpose. But rather than the playful, silly, rather contemptible concepts of most contemporary art, the concept underlying this functional devotional art could hardly be more serious. It’s a difficult message to convey today, and it is to the credit of the Dean — and to Channel 5 — that it has been conveyed at all, let alone so crisply and clearly.

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